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A Window on Vast Changes in Perceptions of Cross-Gender Clothing and Performance

Monday, May 4, 2020 - 09:00

While this book does provide some useful analysis of pre-20th century practices and attitudes around cross-dressing, it is even more enlightening on how much has changed around the topic in the last two decades. Readers today may find some of Garber's discussions as alien as a 100-year-old book would be.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Garber, Marjorie. 1992. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91951-7

This book was originally written in 1992, though regularly reprinted since then. This is relevant, as the use of terms like “transvestite” or “transvestism” in the sense they are used in this book are likely to strike the contemporary ear as odd. Even more, the handling of transgender identity, and language around it, is extremely dated and does not follow current practice. Consider this a content notification--perhaps even a content warning.

I found this book simultaneously detailed and fascinating...and hopelessly outdated to the point of being more of a museum piece for late 20th century attitudes than a resource for social analysis. The ways that clothing and gender are understood, categorized, performed, and discussed today have changed so drastically that Garber’s content may have as little relevance as works published in the first half of the 20th century.

One of the reasons I chose Vested Interests to blog is because I’m working on expanding a paper I presented on medieval cross-dressing narratives for publication, which means being familiar with the literature in the field. But as a resource for the writing of historical fiction, I see this work as being very limited in value (unless the historic era being written about is the last quarter of the 20th century).

In one way, it makes sense to consider all the varieties of cross-gender presentation as a whole, as Garber does. But the book does not always draw clear lines between gender presentation as an expression of gender identity, shifts in popular fashions that trade elements among genders, the use of gender-coded clothing to signal group membership, cross-gender dress in serious theatrical contexts, “drag” as satire or mockery, “drag” as performance art, cross-dressing as a sexual fetish for those with no transgender identity, or any of the other possible contexts. Further, medical/surgical issues around transgender identity are both conflated with clothing and reflect the era when medical transition and strict adherence to gender stereotypes was an expectation rather than one of various options.

In content, I found the book to read like a loosely-connected series of topical essays (especially in the later chapters), as if it were a patchwork of publications with a thematic connection but without necessarily having an overarching thesis.

All of this is to say that I would advise only reading this book if you have an existing historic context for language and attitudes that would be considered offensive today, and if you are in a solid emotional place to translate and filter the content for your own use.

In my summary, I have “translated” a lot of the terminology Garber uses to current idioms in order to try to filter out some of the problematic verbiage, so be aware that my summary is not a good guide to how the text may strike the reader. In other cases, I’ve retained Garber’s terms because “translating” them would change the scope of her intended meaning. This particularly applies to her use of "transvestism" for a variety of contexts that would be unlikely to be conflated today.

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Introduction - Clothes Make the Man

 Garber opens with a brief history of gender coding or lack thereof in children’s dress, shifts in the pop-culture color-coding associated with homosexuality, and their relationship to both the practice of cross-dressing and popular fascination with the topic. She reviews medical discourse, both in the context of transgender issues and of viewing cross-dressing itself as representing mental illness. She notes that regardless of motivation, these distinctions are unimportant to those who want the ability to find clothes in their desired styles and sizes without being stigmatized.

The history and culture of cross-dressing is inseparable from the history of homosexuality, even when clear distinctions between the two topics are desired. Cultural anxieties around cross-dressing almost always invoke the specter of homosexuality. There is a detailed discussion of the movie Tootsie as an illustration of these issues and concerns.

Academic study of the history of cross-dressing often looks “through” the phenomenon to explore the arbitrary construction of gender, rather than looking “at” the people involved. [Note: another distinction--which seems to be overlooked in this work--is between analyzing cross-dressing and cross-dressers from the outside and presenting a participant’s understanding of the phenomenon.] Cross-dressing is of interest in how it represents a “third sex” outside the gender binary (even when intended to be read as one of the binary genders). The iconographic use of specific garments to represent bodily sex (or gender identity) can be seen in bathroom signs that use pants/skirts to separate bodies by (presumed) anatomy, not by clothing preference or appearance, even as they assume a correlation between appearance and gender.

