Transgender & Clothing

Callan Williams, Copyright © 1994

... even when we say nothing our clothes are talking noisily to everyone who sees us, telling them who we are, where we come from, whet we like to do in bed and a dozen other intimate things...

Alison Lurie

The power of clothing, of ornament and adornment. The power of the many symbols that we affect everyday, from the color of our necktie to our brand of beer. They are all clues about us that others can read, messages, planned or unplanned to others about who we are, and what we expect from them.

Men tend to use to use these clues in broad way to show how they fit in. Rita Rudner has noted that "Men seem not to mind showing up wearing the black tuxedos as all the other men. It means they haven't made a mistake." Men work for hierarchy, and have learned to trust uniforms. This may explain the popularity of sports team branded clothing: no matter how wild, it's OK, because it shows membership, states a shared idenity.

Women use these clues in a much more subtle way. It is important for women both to fit in, and to be unique. Women often ask what other people will be wearing, and you can easily tell which teenage girls at the mall are pals, all in similar outfits. Rather than trying to be exact copies of each other, women use clues to show their unique style. The ability to put together a look that is both appropriate (the same) and unique (different) is valued by women. This is related to their power through connection, rather than through the boxes of hierarchy.

Clothing and ornament have always been important signals in human cultures. From the pelts of the best animals showing hunting prowess, to slashing clothing and running expensive embroideries through it in the Elizabethan age, clothes are signals. Even the "Mao Suit" of China during the Cultural Revolution was a symbol of uniformity run amok..

Because clothing has usually had it's roots in the underlying body shape, it has often become sexually specific. Through the years, we have defined some rules for male and female clothing, some of it from practical reasons, and others for symbolic reasons. There is a wealth of information on the development of styles, and it seems that much of this has to do with the expression of roles in our patriarchal society. For example, women's high heels, and men's neckties are not practical expressions, but purely cultural ones.

Clothing is the most visible difference between the genders in this society. It quickly defines and epitomizes dualistic gender roles. While this has been changing since the 1960's, when "unisex" (really "bi-gender") clothing has arrived, including everything from jeans to lycra running tights, clothing is still a strong symbol of gender.

Wearing of gender inappropriate clothing remains a one way street in this culture. While we have seen commercials where a woman will slip into a man's shirt and tie, we rarely see a man slip on a dress, except for comic effect. Whole fashion trends have been based around men's wear for women, but never the other way around. There have some whimiscal skirts designed to call attention to a designer's line, but never a trend.

For many young boys who have gender idenity issues, women's clothing is a potent and powerful symbol. Just like young girls getting their first pair of high heels, these transgendered boys understand that what you wear will change how people see you and how you feel. They experiment with clothing from a young age, and when they hit puberty, their first sexual excitement is often associated with women's clothing. While other boys may have their first experience from photo magazines, fantasies, or other symbols, transgender often binds up sex and clothing for boys with gender issues.

Transgendered boys know that they have a secret to keep. They know that they are doing actions inappropriate to people their gender, and depending on the other family conditions, may be quite ashamed of this. While every one mixes male and female, some people do it in an extra special, intense way, and at this point they must still hide this from others. Because sex is also involved, they often must hide that too, making them doubly ashamed. This connection of symbols for both gender idenity and sexual stimulation may creates very tangled webs of desire for the transgendered.

When it becomes impossible to express their transgender because of pressures, transgendered people may engage in objectification. They start to focus on objects that represent their transgendered feelings rather than the feelings themselves. These objects are often objects of women's clothing. As one transgendered person has said, "Even if I can't wear it, I can still buy it!"

The power of clothing can become accentuated, out of control. Clarissa Pinkola Estés (author of Women Who Run With The Wolves) tape The Red Shoes, (Sounds Great) is about spiritual life and sorrow. She talks about leaving the "handmade life" and trying to replicate it with objects. The theme story is of a girl who has no shoes, so she gathers scraps and makes some, dyed red with the juice of berries. She loves them. A rich woman takes her in, and cleans her up, but the woman decides the shoes are too odd, so she throws them in the fire. The girl learns about society, but at her confirmation, she needs shoes. She sees red leather shoes, buys them, and wears them when they are inappropriate, at church. The woman tells her never to wear them again, but when she does, a soldier offers to dust them, and makes some incantation, saying "What wonderful dancing shoes!" But when she tries a step, the shoes take upon a life of their own, and dance her off, and she is only saved when her feet are cut off. Ms. Estés rendition is much more detailed and dramatic, and followed with a thorough and vivid analysis.

Pinkola Estés makes the point that what we hand make as a child, we lose in the process of socialization, then we try to fulfill again with objects, but eventually the objects overtake us and we lose what we love. Our issues are not with the objects, but in reclaiming the handmade feelings that we had to suppress, and that we tried to substitute the objects for.

Clothing does not lose it's symbolism as we get older, but we must learn that we control the symbols, rather than allowing them to control us. Whoever we are, we learn to focus on the internal, not the external, the spiritual rather than the physical. We do not deny the physical, but rather stop letting appearance be the only, or even top, priority.

Women understand this. Most learn to let go of obsessions with appearance, often simplifying their lives and looks. But they continue to understand and use the power of clothing. This may be special outfits for special occasions, favorite items of clothing, or appreciating gifts of jewelry or other adornment.

Women also understand the power of clothing and adornment as symbols of desire and attraction. They have learned to dress to attract, or warn off, other people.

