Transvestites and Fashion

TRANSVESTITES AND FASHION

 

Why do so many transvestites enjoy dressing forty or fifty years behind the times? Why do we choose what style of clothing we wear? Petal Jeffrey goes in search of the answers.


Her skirt brushes her calves as she steps onto the dance floor. Quite demure, really. Then, to the pounding rock ‘n’ roll beat, her partner sets her spinning. As the skirt spins, its hem flies upwards revealing stocking tops and a glimpse of suspender.


She could be a 1950s teenager, hair fastened in a pony tail. Her mother probably thinks she’s elsewhere. She could, equally, be a transvestite forty years on… In that case, she probably has no pony tail – it’s not a hair style well adapted to a tranny wig.


Not that the presence or absence of pony tails is the best clue as to whether this is the fifties, or a dance attended by present day transvestites.


f686_1160gnrsfeatoftransfashpage1.jpgToday, the TVs will almost certainly be wearing a greater variety of styles than real girls gathered together at any age. They are likely to be dressed for a variety of occasions: debutante ballgowns rubbing hems with rock ‘n’ roll skirts. There will be fashions from different eras – the calf-brushing styles of the fifties swirling cool air about the thigh-high minis from the late sixties.


Those minis notwithstanding, an email from Rosalind (Leeds) would have surprised few when it began: “Let’s have more 50’s pictures… I have fond memories of those fabulous starched petticoats we used to wear.” Nor are they just memories, as “you only have to go to any transvestites party to see acres of petticoats worn by the men, underskirts that real women haven’t been seen in for years and years.”


What Rosalind sees in Leeds seems much the same as I see in London. There are, however, some who feel uneasy about this living in the past, whether apparent or real. Neither are the fifties the most reassuring decade for transvestites to choose. The most serious unease stems from the position of women in society during the fifties. First, though, a glance at the forties…


The very full skirts and masses of petticoat in which many transvestites like to luxuriate in were, in part, a reaction to a period of austerity. During the war, and for some time after, clothing was rationed. Styles had to conform to severe utility standards. Every inch of cloth was precious, and there was little to spare for frills.


Nor were just frills in short supply. I have close at hand, for example, the Daily Mirror for January 12th 1946. The war had been over for five months. There is a brief story headlined: “THE SWIM-OUT-OF-IT SWIM SUIT”


“The Moonlight Buoy swim suit, which the swimmer can easily shed in the water and which will float by itself, made its appearance in the New York shops yesterday.

“It consists of gaberdine pants and brassiere. The brassiere is tied to the pants and both are kept afloat by a cork buckle.”

Interesting as the Moonlight Boy swimsuit may be, the remarkable and significant part of the story is relegated to the final paragraph.


“British manufacturers have no plans for putting out these ‘moonlight buoy’ swimsuits. In fact, they say, British girls will be lucky if they can get hold of any kind of costume.”

No doubt, the public had to put up with a great deal because of the war. Probably most were unsurprised when rationing continued a few months after the end of hostilities. But, when the months of peace turned into years, and clothing was still rationed, few can have been content with the situation…

So, when the restrictions were dropped a new look with masses of petticoat was surely inevitable. Nor is it surprising that that such a mass of frills appeals to transvestites. Feminine is what we like, and what could be more feminine? With that, however, we approach the area that makes some of us uneasy.


 

 

f686_1162gnrsfeatoftransfashpage2.jpgSo, when the restrictions were dropped a new look with masses of petticoat was surely inevitable. Nor is it surprising that that such a mass of frills appeals to transvestites. Feminine is what we like, and what could be more feminine? With that, however, we approach the area that makes some of us uneasy.


The Second World War brought a tremendous burden of suffering, in which clothing restrictions were the least of peoples troubles. However, in spite of restricting peoples freedom, the war was paradoxically liberating for a lot of women.

Pre-war, it was virtually unknown for married women to be in paid employment. Many employers, such as the civil service, simply did not employ married women. When a girl got married, she left – it was as simple as that. A single girl was, in any case, lucky to have a job. In Britain, only one in eight of them were earning even a small wage – of course, it would only be a small wage, as girls weren’t given jobs with much prestige, promotion prospects or pay.

Whether or not they were actively unhappy with their lot, women didn’t have a lot of choice. There was precious little option for a girl but to marry, as seven eighths of them were without even poorly paid work.