This book is organized in two sections, roughly distinguishing how transvestism creates culture and how culture creates transvestites. [Note: I would describe the division more as “the performance of transvestism” and “the representation of transvestism”.] Overall, the book revolves around how cross-dressing creates a “category crisis”--the cultural inability to draw clear dividing lines between distinct social groups. Garber notes how often in cultural productions transvestism parallels other category contrasts and crossings (race, ethnicity, class).

Part I - Transvestite Logics

Chapter 1 - Dress Codes

Cross-dressing is analyzed in the context of sumptuary codes (both historic codes and modern laws with similar effect). Sumptuary codes assume that clothing both reflects and shapes social behavior. “Correct dress” is both a shibboleth and a regimen. Medieval and Renaissance sumptuary codes attempted to make category distinctions legible. They largely focus on class, but also on religious categories (e.g., identifying non-Christians). In Elizabethan England, clothing statutes also addressed gender confusion, but the concept of “effeminacy” when applied to dress was more about the concepts of excess and luxury than gender identity. Men are accused of “effeminacy” for excess in clothing, while women are similarly chastised for excess but not using the language of effeminacy.

The prohibition in Deuteronomy on cross-dressing was invoked against cross-gender clothing, especially by women, but also to denounce theater in general (as a site of cross-dressing). Stubbes’ Anatomy of Abuses is cited, which singles out women. Male cross-dressing was also condemned as leading to or enabling homosexuality, either by creating attractive objects (cross-dressed boys) or because putting on “feminine” clothing creates fetishistic desire in a man.

Cross-dressing was also associated with criminal status in both men and women. Cross-gender clothing motifs were also tied, in curious fashion, to Protestan-Catholic conflicts.

Under King James I, popular unisex fashions drew on styles taken from both genders, even though James himself argued against “masculine” women (see the tracts of this era Hic Mulier and Haec Vir).

Cross-dressing on stage was a focus for those opposed to theater in general. The text digresses for a while into eulogizing the career of Laurence Olivier and discussing his cross-gender roles. This leads into a discussion of cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s comedies and the general use of clothing as category markers. In modern theater, the use of women in male roles in Shakespeare is seen variously as a gimmick or as portraying some underlying gendered nature of the characters. Garber emphasizes the long embedded history of cross-gender performance on stage and how it relates to the concept that “all gender is performance.” [Note:  this book comes back regularly to cross-dressing in the context of performing arts in general. It appears to be a central research interest of hers.]

Chapter 2 - Cross-dress for success

This chapter starts with the conflict between women wearing “masculine” clothing to blend in / dress for the job in male-dominated fields, versus pushback that sees this as carrying unwanted messages. Women in male-coded clothing may be interpreted as inherently “sexy” (according to male business “experts”).

But this prescriptive approach to women’s presentation in the workforce is eroded by the continuing deployment of male-coded clothing by women and new associations with assertiveness and authority. Local norms in professional clothing can send mixed gender/sexuality signals when used in other contexts, regardless of the specific gender coding.

But prescriptive dress advice--enshrining inherent prejudices--can be useful for transgender people trying on new styles to be read in particular ways. Existing prejudices can be worked to advantage.

There is a discussion of distinctions between “fetish” cross-dressers who are aroused by wearing clothing of a gender they don’t identify with, and “transsexuals” (Garber’s term) wearing clothing to be read as the gender they do identify with. There is a confusing discussion of opinions prevalent at the time that female “fetish cross-dressers” were rare, but the text then seems to challenge this. Garber cites advice manuals on breast-binding and crotch-stuffing, but it’s unclear which functional category these fall in. [Note: although “butch” fashion and identity is discussed later in the book, there are many places in these early chapters that appear to be unaware that such a thing exists, or at least how to categorize it.]

There is a general discussion of “passing advice” literature, primarily aimed at trans women. [Note: “trans women” in the current definition of the term. The quoted literature of Garber’s era regularly uses “transgender/transsexual X” to mean “assigned X at birth but now identifying otherwise.” The terminology “assigned X at birth” was not in currency at the time this book was written, so any use of it in this summary is my translation.] Garber points out how relentlessly normative this literary genre is and the literal “construction” of gender it recommends. “Passing advice” literature overwhelmingly was written for those wanting to be read as female, rather than those wanting to be read as male. There is a suggestion that the behavioral gender stereotypes of women and men reinforce this skewing, with feminine-presenting people looking for community support and sisterhood, while masculine-presenting people expecting (or expected to express) individualism and a solitary experience.

