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Men Who Would Wear Dresses 

Wednesday, May 23 2001
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

As the planet swivels and sways on a lopsided axis during its annual lap ’round the galaxy, as the Northern Hemisphere leans closer to the sun like an expectant, sycophantic flower — as it starts to get hot around here — pretensions melt, and conversations turn feverishly loopy. Heat-addled and restless, people blurt out what’s really on their minds, waste less time getting to the point.

“Girls are so lucky that they can wear dresses,” a man says to three women in an upstairs conference room that’s never much influenced by the air conditioner. “It’s too damn hot to wear pants.”

An eyebrow is raised, and a friendly challenge issued. The man is not an overtly femme type of guy. In fact, he’s built like a linebacker, with a similarly macho swagger, so the women are a little surprised that he agrees to the dare. A few days later, one hands him a soft blue rayon summer dress, patterned with a tastefully demure array of milky-white flowers. To their delight, he returns a few minutes later proudly wearing the gown, and sits by the window, his legs alert to the newfound sensation of air brushing up against bare skin. He relaxes, notices a subtle heightening of all his senses and wonders if the problem isn’t just a question of semantics.

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Millions of men around the world are wearing frocks without shame — because their dresses are called saris, sarongs, kilts, tunics, kimonos or robes.

How can a man in this country wear a dress, considering all the ridicule and even violence he’s likely to encounter? And yet, how can he not wear a dress, especially during the summer, when the enforced claustrophobia of pants becomes completely intolerable? Going out publicly in drag has always carried its own set of drawbacks and rewards, and this summer’s shakedown by the energy industry — is it a coincidence that we recently “elected” two (snake) oil men as prez and vice prez? — magnifies the inherent contradictions even further. It’s also risky to make sweeping generalizations or judgments when there are so many different ways and reasons why a dude looks like a lady, ranging from the exacting perfectionism of drag queens to the misogynist frumpiness of frat boys aping Mrs. Doubtfire.

Men have collectively mistreated women for thousands of years, perhaps subconsciously punishing themselves by avoiding anything considered feminine, like indulging in the simple, luxurious, tactile pleasures of velvet, lace and silk. Guys think they’ve won the sex war, but also deny themselves the wider choices of patterns, fabrics and colors allowed to women. Boys who rebel, and revel in their buried feminine personalities, earn the utter contempt of most of their friends, and are ostracized by the world — which isn’t as easy as it sounds — yet they’re willing to throw it all away just for the forbidden feeling of nylon against flesh. For many femme men, the truest approximation of one’s innermost soul and personality only occurs, ironically, through the use of tricks like makeup and perfume, which are considered vain and shallow ways to express real beauty.

A femme who wants to look reasonably fabulous has to consider things that women don’t have to worry about. In humid weather, most gals can get away with wearing little makeup, especially foundation, and opt for the natural look, but a lot of transvestites need the extra illusion, even if they risk melting like the Wicked Witch under the bright afternoon sun. Props like pantyhose, corsets, wigs and polyester in general are heat-inducing; as a transvestite, you either say “beauty is pain” or you simply wear more cotton. No matter how much bronze I can get from a tan, I prefer the way that stockings transform my legs with all-absolving glossiness; if it gets too hot, I can always compromise with fishnets.

A lot of the problem in summer is the way people move. Most folks walk against gravity in right angles, with furious, jerky movements, because they’re too bored to let the world swirl around and carry them. There’s a way to walk with the heat, in rounded motions, hips swinging away from the destination, slinking from side to side, in no real hurry, not pushing in straight lines, instead following the invisible river currents in the hot breath of the Santa Anas.

Cross-dressers also have to be aware of the danger of colors. Most people wear less black in the summer because black retains heat while white repels it, but for transvestites, darker colors are safer to wear in public. The most dangerous colors to wear outside the house are pink and bright purple, which trigger twice as much violence from strangers or harassment by lonely police officers than all the other colors combined. For whatever reason, society isn’t ready just yet for the flaunting of bright, defiantly “girlish” hues, whereas if you wear black, potential attackers might think you’re a goth and spare you.

Outside of the usual isn’t-a-guy-in-a-dress-funny sitcom exploitations, society doesn’t really have much need for male cross-dressers. (Thanks to Katharine Hepburn, it’s long been okay for women to dress like men.) We’re thought of as extravagant, wasteful, preening, self-conscious. Just kidding around. Like we could go back to acting like “real” men at any time if we just buckled up (or was it down?) and applied ourselves. And now we might be blamed for the energy crisis because we take up so much time in the bathroom.

Use cheap acoustic razors rather than electric shavers, and work with cold water, not with hot. Leave the lights off and move the mirror to the window. Go into the brightness. Forgo the hair dryer and put your hair up instead — a chignon, a ponytail, a braid. Turn off the TV, exit the room and abandon yourself to the heat. Not every mirage is an illusion.

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