Once married, she was obliged to adopt the role of housewife. With the wage packet in her husbands hands, all the important decisions were his – or at least, open to his veto. There was little refuge from domestic tyranny, where it was applied, or even from violence.


Then came war, and more often than not the man had gone. Millions of men were conscripted into the armed forces, and all over Europe women were taking their place in factories and ship yards; on farms and railways; almost everywhere. They had their own pay packets. Even with wartime shortages and restrictions, women were exercising more choice than most of them had known in peacetime.


Other women were putting on uniforms. Female branches of the armed forces sprouted from nothing, and expanded. In Britain, unmarried women under the age of thirty were made liable for military service in December 1941. Their roles were not always nursing, cooking clerical or administrative work. Women served as the crew of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights.

It is interesting to note that, even in the most masculine of roles, women clung to the more enjoyable aspects of femininity. Soviet aircrew defied regulations, growing their hair long and dying their white silk under-helmets in pastel shades. They put on light make-up, with pale lipstick, before taking off on combat missions. Like transvestites, they sought to combine femininity with masculine roles.


The fashions of the fifties were not only a reaction to wartime and post-war austerity, but part of an endeavour to remove women from their newly found place in the workplace, and relegate them once more to the home. This brings us to what makes some uneasy about transvestites’ enthusiasm for fifties fashions.

Transvestites, above all people, must acknowledge that the way we dress is no trivial matter. For us, it can wreck marriages, and often does. People do not sacrifice their families and homes for something that is not important to them.


Clothing makes a big difference in at least three ways. The first is practical. Clothing can protect us, or expose us to danger. It can constrict us, or give us freedom of movement. A tie, for example can be a dangerous hazard when working with machinery.
Typically, in a factory or warehouse, the foreman wears a tie while the workers do not. A corset makes us vulnerable, high heels are ill-suited for running.


At least as importantly, clothing makes a great deal of difference to the way other people perceive and treat us. Someone whose business takes them into a factory is likely to accord much more respect to men in ties than to men without them. A woman is likely to receive completely different treatment if she goes out in a mini skirt and see-through top, in a smart business suit and discreet blouse, or in dungarees and Doc Martens.

Transvestites who have gone out dressed will know that people react differently to their femme selves than they would do to a male presentation. Indeed, this is one of the more enjoyable aspects of stepping out en femme.


 

 

f686_1163gnrsfeatoftransfashpage3.jpgTransvestites are by no means the only ones to have fun manipulating the way others see them. There was, for example, a business woman in the seventies who held conferences sat at her desk in a plain blouse and sober jacket. It was only when the business was concluded that she stood up to reveal suede thigh boots and pink hotpants. No doubt the reactions she got were interesting…


Perhaps most importantly of all, the way we’re dressed affects the way we feel about ourselves. It may often be difficult to distinguish this from the way in which dress determines how other people see us. After all, if we’re treated with respect our confidence increases, and the more confident we are the more respect we’re likely to receive. The two things feed into one another. However, if our clothes made no direct difference to how we feel about ourselves, it would make no sense for transvestites to dress in private. Almost all of us pass through a phase of doing this, and many continue – never receiving a second person’s reaction to their fmeinine presentation. We all know that we feel very different in lingerie and a skirt from the way we are in masculine things.


When transvestites emerge into the public gaze, many people fail to understand why the feminine presentation is primarily for its own sake, rather than to seek a reaction from others. Even looking (and feeling) like a tart, the transvestite does not necessarily welcome male sexual advances.


Another example which demonstrates the importance of dress in the way that people see themselves is the the association between uniforms and good order in schools. It is unlikely that it makes much difference in the way that teachers view their pupils. Rather, I strongly suspect that uniforms affect the self-image of the school children.


All of this being so, it is not surprising that fifties women’s clothing contrasts with that of the forties not only in terms of austerity, but with respect to the role that women were expected to fill. After the war, it was widely expected (especially by men) that women would return to more or less their position of the thirties. Indeed, many of them did just that. Those who managed to remain in work generally found that it was more humble – and worse paid – than their wartime occupation. A capable woman who had served as a WAAF Aquadron Leader might find that she was now considered fit for nothing more demanding than typing. In retrospect, it seems not only monstrously unfair, but a strange waste of national resources during a period of reconstruction.


