There is no settled definition of crossdressing. Does it apply to both men and women? Could it mean just wearing an item that’s supposed to be for the sex opposite that of the wearer? How does it operate as verb or a noun? The terms are to a large extent defined by cross-dressers themselves as well as linguists. The “lived experience of a marginalised community” that begs reification as it isn’t so marginalised any more.
There is a long history of both men and women dressing up in the clothes of the opposite sex, or appearing in disguise as such. The experience is different for both sexes but they do overlap. Crossdressing is becoming increasingly popular as a past-time, especially among some men. We need to define terms and associated words.
Even animals “cross-dress” to some extent – in some fish, and cuttlefish, males disguise themselves, though not necessarily consciously in appearance or form as females, to avoid rival males and gain a mating advantage over females ready to lay eggs. Rival males tolerate their presence rather than fighting them off, and they gain access to females to fertilise their eggs sneakily.
From time immemorial people have cross-dressed though earliest records are furnished by the classical world from the Bronze Age. This was largely for entertainment or religious reasons in a public context, but also for sexual reasons or more practical ones — in situations involving conflict, espionage or flight from danger. In many societies, men and women often operated as their opposite, sexual counterparts often as part of a complex culture where the reproductive aspect may be supressed (eg., eunuchs were part of high civilization until recently).
Among the earliest descriptions of crossdressing, there’s Achilles in the saga of Troy (~1400BCE). In one legend, he was raised dressed up like a girl, amid other princess maidens, in part to hide him1. Aristophanes play from around 400BCE Women at Thesmophoria, has a crossdressing man. The Roman emperor Nero dressed as a woman according to Seutonius in disturbing displays of debauchery around 30BCE. European Viking burials from around 500CE suggest that some men and women may have been buried as members of the opposite sex2. Until modern times anthropologists have recorded societies with a third sex – typically men who may live as women like the Faʻafafine in Samoa. Clearly, modern Western contexts to crossdressing such as drag queens is the tip of a more complex, global phenomenon embracing culture, religion and anthropology and we should be wary of being too limited in how we perceive what may be often regarded as atypical behaviour. Cross-gender behaviour can represent a pattern widely embraced openly by some cultures, such as in modern Thailand as well as Samoa.
A travesty of a woman?
During Shakespeare’s time as in much of history, women and girls were played by boys or men in the theatre in the 17th century. They were in English, travesty, derived from Latin. From that time arises the word “Travestie” or cognates, used in France and Europe that means to be dressed up as a disguise – in crossdressing or theatrical contexts. From Romance languages such as French, also applicable to English, the word “Travesti” meant a transvestite, female impersonator or someone in fancy dress. The English word travesty is rooted in this 17th meaning, implying disguise or parody.
In Germanic languages including English “Travesti” was formalised, or refined by Magnus Hirschfeld in his German book Die Transvestiten published in 1910 as “Transvestite” – a very important and sympathetic contribution to typically men, who may dress up or assume the identities of the opposite sex.
Based on some sources the use of the term transvestite (slang - tranny) is either extinct or offensive, but this is far from the case. Note its old pedigree - the continental form remains in vogue to this day. Many men who dress as women, habitually prefer to use this term. A modern term that has been coined more “scientifically” is Ray Blanchard’s Autogynephelia, but this burdensome expression is somewhat narrow and medicalised and has been widely criticised including from many in the trans community. It is scientifically dubious3. It is a junior synonym of Transvestite and incorporates too much baggage about what it means to behave that way – apparently it occurs in two forms, but why settle there? Whatever its merits may be, autogynephelia is used as a term of abuse against transvestites by some women and the word transvestite is far more catholic and less technical for most men who enjoy or feel compelled to dress as women, without wishing to change their sex. In many forums for such men such as at the UK Beaumont society, the word is alive and kicking and expresses a desire in men to be convincingly feminine. Usually on a part time, secretive basis, though there are some full-time ones too, who operate as women. These veer closer to being transexual (prefer to think of themselves as women).
