Having recently finished Claire Wilcox’s memoir “Patchwork, A Life Amongst Clothes”, a personal insight into a life told through one person’s wardrobe, I am reminded of the deep and intimate connection we share with our clothes which has become somewhat lost during these past fourteen months of lockdown restrictions.
Circa 1990’s Gianfranco Ferré floral black lace shirt shot against graffiti wall, West London
As someone who has lived in loungewear for the majority of this time, the way Wilcox charmingly describes “practicing the art of the button” when buttoning her mother’s cardigan, has renewed my own academic passion for the beauty to be found in our clothes and the daily rituals surrounding them so often taken for granted. In her various accounts of a silk kimono, a handmade ikat skirt and a friend’s bright purple velvet trousers, it is clear the love and affection Wilcox has for the items of clothing in her wardrobe but more importantly, the memories and stories they evoke. Surely after this extended lockdown period, it is about time many of us reacquaint ourselves with the favourite, most cherished items of clothing in our wardrobes.
Currently working as a Fashion Archivist, I am object driven. Whether it is a specific designer I love such as Lilli Ann and Thierry Mugler or the degraded condition of a piece where traces of past wearers are visible, I often experience this strong sense of affection toward certain vintage pieces and it is what drives me when collecting for my own personal wardrobe.
One piece in particular is this 1990’s Gianfranco Ferré black floral lace shirt. Having worn the piece for a friend’s birthday back in February 2020, it immediately conjures happy memories of this night sitting in Brixton McDonalds at 1am after having had one too many drinks. Wearing the shirt with only a white t-shirt underneath I remember being quite cold and having to button it several times as I struggled to figure out where the buttonholes were in the lace pattern. Even though the shirt has not been worn since, it is these small sentimental attachments which mean it will remain a part of my wardrobe for many years to come.
Me wearing the Gianfranco Ferré lace shirt on a night out, February 2020
However, two new additions to my wardrobe – an early 1960’s Alfred Werber of Saint Louis camel shift dress and a 1980’s Frank Usher black wool wrap jacket has made me think about not only an affection we might hold for clothing items in our wardrobes, but how these pieces can make us feel about ourselves. Beyond an appreciation for their design, these pieces allow me to explore more of my own cross-dressing identity and, in turn, hold a greater affection for myself. And whilst this topic of clothing and identity is nothing new to sartorial and curatorial debate, the practice of cross-dressing and its varying delicate nuances is an area I have, since the beginning of lockdown quarantine when I started experimenting with cross-dressing, become personally interested in especially having listened to the recent online talk held by the Costume Society celebrating the cross-dressing collection of tax inspector, author and trans historian Peter Farrer.
Exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery in 2016 and the historic Sudley House in Liverpool in 2018, “Transformation: one man’s cross-dressing wardrobe” curated by Costume and Textiles curator Pauline Rushton is an intimate display of Peter Farrer’s private collection of both vintage evening gowns from the 1930’s to the 1980’s, alongside custom womenswear creations made bespoke for him. With personal photographs of Peter wearing these custom creations in the privacy of his own home displayed alongside male form mannequins modelling the same pieces, the exhibition beautifully captures an ordinary man’s deep affection for a wardrobe that at first glance is female, but one soon realises is that of a male who females.
Circa 1960’s Alfred Werber of Saint Louis camel shift dress with geometric collar lapel
With this in mind, I can see my wardrobe as serving two very different purposes. There are the items worn every day for numerous work/social occasions and that fit societal expectations. Then there are the more treasured items, all vintage womenswear that I have collected, which evoke a much stronger reaction in me particularly when worn. As Farrer put it, “dressing in a taffeta frock did not make me want to be a girl, but it certainly made me understand how much pleasure girls and women get from their party frocks…” On one level I can relate to Farrer’s experiences in collecting and wearing mid-century women’s clothing. However, contrary to the subtle fetishist and erotic undertone of his experiences, qualities Rushton acknowledges when talking about Farrer and his collection, mine are much more embedded in notions of self-discovery and acceptance.
I cannot deny there is an element of “pleasure” and excitement in wearing a “taffeta frock”, or in my case, a floral lace shirt, a shift dress and a wool wrap jacket. The more overt feminine persona these pieces bring out in me is what I love most about them, especially as this is a side to me I don’t get to explore much in everyday working life. Although, this is not to say that the experience should only be an enjoyable one as alluded to in Farrer’s previous statement. Confronted with this exaggerated feminine version of myself, there is a certain level of discomfort and uncertainty I experience alongside these feelings of pleasure and excitement which comes from the realisation that I like this version of me I am seeing, that I enjoy cross-dressing and ultimately, that I am a cross-dresser.
Circa 1980’s Frank Usher black gathered wool wrap jacket with side button detail
Just like Farrer whose cross-dressing practice was only originally intended for himself and not for public display, mine, for now, will also remain a solo practice in my own company. However, contrary to the few exhibited stories of cross-dressing and queer fashion where a more explicit and intentional display of gender blurring is present, can stories such as mine and Farrer’s truly be exhibited whilst preserving their intimate and private nature which they are so heavily reliant on? After all, Richard Ekins dedicates his seminal theoretical work on male cross-dressing to all those I quote “males who make us hesitate”. But what about those who are not so direct and public in their cross-dressing? Can, and ultimately will, their stories ever be told?
- Patchwork, A Life Amongst Clothes by Claire Wilcox, 2020, Bloomsbury Publishing
- “Transformation: one man’s cross-dressing wardrobe” 2016 – 2018, curated by Pauline Rushton and exhibited at Walker Art Gallery and Sudley House Liverpool.
- Male Femaling, A grounded theory approach to cross-dressing and sex-changing by Richard Ekins, 1997, Routledge
- “practicing the art of the button” – p. 128, Patchwork, A Life Amongst Clothes by Claire Wilcox, 2020, Bloomsbury Publishing
- “dressing in a taffeta frock did not make me want to be a girl, but it certainly made me understand how much pleasure girls and women get from their party frocks…” https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/news/press-releases/transformation-one-mans-cross-dressing-wardrobe-0
- “males who make us hesitate” – p. 1 prologue, Male Femaling, A grounded theory approach to cross-dressing and sex-changing by Richard Ekins, 1997, Routledge
Luke Moss studied MA Fashion Curation from 2015-2016