The chapter moves on to the carnivalesque use of obvious male-to-female cross-dressing for entertainment purposes, where the performer is meant to be read as “crossing” not as passing. There is a long history of privileged men openly cross-dressing, either as humorous entertainment or as personal idiosyncrasy (more rarely). At the same time, powerful men may be caricatured as cross-dressers to “un-man” them. Powerful women, on the other hand, are more likely to be accused of “really being men” (i.e., of also being “men dressed as women,” but this theme isn’t followed up on in the text in the same way that the male topic is).

Drag shows in military or nautical contexts could be a way of defusing the homoerotic potential of all-male cultures. Cross-dressing theatricals in such contexts could re-affirm male privilege and solidarity, creating misogynistic caricatures of the feminine roles being portrayed, as well as mocking the underlayer of m/m eroticism. Such theatricals were also popular in all-male privileged institutions such as colleges and men’s clubs. The theatricals negotiated the boundaries of gender even as they blurred them. Institutions might go through phases of suppressing humorous non-normative dress, as Harvard did in the 18th century, later returning to the “norm” of embracing such gender play. In the early 20th century, male collegiate institutions dismissed the idea that cross-dressed theatricals either reflected or caused “unmanliness.”

Chapter 3 - The Transvestite’s Progress

This chapter begins with a reference to long-term gender crossing, especially AFAB read as male, most of whom would be understood as transgender rather than transvestite today. Billy Tipton is noted as being far from a rare example, even for the 20th century. Examples of AMAB read long-term as female are also noted.

Given the relative frequency of such individuals, why was Billy Tipton’s story singled out for fame? In part, because the story dodged topics of anxiety. Tipton allegedly crossed for economic reasons (musical performance in a male-dominated field) and his marriage was reported as non-sexual, using the excuse of a “medical condition” that allowed Tipton’s wife plausible deniability. Tipton was thus a “safe” example that didn’t invoke the specter of homosexuality.

The “progress narrative” where cross-dressing is for professional or social advantage is popular in film and stage. And these fictional narratives often reinforce heteronormativity by bringing in a m/f romance that is hindered by the cross-dressing (see, e.g., Victor/Victoria). But in real life, this “progress narrative” is problematic. It erases the complex, interacting motivations and reinforces the idea of a clear gender binary.

There is an extensive exploration of fictional cross-dressing narratives, especially in the Early Modern period. More recent fictional examples are Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, Barbara Streisand’s film Yentl. Garber discusses the relationship of the motif to the “changeling boy” motif.

The gender-crosing nature of Elizabethan actors and its homoerotic potential is compared to Vecellio’s description of Venetian prostitutes and courtesans wearing masculine-styled upper garments (and even breeches under their skirts).  Aretino describes a courtesan willing to interact with clients either as a woman or as a man. This context could add to the fictional trope of “respectable” women being embarrassed by the need to cross-dress in a “progress narrative.” [Note: this chapter is one of the ones that feels structured like an independent research paper that has been stitched into a larger narrative.]

Chapter 4 - Spare Parts

This chapter addresses the cultural context of how gender is “made”, especially focusing on the asymmetry in which only masculinity needs to be actively constructed, whereas femininity is either passively acquired or is imposed on one. One may “become” a woman but one must be “made” a man. Even in a sexual sense, “making a woman of her” is something that is imposed on the woman by her partner, rather than being an active achievement.

Within this context, cross-dressing and transgender lives test the limits of gender construction. The ways in which masculinity and femininity are treated differently in this context test the conflict of gender theory and practice. Garber discusses the phallocentrism inherent in the boundaries of male and female. Male-bodied “fetish” cross-dressers, may be reassured of their masculinity by the possession of a functional penis, while AMAB trans women find the possession of a penis traumatizing. The experiences and perceptions of early post-surgical trans women re: psychological implications of surgery go beyond hormonal changes. But for both groups, the penis is essentialized as the marker of maleness.