Even on an entirely practical level, a woman was limited in her activites by those full skirts and masses of petticoat. They were certainly not well adapted to minding machines. And the pencil skirt, fashionable in the late fifties, could be almost as restricting as the Edwardian hobble skirt.


Little white gloves surfaced as an accessory. One doesn’t often see them worn by transvestites in fifties styles – perhaps they represent too much bother with too little reward – but there was a time when women did not consider themselves properly dressed without the gloves. Unlike the sexier long opera gloves, the little white ones were very demure. All gloves restrict what we can do with our hands, and white ones are also apt to show any trace of dirt.


More likely to appeal to transvestites is the corsetry which underpinned the New Look of the nineteen fifties. Not since edwardian times had strait lacing for a tiny waist been so much in vogue. On the effects of this I quote from A History of Corsetry elsewhere on this site:

“There can be little doubt that imprisoning and often embarrassingly restrictive corsets, when really tightly laced, put the wearer into an extremely vulnerable physical position – a position that demands a submissive and placatory response towards threatening or aggressive behaviour from a male – or in the case of a TV, another male.


To attempt to ‘stand up’ for yourself in such a physically handicapping situation would be little short of foolhardy. Indeed, one cannot help asking oneself to what extent corsets have played a part in ensuring that women have been conditioned to accept a submissive role in society…”


 

 

f686_1161gnrsfeatoftransfashpage4.jpgVictorian and Edwardian ladies, no doubt, had been conditioned to accept a submissive role in society. For women in the 1950s, things were rather different. They had, in wartime, assumed a degree of independence which would have astonished most of their grandmothers. Perhaps the corsetry felt good for a while, but it’s not surprising that it didn’t last. By the end of the decade, strong elastic had replaced the boned corset.


The era of the girdle had dawned. By present day standards, a girdle seems restrictive – but it does not entail the extreme vulnerability that many obviously enjoy.

The girdle continued its reign well into the 1960s. While I was slipping into my youngest sister’s clothes through the first half of that deceade, she must have worn a girdle for most of her waking hours. She had no suspender belts as such, relying on the suspenders at the hems of her girdles to support her stockings (tights lay in the future). This was in spite of her trim and youthful figure.


Indeed, it may have been the advent of the mini skirt in the second half of the sixties which expelled girdles from from many girls’ undie drawers. Of course, one may as easily wear a girdle below a mini as any other skirt, it wouldn’t show beneath the hemline. But as hemlines ascended in 1966 and 1967 stockings became more and more impractical.

The girdles often went out with the suspenders which now dangled uselessly from their hems.


By that time there were a large number of women – both married and single – back in paid employment. A buoyant economy through the 50s and 60s ensured that employers needed women as well as men. Since women often worked well for less money than their male colleagues, many firms preferred them. The women’s liberation movement was not launched until 1969 – the idea of equal pay for equal work was still in the future.


There was an idea that the mini skirt was a liberating device – it certainly didn’t imprison the legs, and gave girls an opportunity to display their sexuality.

There was a lot of talk of erogenous zones. The fashion for coupling mini skirts with kinky boots was said to have pushed the erogenous zones up to the thighs. The late 60s were supposedly the years of the sexual revolution. The pill had given girls more control over their sexuality than ever before. Or so it was said – living as I was amongst drug taking students, the sexual revolution thing seems an exaggeration. It failed to touch a lot of people, even in the group that was supposedly most affected.


Gay liberation – launched in 1969 like women’s liberation – was slow to develop. Many lesbians and gay men would agree that it still has a long way to go. In the late sixties, few of them were prepared to come out – no doubt there were excellent reasons for their shyness. As for transvestites – whoever heard of trannies’ lib?? Sexual advances were not for everyone, and they still aren’t come to that.


Pundits of the day pointed out that it was possible to run in a mini skirt. Yes, it doesn’t physically restrict ones’ movements, but it’s very difficult to run in one without flashing ones’ knickers. While there’s certainly pleasure in displaying undies to selected eyes, few girls enjoy doing it in the street. Wearing a mini with decorum is as physically restrictive as the fashions of the early fifties – in some respects, this fashion was the reverse of liberating.


 

 

f686_1164gnrsfeatoftransfashpage5.jpgIn the second half of the fifties, teenage girls had skirts offering the best of both worlds – decorous or outrageous by turns. This (as we used to say in the pictures) is were we came in. With a rock ‘n’ roll skirt, a girl’s knickers were well under wraps until she spins on the dance floor. If freedom is choice, this was surely a liberating fashion.


