Thursday 2 May 2013

Why Men Wear Frocks - Part One

Sorry it's been such a long time since my last post. I have been extremely occupied with (what I laughingly call) my life. You might have thought I had given up this blog: not a chance!

On the other hand, this blog has continued to do very well. In the last three months, the hit count has doubled, to more than 20,000. And I've made contact with some lovely, insightful and interesting people through the blog. Thanks to all of you for posting your comments, and sending emails, and do please keep dropping by.

One of the most successful of my posts has been the one on Grayson Perry. It has attracted well over a thousand hits, and still seems to generate a lot of traffic. Perry is one of my crossdressing heroes, a prize-winning artist, and flagrant transvestite. I finally got hold of a recording of Perry's personal crossdressing documentary, Why Men Wear Frocks, filmed in 2004, and I thought I would share my thoughts on it with you. It's full of honesty, insights and sometimes uncomfortable self-reflection.

At first, I tried to put it all in one blog post. However, there is so much material that I have decided to split it into segments.

Perry took his first outing as a woman at the age of 15. He narrates the documentary in his own distinctive voice.
Perry: You've probably glimpsed us on TV. Shy, exotic creatures of the night, stumbling to bus-stops under cover of darkness. We're one of Britain's oldest subcultures, already well-established in Victorian days. You probably know some of us already. Most of us are still in the closet. Look out for over-groomed eyebrows.
I've been a transvestite all my adult life. But I've never seen a programme that gets close to what it feels like to be one. This is what a life spent wearing frocks has taught me.
Grayson Perry (right) at Harmony Weekend 2009
Perry begins his documentary at the annual Harmony Weekend, (2004) spent in a hotel in Scarborough, a seaside resort in Britain, "for me, the quintessential way of enjoying dressing up... there is a kind of etiquette about how everyone is received. It's always very sensitive and supportive. It's very easy to forget you're in the company of blokes, ordinary blokes". He talks to several of the other girls about their occupations, and indeed they are just ordinary blokes: engineers, payroll clerks, managers.

I was amused (but not especially surprised) to hear him talk of etiquette, in a country whose two national sports are forming queues and apologising. Having been (on one single occasion) to a transvestite dinner-dance, I can see how etiquette would be essential. Some of the girls (no doubt about it) looked absolutely amazing (this is also true of the guests at Perry's weekend), but some looked obviously male, and some were very strange-looking indeed. Each of them, though, is there to be accepted regardless, and I can understand why the etiquette is that (I presume) everybody says nice things about one another's outfit, and (I am prepared to bet) everyone is required to use feminine pronouns at all times.
Perry: It's exciting dressing up as a woman, but there are problems with it. The first is: everyone thinks you're gay... or twisted... or ridiculous. There's clearly something more at stake here than dressing up to recreate historic battles at the weekends.
I slightly cringe when people say "Oh, it's just a bit of fun", because these guys are risking often their marriages, their careers, their relationship with their children and their neigbours-- not to mention their bank balance sometimes, with the size of their wardrobes. So I think it is definitely a compulsion.
Perry and the other girls take a walk along the sea front. There is a very telling segment where a large group of transvestites emerges from the hotel, and all walk down the steps and across the road. Some of them are dressed appropriately; from a distance, you wouldn't notice them. But some are dressed quite outrageously, and stand out a mile. Taken as a group, I feel there is something defiant about them ("Here we are! Out in force! Dare to stand in our way! Hear us roar!") but also forlorn: the weather is grey and gusty, and these people need to travel to this cold seaside resort in winter so that they can strut their stuff in public.