Coining the term transvestite was a milestone. Here it means a man who enjoys or feels compelled to dress up as a woman, complete with hair and makeup and not simply as part of a profession, religious or other entertainment function.
It is often sexual in nature though not always so. Transvestism is the act of dressing up and taking on a female mode, usually temporarily. It is often described in the context of “fetishism” though this is not always the case – many transvestites are experimenting in dressing inappropriately to their sex.
They may get a thrill or surprise out of becoming a different human being to what they are supposed to or expected to be – it is also a narcissistic exercise in assuming the form they desire in the opposite sex. Many transvestites are single though many others are happily married with children and supportive wives. For such men it may be a subversive act that can help them to relax or even socialise with others like themselves. Many transvestites are very intelligent and represent upper echelons of society – in part as most “normal” men with such inclinations would not have the time or money to do this if they thought twice about it. All men who cross-dress had to break a subtle or deep-set taboo at some time in their life when they first put on something – be it a shoe or a pair of panties. For many, this may occur at childhood. But many others may only actively take it up later in life, often their 50s.
Crossdressing – What does it mean?
The word crossdressing as now used relatively widely came a little later. It is less specific and could describe simply wearing a few garments of the opposite sex such as shoes or underwear habitually. It could apply to women. It could also describe a modern male hobby in the same sense as transvestism, but more like a lifestyle choice qua hobby, not associated with sexuality. These senses are conveyed in the following six sets of definitions of crossdressing, mostly by crossdressers in the forum Quora.com.
Kim-Anne Git a Malaysian crossdresser (married with kids) says:
“1.The purely fetishic ones who limit themselves to one or two items of clothing and do it purely for sexual gratification 2. The ones who love “dressing up” in private, mostly for sexual gratification, and make no attempt to pass 3. The ones who “dress up” to socialize and try to pass in public. The fun here is not necessarily sexual - but to “enjoy life on the other side” 4. The ones who live a large part of their lives as women, but identify as male.”
Duncan Ferguson says:
“So I guess, at least for me, crossdressing is when I look and feel completely feminine.”
Dave Cnj says:
“Cross dressing is a guy being a gal for a point in time, and hopefully “she” appears sexy to others (guys or gals or both).”
Jessica Jamisen says:
“Crossdressing, in my dictionary is a man dressing as a woman for the purposes of trying to emulate the look of a woman, regardless of the purpose of doing so. It can also apply to a woman dressing as a man, but since for the most part no one blinks an eye seeing a woman wearing a man’s suit (or similar) I don’t really think it counts.”
Monika Sveet says:
“Crossdresser are the people who dress up, feel like, behave like and like to be treated like the people of the gender they are appearing to be”. [his italic emphasis]
Bruce Johnson who wears women’s clothing without appearing as a woman says:
“EZ: “Cross Dressing” is: The attempt to “look like” or “pass” as the opposite sex! You can wear a few articles commonly worn by the other sex and still NOT be cross dressing.”
Many women cross-dress too, but it is rare for them to dress up as men for pleasure or as a hobby. They do however dress like men - that is not the same thing. It would take the same amount of effort as a deft transvestite for a woman to try and pass as a man, including the appearance of stubble or a flat chest (some just wear a good mask). Whereas some lesbian women dress like men without trying to pass as men, and many women habitually wear clothing marketed at men, it is difficult to characterise such behaviour as female transvestism. It is now, increasingly common for many young girls to try and change their sex to become boys, but this is not the same thing. Most women don’t dress as men though they may choose to wear clothing designed for men. Indeed it is extremely common for women to wear men’s clothes, anecdotally. Far more common than for men to wear women’s clothes. Many cross-dressing men (in a lose sense of the word) protest this disparity. But most women who dress up in men’s clothes appear in public as women, simply looking less feminine but not wishing to be known as men, unlike some transvestites who desire to be understood as women.