For assigned-female people, the question of essential symbols of gender is reversed. But even the context is asymmetric: the desire for “masculine” authority and power is seen as “natural” with no need for justification. Some authors, in fact, denied the existence of assigned-female “fetish” cross-dressers at all, as this desire for masculinity was considered an expected condition rather than a psychosis. The dividing line between trans men and the “natural” desire for male subjectivity is the question of whether one desires to possess a penis. [Note: This analysis seems to entirely exclude butch identity, or to set it aside as having nothing to do with cross-dressing.]

There is a discussion of psychological issues around surgery and its place in gender identity treatments.  It is claimed that sex reassignment (or in more current terminology, gender-affirming) surgery is less popular among trans men than trans women due to the greater difficulty in achieving a “satisfactory” result, i.e., a functional penis.

Garber considers the blending of anatomical and stylistic markers of gender in the context of transition, and the emphasis on behavioral performative gender to achieve the desired status. The transgender discourse of the book’s era essentialized anatomy as the key attribute defining gender, but there was a shift to medical markers like hormones and genetics as more “test cases” emerged. [Note: this is not specifically in the context of transition, but rather in determining what someone’s “true” gender was. That is, as gender-affirming surgery became more available, anatomy could no longer be used by those who wanted to define “true” gender.]

Garber points out the contrast that the public imagination is fascinated with trans women while they are alive, and with trans men after they are dead. She connects this to the tradition of literary/artistic fascination with womanhood as either dead or culturally constructed.

As transgender stories began to be depicted in cinema, there was a focus on pathology that revolved around the desire for and the trauma of surgery.

Chapter 5 - Fetish Envy

This chapter looks at “the phallus” as a concept in contrast to the penis as a biological organ. It discusses the historic position that women did not engage in fetishism -- that “penis envy” was not a fetish but a displacement of a natural desire for male power. Garber discusses the relationship of lesbians to straight women with respect to phallus-envy. She uses Nancy Friday’s survey of women’s sexual fantasies in My Secret Garden as evidence against the position that women don’t have fetishes.

There is a discussion of the use in Renaissance theater of the codpiece as a site of humor as a clearly constructed extreme signifier of masculinity that can be appropriated by women.

Chapter 6 - Breaking the code, transvestism and gay identity

This chapter discusses the evolution of an understood distinction between cross-dressing as a practice and homosexuality as an identity. There is conflict in gay (male) culture over “drag” representing effeminacy, and “drag” cross-dressers as distinguished from transgender identity. Advice columns and talk-shows of the time (Phil Donoghue, Girealdo Rivera, etc) had a fascination with this nexus. Mainstream culture tends to inextricably conflate gay men and cross-dressers, seeing each as implying the other. There is an emphasis on “legibility” -- difference should be visible, and visible otherness should be meaningful.

Compare Alan Bray’s look at (male) cross-dressing in various pre-modern eras in Homosexuality in Renaissance England. Did the cross-dresser want to be “read” as the visual gender, or to use cross-gender appearance to signal sexual identity?

Garber discusses the vast array of motivations for cross-dressing and the history regarding which were recognized by sexological scholarship in the field, starting with Magnus Hirschfeld. [Note: One key feature that is almost unremarked here is the driving need to classify and categorize -- to draw clear distinctions and boundaries between types of people and behaviors. This ties in with some of Foucault's observations about the drive to distinguish and categorize sexual deviancies.]

Attention shifts to the development of pathologizing “masculine” dress on women as representing gender identity. Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is contrasted with Woolf’s Orlando. This pathologizing creates the female “invert.” There is a discussion of how one era’s “pathological” appearance/presentation becomes another era’s fashionable ideal.

Garber looks at the inherent misogyny in differential attitudes toward cross-dressing, even among those who participate in it. And finally we get a discussion of butch-femme culture in the context of cross-dressing.

There is a discussion of the long history of using marriage ceremonies as a context for cross-dressing (either for one participant or both, as a temporary or permanent practice). Wedding dresses are the ultimate female object. This interacts with internal conflicts in the gay (male and female) community over the extent to which marriage as an institution is inherently heteronormative. [Note: keep in mind that when this book was written, marriage equality was barely imaginable.]