We each dress for four primary reasons, as shown in the chart below.

Reasons We Dress

  Internal External






We may dress for others, or we may dress for ourselves. We may dress for ease, or we may dress for expression.

Any specific outfit rarely, if ever, fits neatly into one of these categories. For example, in the office, we may choose comfortable clothes that will be acceptable. Rather, it is desirable to plot points for any outfit on this as a graph. It is simple to plot the extremes: a sweat suit is in the comfort zone, a blue business suit in the acceptable zone, rubber lingerie is expressing internal sensuality, and a very high fashion evening gown is purely for impact.

Most outfits are compromises between all four categories. Most men's outfits are biased strongly towards the ease side of the spectrum, comfort & acceptance. It is possible to think of a man wearing just two outfits in a week, a blue business suit and jeans and a shirt. It is improbable to think of a woman doing the same.

Deborah Tannen has noted that women tend to be "marked" much more than men. She is using the word "marked" in the linguistic sense, in that a marked word has something that changes or denotes it's meaning. Women have learned that they can, and probably should, always include some expression of themselves in the way that they dress and create some impact. Most women use the power of accessories, finding ways to change and personalize an outfit, to give it more impact in communications.

When crossdressers first choose clothes for themselves, they tend to focus on the sensuality that is not expressed in men's clothing. They often choose clothing that expresses pure sensuality, an internal feeling of feminine beauty. This can easily lead to outfits that are disasters in the comfort, acceptance and external impact areas. We have all seen some people wearing uncomfortable, unacceptable, and downright ugly outfits.

These outfits are ritual, stylized. They express deep messages that are only designed to be heard by the spirit. These people are direct descendants of mask-wearing tribal dancers, done up in overstyled outfits to express the strength and power of their internal messages.

When we think of dressing as symbolic ritual, we can more easily understand our need to express ritual meanings that are below our verbal level, even resisted at the verbal level. Transgendered people are expressing a deep human instinct, an encapsulated behavior that has been expressed at all times and in all human cultures, although it has not always been valued.

There are many things that we call masculine or feminine that do not exist at a conscious or verbal level of meaning, but only as symbols of appearance or behavior. "I can't tell you what I mean, but I know it when I see it."

It is often difficult for transgendered people to claim the power of the symbols of clothing and ornament. Many observers, including wifes and partners, who are comfortable with people having transgendered feelings are unhappy with getting mixed messages from symbols that are "gender inappropriate." They ask transgendered people to express themselves without wearing the symbols of gender. This may happen because they see the patterns of objectification that Pinkola Estés discusses. They also see some transgendered people only able to express femininity when cloaked in feminine symbols, and masculinity when decked out in masculine garb, creating a split in their personality that can tear them apart. They feel that if the importance of the symbols is diminished, the swing between masculine and feminine expression will be minimized.

Observers can simply be uncomfortable with mixed symbols. The power of clothing is strong because it is the power of non-verbal communication. As Ms. Lurie says in the opening quote, clothing tells many things about us. Symbols of adornment make transgendered feelings public, affecting both the viewer and the wearer. Clothing engenders behavior. For example, we walk differently in a skirt and heels than in work boots and jeans. Women know that they can change their mood and attitude by changing their clothing, and this is a technique that is also powerful to transgendered people. They can also change their mood and attitude by manipulating symbols of clothing and adornment.

Clothing and ornament are the nouns, and behaviors the verbs in our language of gender expression, according to Holly Boswell. Both are linked together in very complex and powerful ways.

Transgendered womens use of symbols can be disquieting because they do not have the full vocabulary and syntax of clothing symbols accessible to them. Unlike women of the same age, they have limited training in interpreting and creating symbolic images. They may also have different types of messages to send. For example, sensual dressing may not represent a desire to seduce, but rather a satisfaction of an internal need. This using the symbols without them being tied to a common, shared meaning can be disconcerting for people who are tightly tied into images.

Clothing is powerful symbolism. If it was not, our malls would be empty, and fashion magazines would not exist. It is full of complex codes, designed to conceal flaws, reveal strengths, show membership, create connection, stimulate desire, state individuality, alter moods, coax and cajole. It shows wealth and power, and "a dozen other intimate things," as Ms. Lurie reminds us.

Playing with these symbols is often the only way to discover the things about ourselves that exist on a sub-conscious level. Often, by manipulating objects and behaviors, we learn things about our own spirit that we could not learn in any other way. When we do this, we can then take these insights and make them more general, integrating them into our lives. But if we never use the symbols, parts of our selves could be unreleased, eating at us continually

Transgendered people must not cut off their access to the power of the symbols, but on the other hand, they must be sensitive to the potent meanings of the symbols they use. We must find a way to use symbols in society in relation to their meanings without being consumed by the symbols themselves. Without understanding the meanings, we are vulnerable to let those symbols act on us in ways we don't understand. It is also important that we try to intergate the meanings in to a whole and complte person, not a divided one.

Society must also accept that not only the power of thoughts and feelings, but also the power of the symbols must be available to the transgendered. Each of us must be free to not only have unique ideas, but also to express them freely. Without the ability to use symbols of clothing and adornment that seem, at this point in time, gender specific, we are each limited in our growth and self expression.

Clothing is fun, fancy, fickle and potent. We must all let each other use those symbols for good, and trust in each other's appropriate expression. If the expression seems inappropriate to us, then we must look at the messages, and open our hearts to not only the understanding, but also the expression of other people's true selves.