What do you associate cross-dressing with? Is it a man wearing a skirt? A drag performer? Is it Channing Tatum dressed as Beyonce? Cross-dressing is so prevalent in almost every culture around the world, but how much do we actually know about it?
Dressing up as the opposite sex has been a very common trope in art, especially theatre and films, used to disguise a character, to provide comic relief, or a form of self-expression. Cross-dressing has been seen as the first act in breaking gender norms in history.
In 1910, Dr. Magnus Hirschfield published The Transvestite, which stated that transvestitism was not to be seen as or rather reduced to homosexuality or a fetish. As a sexologist, Dr. Hirschfield was one of the first advocates for transgender patients, and while his explanation for transvestites as people who dressed as the opposite sex was acceptable, the term itself has come to be seen as derogatory. Hence, the term cross-dressers came into being.
Furthermore, one of the main reasons cross-dressing became a practice was due to the ever-lasting patriarchy. The pressure of patriarchal societies and the power men held over women led to women cross-dressing as men in order to live adventurous lives. Often, lower-class women would dress up as men to gain economic independence. In fact, in those days, female-to-male cross-dressing was almost always due to power, social status, or sexual desire.
Gods and cross-dressing
Cross-dressing was often seen as an act of crossing genders which was usually practiced by the gods. So, in a way, it could have been seen as a religious or devotional practice. It also denotes a human’s wish to transcend human norms and devote themselves entirely to the divine by letting go of what they are supposed to be. Changing the way one dressed was the closest way a human could transform themselves, unlike the deities who had their god-like powers.
Innana, a Sumerian deity, is believed to have the capability of gender altering and could also transform into either gender themselves. The followers of Innana or their cults were known for including mixed gendered elements in their processions.
The presence of homosexuality was very prominent in Greek mythology, so there is nothing stopping us from believing that cross-dressing was not a common occurrence in Greek societies. Gods and Demi-gods are a part of all the narratives of Greek mythology and some of the biggest names in these stories have been known to cross-dress from time to time.
The greatest of warriors, Achilles, was said to have been dressed as a woman at the court of Lycomedes in order to hide from Odysseus, who wanted him to fight in the Trojan War. The Goddess Athena was said to help the common folk dressed as a man. Furthermore, just like the Sumerian deity Innana, the followers of Aphrodite also dressed as the opposite gender. Men would often wear women’s clothing, while the women would dress up as men and put on fake beards as well.
If you were to ask a person living in India about cross-dressing today, most people would be against it or would see the practice as something derogatory or humiliating. However, Hindu mythology has portrayed Indian Gods as crossdressers in many situations.
The devotees of Lord Krishna, who was an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the three principal Indian Gods, would dress up as females. This sect of devotees was known as Sakhi Bekhi. Krishna himself was said to dress up as a gopi (female companion of Lord Krishna) or a kinnari goddess (celestial musician, part human, part bird acc. to Buddhist mythology). This is where the term Kinnar or Kinner originates from, which is a common term when referring to the hijras in India.
Additionally, one of the biggest Hindu texts, the Mahabharata, includes the character of Arjuna cross-dressing as a female. According to the narrative, the five brothers – Pandavas, had to live in exile, and Arjuna, the great archer, disguises himself as Bhrinnala and becomes a dance teacher to a princess of a nearby kingdom.
Wartime and Cross-Dressing
Cross-dressing seemed to be a very common phenomenon during or before wars. Taking the idea from one of the greatest warriors in Greek mythology, a lot of men were said to disguise themselves as women to prevent them from participating in wars. On the other hand, there are stories of women dressing up as men and ending up as soldiers in male-dominated armies.
Joan of Arc is probably the most prominent name in this category. She was known for leading several armies in France to victory disguised as a male soldier the entire time. The Countess of Hainaut, Holland, Jacqueline of Wittelsbach along with one of her servants disguised themselves as men to escape confinement.
The well-known cross-dressers in History
There are several tales of women disguised as monks or the male offspring of monarchs being disguised as women. The Korean princess Geonghye dressed her son, who was the male descendant to the throne, as a female to fool the officials and relatives into thinking there was no male heir.
The practice of dressing as the opposite sex came to be quite useful, especially for women who lived in a society ruled by men. In order to attend medical school in the 19th century, Margaret King dressed up as a man since the school did not accept female students. Another example would be Vita Sackville-West who dressed as a soldier to be out in the public with her girlfriend Violet Keppel.
Indian history will always mention the efforts of the fierce Rani Lakshmibai who fought in the Rebellion of 1857 against British rule in Jhansi. Her ability to “fight like a man” is talked about in every history book, but it was her husband Gangadhar Rao, the King of Jhansi, who truly broke gender norms. Being the king gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted without being questioned. There are stories of Gangadhar dressing up as a woman and partaking in rituals such as practicing untouchability during the menstruation period of a month.
A claim was also made by Epiphus, a Greek contemporary, that Alexander the great liked to cross-dress. He alleged that Alexander would often dress up as Artemis, the archer Goddess. However, this could have been simply about Epiphus’ anger towards the King’s father, who had destroyed his home city, Olynthus, in 348 BC.