There is a long history of associating “mannish” clothing worn by female couples with suspect sexuality, as with the habitual fashions of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby as commented on by their contemporaries. But here, styles such as Gertrude Stein’s distinctive non-normative dress can be contrasted with truly “mannish” outfits like that sported by Radclyffe Hall. The Parisian lesbian set played with gendered clothing but did not adopt uniformly male styles.

Finally, the text takes on butch-femme as a topic: the conflict over whether it counts as “cross-dressing” and how class affects its reception. (E.g., compare the upper class “stylish” butch look of Natalie Barney with the working class butch look of the mid-20th century bar scene.) The changeability of the precise features of fashion signals the distinction between butch-femme as identities and the gender-coding of clothing. There is a comparison with “drag” as performance and in other contexts.

Garber takes a close look at two lesbian-coded accessories in the post-WWI era: the monocle and the cigarette holder. Parisian lesbian culture revolved around the images of tuxedo, cigarette, cropped hair, and monocle. These all derived from the male “Dandy.” They were class markers, whose use by upper class lesbians marked their privilege to transgress social and legal prohibitions against cross-dressing. (Legal prohibitions were relevant in France, more subtly in England and America.)

Havelock Ellis asserted that female “inverts” had a tendency to wear male dress, engage in athletics, and to smoke. But are these symptoms? Or are they deliberately adopted as signs? (And did Ellis simply ignore women who didn’t fit his stereotype?) There is a discussion of the social politics of smoking and images of how cigarettes were marketed to women.

Gender-crossing styles “flow” between genders and communities. Visible “lesbian fashion” undergoes shifts in how specific styles are interpreted. The use of lesbian-associated fashions by celebrities dance around making their (queer) identity public. There is a consideration of the “sex appeal” of cross-gender fashion.

Part II - Transvestite Effects

This half of the book looks at how cross-gender performance and appearance are integrated into various pop culture themes and motifs. The chapters read like independent papers revolving around the general topic. The popular culture aspects are, in general, quite modern (20th century) and I have skimmed this part of the book much more lightly.

Chapter 7 - Fear of Flying, or why is Peter Pan a girl?

This chapter revolves around the traditional casting of a female actor in the character of Peter Pan. In part, this is a practical trick to enable the use of adult actors for all the child roles. The traditional cross-gender roles in English pantomime are discussed.

Chapter 8 - Cherchez La Femme - Cross-dressing in detective fiction

Disguise in general, and cross-gender disguise in particular are used in detective fiction (starting with Sherlock Holmes) to enable the detective to identify the “subtle wrongness” that gives away the suspect. Disguise is always “legible” to the skilled observer.

Other tropes that reveal disguise are “only one bed” which is popular in fiction in comparison to the more prevalent real-world revealing context of doctor/undertaker. Cross-dressing narratives also indulge in “mirror scenes” to reveal identity, both in fiction and biography.

Chapter 9 - Religious Habits

Christian (male) ceremonial garments have long been coded as “feminine” due to their inherent conservatism combined with shifts in gender coding of garments. But the ceremonial “performance” aspect carries over into “drag” performers characterizing their stage clothing as “robes, vestments.” This is not the only context where “othered” religions’ ritual clothing is feminized. Christian society has regularly feminized styles associated with Jewish culture, and more recently the image of the hippie “Jesus freak” is strongly feminized.

The shift over time of gender signifiers and the tendency of ritual clothing to be static can create a mismatch of readings. Another interesting case is the gendering of fashions in wigs (see, e.g., the retention of wigs for men in British legal culture, harking back to the 17/18th centuries).

The legends of transvestite (female) saints are more a site of male fantasy than female reality, including the repeating motif of accusations that the (disguised) woman had fathered a child. Joan of Arc falls somewhat in this tradition but cross-dressed openly. Joan is commonly used as a lens for theorizing about gender and presentation.

More than clothing was involved in the feminization of Catholic priests, whose status set them apart from secular men, in ways that could superficially align in responsibilities and image with secular women. With the Reformation, anti-Catholic fantasies, combined with attitudes toward the gender segregation of Catholic religious institutions, not only created the image of the feminized priest but focused on the nun as the subject of transvestite mockery. In cinema, men cross-dressed as nuns are popular comic figures.

