Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cross-dressing and other curiosities

This past weekend, we Wellingtonians hosted our round of the IRB international rugby Sevens competition. This is a huge event for the city and brings a massive influx of players and spectators from around the world. The tournament runs from Friday afternoon through to Saturday evening, but the town is basically en fĂȘte for days beforehand. Lots of locals take Friday off work (or simply fail to return after lunch). By 9am Friday morning, the pubs I passed on my way to work were all cranking and hoards of costumed fans were already spilling out into the streets of the CBD.

The costume thing has become a distinctive feature of the Wellington event. It started with a few groups of hardcore fans dressing up the first year, but now literally thousands of people dress up - perhaps as an unspoken alternative to the fun of Halloween, which we don’t really do in this country. The costumes seem to get more spectacular every year, and often show a good deal of creativity, planning and effort. This year’s offerings included a bunch of guys dressed as the components of a sandwich (two slices of bread, ham, tomato, cheese and an egg), and a massive bunch who came dressed as the 101 Dalmatians (yes, there were actually 101 of them).

What always fascinates me, though, is the number of guys for whom getting into costume is license to get into drag. This certainly taps into the carnivalesque nature of the event, as it create
s an opening for symbolic transgression of gender roles and social order. I’m sure the guys heading to the rugby in their mini skirts and high heels weren’t thinking about this, but it’s fascinating to consider them as modern actors in a very old communal play. This form of ritualised inversion helps social groups ‘let off steam’ by symbolically testing the limits of communal values without actually breaking those barriers. In sixteenth century France, these young men might have dressed as kings or bishops, using parody of their ‘betters’ to offer a ritualised challenge to rigid social and political hierarchies. In modern Western societies - particularly one like New Zealand, where class boundaries are quite blurred and permeable - gender remains as a very visible stratifying system by which our social roles and behaviour get ordered.

It’s interesting that in this society, at least, a woman dressing like a man is no longer considered transgressive at all (except, perhaps, by my mother). In fact, according to the doyennes of fashion in New York and Paris, every few years it becomes positively the height of style. But going the other way is still taboo except in circumstances like the sevens tournament or fancy dress parties. I’m no sociologist but I’m sure there is a hugely complex web of factors contributing to this state. As a medievalist, though, I'm prompted to speculate about the notion from Aristotelian natural philosophy that things can move from a state of lesser to greater perfection (in medieval terms, from female to male) but not the other way around. Thus, female saints cross-dressing as males became a pretty standard trope in medieval hagiography. In these narratives, when a woman dressed as a man and, by implication, took on manly virtues, it became one sign of sanctity. But I can’t think of any examples going the other way, nor can I imagine that given the general medieval worldview on gender and natural order, a cross-dressed man could have been seen as anything other than dangerously transgressive. Anyone know of any examples to the contrary?

Here’s my favourite Sevens costume (entirely gender-neutral, unless you consider filling the chilly bin with beer is a man’s job) -


Steve Muhlberger said...

Great post.

As a trivial aside, I remember my shock when someone from NZ said, "Halloween? That's that Scotch holiday, isn't it?"

Word verification = aperem

Some oddball conjugation of aperio?

White Horse Pilgrim said...

An odd thing - which I am sure you would have enjoyed - about life in Transylvania was the dressing up that went on at certain festivals. They made me think of medieval "days of mis-rule". At Christmas bands of young men came around playing instruments dressed as male and female peasants, male and female gypsies, goats, bears and shepherds. On St Anne's day young men went out dressed as old women to visit children and give them gifts (or "scare" them of they were "bad".) These occasions seemed like a form of licensed release whereby fantasies could be acted out - whether as another sex, another race, or another species.

Speaking as a man, yes, there does seem to be an inner fascination within some men about cross-dressing that needs to be liberated from time to time. This is a difficult phenomenon to understand and such events as you describe can only be a good thing that gives safe and harmless release to those who need it.

Good Enough Woman said...

I like this post--both fun and scholarly. What a combo!

RPS77 said...

Tangential to the main topic, but sometimes I feel like the odd one out because I've never had any interest in dressing in costumes of any kind. I did it as a kid at Halloween only so I could get candy - once I could buy my own, the entire purpose of Halloween vanished as far as I was concerned. It might be related to my almost total indifference to fashion. I think that I'm more the exception than the rule, though.

Steve Muhlberger said...

I had a colleague once you have very little interest in music of any sort. He would be dragged to concerts listen for a few minutes and then be ready to go.

There are a lot of people in the world and quite a bit of variation between them. We mainly just see the overlap.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I find myself dressing up in a strange costume frequently - suit and tie to go to the office - it seems so weird and unnatural. But hardly anyone thinks such behaviour odd.

Bavardess said...

Steve - the association of Halloween with Scotland is a bit odd. I find much more commonly, it's associated with North American culture (especially the consumer/candy collecting angle)

WHP - that sounds exactly like the 'festivals of misrule'. The gender and age inversions involved in young men dressing as old women is really interesting. Did you live in Transylvania? My brother lived in Budapest for a long time, and his traveller's tales of Translyvania and some of the remote mountain regions made me really want to go there (although my mental pictures of it are based on 'Dracula', so probably not very accurate!) On the cross-dressing - my liberal soul wishes we lived in a society where men who wanted to wear women's clothes on a regular basis could do so without suffering persecution for it.