Just for the avoidance of any doubt: if it were me, in that group, I would feel excited and stimulated, and I wouldn't even notice the cold, or the wind, or the stares. For his part, Perry seems quite at home. He behaves like he belongs, and he revels in it.
Perry: Being a transvestite is a complex cocktail of motivations. It's different for everyone, but there's often a strong sexual component to crossdressing, although trannies sometimes find it hard to admit this. I feel it's like the elephant in the room. I feel it's really there, but nobody's talking about it.
Maybe it's this erotic dimension which is the hardest part for others to accept. Some wives in particular find it difficult to deal with, although others come along on the weekends.
Perry: What do you think wives think about the erotic stimulation of dressing?
Di (Jim's wife): First of all, it's all about me, isn't it? About my femininity. Am I good enough as a woman? Is he doing this because I'm not good enough? So of course, what do I do? Over the top: more eyeshadow, more lipstick, higher heels. Also because the sexual balance changes, women will describe the lesbian element. It's like, well look, I'm heterosexual. It's like asking someone who's right-handed to be left-handed.
Here we are, barely ten minutes in, and already Perry is talking about crossdressing and sexual arousal! This sets the tone for the whole documentary: Perry pulls absolutely no punches.
Perry: The high point of the proceedings is the Miss Rose Beauty Pageant, on the Saturday night. That's when the fantasies take flight. The first time I ever came on one of these weekends, I looked across the room, and there are all the kind of slightly wonky wigs and nylon and dresses, and I thought: ooh, there's a lot of pain in this room. They've all been through the mill a bit, and been on a bit of a journey to get there. They were doing their best to meet their own very emotional needs.
I could be wrong, but I think there is a person inside this.
Perry is right: the fantasies really do take flight on Saturday night. Some of the costumes in the beauty pageant are absolutely outrageous: paper parasols, white fur, and the sort of showgirl costume one might expect on stage at the Folies-Bergere. This is the sort of thing which makes me uncomfortable about being a crossdresser. I completely understand the desire to wear costumes of that kind, but the reason I don't is that I would feel more foolish and ridiculous and grotesque than attractive. If I were there, I wouldn't enter the beauty pageant, but would be content to wear a simple evening dress and sit watching from a corner sipping gin and tonic.

Perry's comment about "a lot of pain in this room" is extremely powerful and insightful. It says a lot about him that he can see past the "wonky wigs" to the people behind; I expect I would have some difficulty doing this. Without doubt, he is right. They have all been through the mill. We all have.

"Doing their best to meet their own very emotional needs". I couldn't sum up my attitude to crossdressing better in a single sentence.
Perry: Sunday morning. Time to pack the frocks away again. It can seem quite cruel going back to the toughty-roughty world of men after being in the company of some rather lovely ones. And I think it's painful that we do invest such a lot of emotion in often rather brief glimpses of [pauses reflectively] ...happiness.
In the next part of the documentary, Perry visits a motorcycle track day, and interviews some of the bikers. We will cover that in the next blog post.

But my final point is this one (touched on in my correspondence with Georgia from Broadblogs). It's not a question of why men wear frocks, but why women wear frocks? Quite a lot of women's clothing and accessories are impractical, uncomfortable, and amazingly expensive. Manicured nails are lovely, but some women have them so long they can't easily use a phone, or a keyboard, or open a car door. Women's clothing can, of course, be practical and comfortable as well as gorgeous, but quite a lot of it isn't. Why should this be? What's going on there?

For the next in this series of posts, click here.

The image of Grayson Perry from the Harmony Weekend 2009 was taken from Flickr here. The other person in the image is Jill Kaylee-Yvonne. The image of the white dress from the Harmony Weekend 2004 was taken from Flickr here, and belongs to Saralegs.


  1. I guess that your question "why women wear frocks?" is the key to the whole gender role mash-up of our societies. It is exactly what I found the point, and starting from the point of view of Grayson Perry, I used this question to look at those needs with care, love and understanding, in the hope of applying that to myself. I made a slight website in "the feminine construct" (along with facebook and instagram accounts to match) in order to get under the sensitive skin of my needs to be loved, adored, admired, cherished as an expression of feminity... Now, excuse me, as I plan to stroll around your blog, if you don't mind. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Gabriela. Thanks for posting your comments, and sorry for the late reply. Feel free to stroll, and to comment on anything you find interesting!