Anti-semitic stereotypes conflated Jewish (men) with both women and homosexuals.

Chapter 10 - Phantoms of the Opera

This chapter is a loose survey of “famous” transvestites who were actors, diplomats, and spies. Garber discusses the real life story behind M. Butterfly, which combines Orientalism and cross-dressing theater. The gender presentation/interpretation of operatic castratos is discussed. Among famous spies who changed gender presentation are the Abbé de Choisy and the Chevalier d’Eon.

Chapter 11 - Black and White TV

This chapter looks at the intersection of cross-dressing and “blackface” performance, including the feminization of black men. But it also considers black women whose cross-dressing performance was an expression of their queer sexuality. Other racial gender disguise motifs are considered, such as the real life slave narrative of Ellen Craft in which she posed as a white man to escape to freedom with her darker-skinned husband presented as “his” slave.

Chapter 12 - The Chic of Araby

This chapter reviews several contexts in which the traditional dress of Arab men is reinterpreted as a type of cross-dressing (both gender and cultural). Examples include Lawrence of Arabia (both the movie and the historic figure), who embraced the ability of his use of Arabic dress to unsettle British compatriots, also various interpretations of that clothing as reflecting his “sexual ambivalences.”

Another cinematic example is Valentino’s role in The Sheik, which retains the cross-cultural as well as cross-gender themes, not only in the use of a non-Arabic actor for the role, but in that the character is revealed to be a “lost aristocratic heir,” thus preserving his “exotic” allure without the threat of miscegenation. At the same time, the female lead of the movie is masculinized, wearing pants and wielding a pistol, expressing feminist positions but “converted” to conventional femininity by her desire for Valentino’s character.

The female associations of trousers in Middle Eastern culture are played on in Woolf’s Orlando, but also historically, as for Lady Mary Montagu who adopted Turkish trousers in the 18th century after spending time at the Ottoman court. In the 19th century, western women used Turkish trousers as a jumping-off point for “reform” clothing that bridged the gap between skirts and pants. This resulted in some complex interactions. When Flora Tristan--enraged that women were not allowed in the House of Commons--approached various male acquaintances to borrow men’s clothes to get in, she was refused except by a Turkish diplomat who enthusiastically supported her and provided her with an outfit. Despite wearing (Turkish) male clothing, she was easily read as female during this escapade.

There is a discussion of how Byron and his friends, when guests of Ali Pasha, were entertained by transvestite male dancers, and the linking of cross-dressing and homosexuality in that context. There were multiple threads in Byron’s life linking him with women dressed as young men who were serving as a man’s companion or lover. On one occasion, Caroline Lamb disguised herself as a male servant to visit him.

Richard Burton’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights reinforced themes of cross-dressing in “Oriental” contexts. He adopted Arabic clothing during his travels and continued wearing it by preference afterward. Compare this with his countrywoman Gertrude Bell who wore English style clothing in her travels in order to retain foreign privilege, as she wouldn’t have the same freedom and access as a man would if she “went native.” In a sense, by not passing as an Arab, Bell was able to claim “male” privilege as someone outside the rules of local society.

The chapter concludes with an assortment of other examples of combining cross-gender and cross-culture performance, such as the use of veiling (by both men and women) as a means of gender-crossing. Marlene Dietrich’s cross-dressed performance in the film Morocco adapted the existing association of cross-dressing with Arabic culture. The motif of wearing/removing veils in the Biblical story of Salome became an icon of Oriental femininity but was regularly chosen to be interpreted by male performers, especially in the context of an “unveiling” dance with a gender reveal.

Chapter 13 - The Transvestite Continuum

Garber argues the position that transvestism is essential for the creation of culture as it defines the distinction between the symbolic and the “real”. Her focus here is on open, performative transvestism and how it relates to definitions and boundaries of “masculine” and “feminine.” There is an extensive exploration of the “flamboyant” though not strictly “transvestite” stylings of Liberace, Valentino, and Elvis to explore this question.


The book sums up with some fairy tale analogies, anecdotes from Freud, and a brief summary of the work’s themes.