The ‘jive’, the fifties knicker-flashing dance, was not new. It had been very popular in the war years, when it was known as the jitterbug. After the sedate dancing of the early fifties, reclaiming this wilder dance must have come as a liberation – it is especially fun for the girl. More transvestites should try it, but remember that it’s wasted on too tight a skirt.


It is right that we transvestites should have fun with our clothes, it’s a small enough compensation for the trouble and heartache which transvestism causes all too many of us. Growing up as a trannie, trying to hold down a transvestite marriage, these are not easy. In my experience, employers are less than delighted when one turns up to work with traces of make-up. This is true even when everyone knows what we are – they don’t like to be visibly reminded.


Among the transvestites I know, there is a very high rate of broken marriages – including mine. Admittedly, I’m more likely to meet transvestites who are no longer married than those who are… there can be no doubt that it’s easier to go out clubbing if there’s no wife about :)


Two come to mind as having had marriages that have survived, at least as far as the world in general is concerned. In both cases, Mrs Tranni stumbled on clothes carelessly left about. One is now forbidden to dress and is only seen on rare occasions when wifey is away. In the other case, the marriage is so nearly dead that the wife doesn’t care, as long as the neighbours don’t find out.

While, to be fair, a lot of people seem more sympathetic than one might expect, the degree of hostility transvestites can arous is frightening. I’ve had my head bashed against a wall and then been kicked as I lay unconscious. It was a dreadful thing to do simply because those responsible didn’t like the way I was dressed. Worse, perhaps, I strongly suspect the attack to have been premeditated. It can be a bad idea to allow unsympathetic people to predict where and when one is likely to be seen in a skirt.


 

 

f686_1159gnrsfeatoftransfashpage6.jpgAll things considered, if cross dressing were simply a matter of fun, we’d be fools to do it. The more transvestites I meet, the more I am convinced that our reasons for doing it are complex, and that we are a diverse bunch. However, I hesitated to write “reasons for doing it”, as – with all my transvestite friends – it seems significantly more a case of being rather than doing. Of course, we do something – dress in women’s clothes – but this stems from the fact of being what we are.


There is a degree of choice in the doing, but not in the being – we are what we are. And the choice in doing is no more than a degree because the pressure of being a transvestite can make feminisation an almost physical need. Our degree of choice is often a matter of no more than when, how often, and in which outfits.


Clearly, in all of this, self-image is important to transvestites. We may not do it as literally or irrevocably as transsexuals do, but in dressing we assume a female identity, and selecting fifties fashions surely says something important about those female identities. That something has to do with submission, subservience and dependence.


This is another aspect of something we may observe when transvestites wear uniforms. They are more likely to reflect submissive, subservient, dependent roles than those of such authority figures as policewomen. The 2 most popular are undoubtedly the schoolgirl and the maid. No points for spotting that neither represents female power!

The same story is told by the transvestite interest in corsetry. There is some connection between this and the fifties look, but for many transvestites the attraction is for Victorian or Edwardian styles. Those were eras during which women in general exercised far less independence than their grand-daughters of the 1950s.


Many transvestites feel that they are ‘on the same side’ as women. Some of the reasons why women do not often feel the same way should be clear enough. Few women, perhaps, would go as far as Germaine Greer who descibed transvestism as ‘another form of rape’ but the strong emphasis on submissive roles is sure to make many women uneasy. Indeed, the same unease extends to transvestites.


Paradoxically, closely allied to a transvestite’s view of herself as submissive is an attraction to dominant women. The submissive oartner obviously needs a dominat one. Since most transvestites are sexually attracted to women, that partner should ideally be a dominatrix. This considered, there may be an argument that submissive transvestism allows a lot of openings for liberated ladies. Most women would not – and do not – agree.


Role playing can be fun, but we should not confuse reality with fantasy. Nor should we equte femininity with submissiveness. In these matters, there is surely a balance to be struck, a middle path to follow. Back in the 70s, when women’s liberation was advancing, many of us must have feared that femininity was under threat. Twenty years on, however, one can still see women on the streets with adorably feminine presentations.

Pretty skirts, shapely legs in sheer hosiery and high heels are still very much with us…

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