GEW - thanks! I do love those moments when my scholarly work overflows into daily life.

RPS77 - I don't know that that's all that unusual. I'm not that into fancy dress myself, though I do like trying on different personae in other ways - for example,
in the types of things I write under different names/identities (this blog being one of them). WHP - you make a good point about everyday dress being 'costume' of a certain kind. I feel the same way on the odd occasion I have to 'dress up'.

magistra said...

There are a few medieval examples of men dressing as women. Vern L. Bullough, 'Cross dressing and gender role change in the Middle Ages', in Handbook of medieval sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, Garland reference library of the humanities, 1696 (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 223-242 lists most of them, though he misses out one of the most notorious: John Rykener, the cross-dressing prostitute.

But as Bullough points out, while there are lots of examples of men dressing as women from the classical period, there are fewer from the Middle Ages. Apart from male cross dressing in the theatre and in carnivals, the assumption seems to have been that the only reason men could want to pose as inferior beings is in order to get easier sexual access to women.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for the reference, Magistra. How could I have forgotten John Rykener? I've even talked about that case before here! I think my mind was running more in the track of male saints/religious figures dressing as women. Rykener tends to reinforce that idea that to dress as a woman is to degrade yourself in some way, especially in that context, in which his cross-dressing is overtly linked to feminine lust.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

There was an element of "misrule" in that Transylvanian procession. It made me think that this was a safety valve for men who wanted to cross-dress (or indeed become a gypsy or a goat for the day.) One of my employees used to cross-dress in these bands, and told me that the advantages included a blouse with big sleeves into which he could hide a quantity of the food that householders used to offer to the revellers. However, food aside, it seemed like a release for him too. I've sent you a few photos - feel free to reproduce them. I lived out there for eight years, and what an adventure that was. Still there are a few quite unchanged places, but much is becoming modern and, alas, the picturesque seems to be doomed. I'm with you on the desire for a more liberal society, and cannot but think of the Native American society with its supposed tolerance for the two-spirits.

Ginge said...

"...a woman dressing like a man is no longer considered transgressive at all (except, perhaps, by my mother)." On the basis of this alone, I would like to advise that I am coming to yours for Xmas dinner this year!

Bavardess said...

WHP - thanks so much for sending the photos. Very cool. I will do a follow up post with them as soon as I get some free time to catch up (I'm swamped with work and school stuff this month - typical for February).

Ginge - prepare to be told in graphic detail about the hellfire and damnation that comes from cutting your hair short and wearing trousers.

Ginge said...


Anonymous said...

Late as usual, but I was reminded of the US "blacking-up" misrule events--Mummers' Parade in Philadelphia and the Boston Tea Party. (If all they wanted was to hide their identities, there were lots easier ways than dressing up as "Indians")

As with men in drag, members of the higher-status group play at being members of the subordinate group, but (contrary to Aristotle) in the context of a "one drop" rule according to which any Black ancestry makes one a Black person, while movement in the other direction is possible only by means of an imposture, "passing," which will be punished if detected. (Of course in practice these rules are applied inconsistently.)

Academic, Hopeful said...

Hey! Fab, anthro post! Am late to this party too - haven't been in blogland much recently.

I am no gender expert, and it's hard to make meaning of these things (ie the causation v correlation, what comes first etc), but I have read a fair amount on organizational sociology, which may shed light on some of this.

Put v crudely, this scholarship shows that the more impersonal the type of work, and masculine the features of its workers (either because they are men, or because they act and dress like men - the suit being the main symbol of detached authority in the public domain), the higher status and economic advantage it has, whereas the more caring and/or even blandly technical, the more the job is associated with the motherhood, the home and therefore devalued(indeterminacy and need for case-by-case judgment being a largely masculine province, but this type of judgment is not seen as the same as practical, caring virtualities). Work is now the main site of adult socialization, so I think that it means that men need to have these sorts of rituals to play safely with the feminine.

In Oxford, it should be said, the boys dress up as women almost every weekend at their College parties. But then they go off and get 'City' jobs in male-dominated fields (again, crudely put, but some truth in it!).

Tangential, but may be of interest...

Hope you post something soon!

ZACL said...

Hallow'een is All Saints (Toussaints). All Hallows is another name for it. It is a very religiously-based festival. Last year the Vatican denounced the denigration of the remembrance in the forms it has taken with Hallow-een. I have seen wonderful window-dressing in the Catholic countries of Europe in preparation of this 'remembrance' day, all the usual Hallow-een trappings.

Cross-dressing; the inversion that comes to mind is the male dressed as the pantomime dame.

Then we also have to think about the long flowing robes of churchmen and monks; when did that become acceptable for men? Or was that a progression for female dress style 'out of' the male?

In Switzerland I witnessed a lovely ancient, probably Pagan, end of year festival where men dressed up as large trees representing the good and bad spirits of the year passing; children, including girls, did a lighter and more time limited version of it. Though the girls were not included after the age of about twelve. There are all sorts of 'manly' and gender reasons for this, one being that the big trees and the huge bells that the trees carry, are extremely heavy to stomp around in. Because it all starts and finishes at unsocial hours, the women are helping the kids enjoy the festival and doing the domestic support bit. Plus ca change.

The picture you posted was also on another website, I found it amusing when I first saw it.

Ink said...

Saw the title and intro sentence, then thought "carnivalesque" and sure enough, you said it, too. LOVE this topic.

Great post and pic!