Drag, Fetish, and Passing
Most people today are aware of the art of drag. It is a special form of art where a person dresses up in over-the-top attire and make-up and puts on a persona that is very dramatic, to say the least. Drag queens are men who dress as females and drag kings, who are females that dress up to embody a dramatic male persona. Drag is all about the theatrics and the performers are usually talented in different art forms, such as singing, dancing, stand-up, etc.
For the longest time, the line between cross-dressing and transvestic fetish was blurred. People looked down on cross-dressing because it supposedly reduced the person to a sexual fetish and, in some cases, to an inferior gender. A transvestic fetish is not limited to homosexuals or heterosexual men but also includes women. The practice basically refers to one member of a couple cross-dressing to arouse the other.
Passing is the most complicated of them all. This takes cross-dressing a step further, since the subject’s main goal is to pass as the other gender; it is not just the clothes but also includes mannerisms, voice changes, and whatever it takes to present oneself more like the opposite sex. However, passing is not limited to that. A person can include traits of both genders as well.
Gender Benders and The Hijra Community
The strongest form of social activism is “gender-bending”, which can best be described as not conforming to gender stereotypes. However, gender-bending is not limited to gender rules, it can also be a form of protest against misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or misandry. Whether it is protesting against the gender one was born into or the gender roles assigned by society, gender benders have made a lot of difference in how the world perceives cross-dressers.
Gender-bending can be expressed through cross-dressing or androgyny. Androgyny is the combination of masculine and feminine traits in one. The best representation of the androgynous form is the Hijra community in the Indian subcontinent. The Hijra community has been prevalent in the Indian subcontinent for centuries and is now considered the third gender by law.
Most hijras are born male but only some undergo the process of achieving nirvana in the Hijra community, which means the removal of their male genitalia. The community has been fighting for recognition for years. Their fight for acceptance as neither male nor female was finally granted in April 2014.
The Shakespearean times
We have all read about the famous performances of Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe Theatre. However, at the time, women, children, and slaves were considered ineligible to participate in activities such as going to the theatre or acting. Hence, all the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays were played by young boys below the age of 13.
When it came to theatre, the act of cross-dressing was acceptable and a boy acting like a coy woman was considered normal. Furthermore, Shakespeare included cross-dressing within his plays to achieve a meta comical effect, that is, a boy who was dressed up as a woman would then dress up as a man in the play. Even in tragedies such as Henry VI, he explored the idea of cross-dressing along with his famous comedies – Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It.
Films and Television
Over the years, the act of dressing up as the opposite sex has become extremely common in films and television. Cross-dressing was usually associated with comedies, so it only makes sense to mention the king of on-screen comedy, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin has dressed up as a woman a few times in his movies and has been praised for his comedic endevours especially when dressed as a female.
Some Like it Hot, starring the famous Marilyn Monroe, has two of its male leads- Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) pretending to be women throughout the movie. While cross-dressing has been used as a comedic trope in many films, like Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray, Rocky Horror Picture Show, She’s The Man, etc., the new wave of cinema and television has a more positive and accepting perspective on cross-dressing, with empowering movies such as Mulan and The Danish Girl.
One of the most popular TV shows on your screens today is Rupaul’s Drag Race. A reality TV show that has introduced the world to the art of Drag. Furthermore, shows such as Queer Eye has the hosts breaking gender norms every step of the way.
Motifs in Literature
The use of a cross-dressing character was a common literary element, especially when women dressed up as men. A woman dressing up as a man in literature usually meant survival in a male-dominated society, whether it was to get a simple job, education, or find love. Women have often been denied the most basic amenities in society, so the best way to achieve even an ounce of freedom was to pretend to not be a woman at all.
A female dressing up as a male in times of war or in a royal household was also a fairly common trait in literature. A French fairy tale called Belle-Belle ou le Chevalier Fortuné has the character of Belle-Belle, the female protagonist, dressed up as a knight who helps the king defeat an opposing emperor.
Is it as simple as wearing different clothes?
Over the years, our perception of gender norms has changed quite a bit, but not entirely. There are still some countries that consider certain types of clothes appropriate for women. Most schools around the world opt for schoolgirls to wear skirts.
With the acceptance of the LGBT community, cross-dressing is not seen as a humiliating or derogatory act anymore. Nowadays, a woman dressed in a pantsuit or a tuxedo is considered a powerful movement. However, men still seem to face a lot of hate for dressing in women’s clothing. This is an issue that has been in the limelight amongst third-wave feminists and the modern-day masculist movement.
However, with social media platforms such as TikTok, men and women all around the world have found a way to connect and appreciate each other for who they are. There are multiple TikTok celebrities who cross-dress not for comedic purposes but to empower themselves and others out there.
Cross-dressing has been around for centuries. Whether it was for theatre, films, literature, mythology, or just social conditions, it was a practice that helped a lot of people. Today, the act of cross-dressing has become normal. Dressing in a way that makes one look and feels good has become a motto for a lot of celebrities who promote the idea of cross-dressing.
You can now witness some of the biggest names in the film or music industry wearing clothes of the opposite gender. Celebrities like Harry Styles, Prince, Jaden Smith, and more. What a time to be alive! It may seem like a small thing, but dressing up in a way that makes you feel alive and confident can make a lot of difference in one’s life.