Why is female “transvestism” so rare? For one thing, women don’t desire male physical beauty the same as men desire women’s beauty. The latter is an aspect of youth and the capacity to have children. Women desire a more complex set of attributes including physical aspects. A woman could theoretically, as easily get pregnant with an old gent, but men would normally have to have some level of youth from a woman to have children. Aside from physical beauty, perhaps women have a more stable sense of themselves and are more risk averse. Women did or do dress up in male disguise for practical reasons. In the past it was to enter theatres exclusive to men such as soldiering. In the present, some women may dress up like a thug (with a rubber mask) to avoid being molested or attacked by other men.
However there are examples of female “transvestism” too. Julie d’Aubigny mirrored in manner and nationality, the famous French male crossdresser Chevalier d'Éon. Madame d’Aubigny or as she was better known Mademoiselle Maupin was skilled in swordfighting and made a very convincing looking man. Another Frenchwoman Jane Dieulafoy, closer to our time, preferred to dress as a man. At a time when the practice was not necessarily legal, she received a "permission de travestissement" to dress up as such. But she was not trying to be a man and remained loyal to her husband. As an archaeologist and writer, she championed cross-dressing. French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand also habitually dressed as a man with legal permission. Again, she was not being a man, but borrowing aspects of masculinity. Of all these examples, only Maupin is congruent as a female transvestite, but the others certainly cross-dressed (the French connection may be explored in another essay).
Towards a definition and why it's frowned on
So let’s try and settle on a definition of crossdressing, crossdressers and variations between them. This definition is mainly connected with clothes and not sexualities or even cultures.
Once upon a time in Europe, baby boys were dressed in girl’s clothing, often until they were around six years old. Many baby portraits from the recent past illustrate this. These babies were not crossdressers and they were not crossdressing.
There is cross-dressing, the act of wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex and crossdressers. The two are quite distinct. Clearly, both men and women may engage in cross-dressing, either for fun, comfort or fashion, even in the sense of being a transvestite. This technical term (tranny) has been brought down a notch – most crossdressers are men, and it is a term generally applied to men and not women, even though women may engage in more “crossdressing”.
As the definitions above make clear, most people would not worry about women dressing in men’s clothes. Such women are not usually disguising themselves as men, unlike many transvestites.
As one woman who crossdressed Marlen Castillo tried to make clear, the reason women can wear men’s clothes with relative impunity but not vice versa is: “People look down on femininity, not women.” [her emphasis in bold] Castillo found herself respected as a “tomboy” and “learned … that masculine values are highly praised in society.” [her emphasis in bold].
In other words, a cross-dressing man is becoming less than himself and demeaning the status and the function he may offer as a man. Becoming feminine represents a demotion.
Many transvestites, appreciate this thinking. Their female disguises attract both beauty, subversion and not a little humiliation. But it could also be seen as bravery and an opportunity to shine out from an otherwise moribund situation. But women may not appreciate this imitation, "as the sincerest form of flattery".
A definition and the subtypes of crossdressing
Crossdressing is the act of wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex. A Cross-dresser is usually a man dressing as a woman for the purposes of trying to emulate the look of a woman, regardless of the purpose of doing so
Acknowledging Jamisen above.
Crossdressers are similar to transvestites but differ in nuanced ways. They may be less serious about it than some transvestites – it may be less sexually driven or “gender dysphoric” (all such terms may overlap to some degree). It may even include practical reasons such as a paid position such as in entertainment. A drag queen may be a habitual cross-dresser for practical reasons, before they provide a performance. However, both these terms are also somewhat synonymous. Other words to describe being a transvestite such as being “non-binary” or “gender-fluid” may simply mask the fact that the practitioners are transvestites, or more simply cross-dressers. Many such derived terms including crossdresser itself may be euphemistic to define an area that was historically, somewhat taboo.
Whereas a few exceptional women may identify as crossdressers and so could be considered as such, it usually applies to men as does transvestism. Men who selectively wear women’s clothes such as panties or shoes (quite common) while appearing as men are not considered as cross-dressers (see definitions above). Certainly not in an overt public context, as part of their fashion routine. Some such men may have transvestic or “fetishtic” inclinations to a greater extent than women who cross-dress, though being fetishtic could certainly apply equally to women, who in any case have more sensitive skin. The act of crossdressing as applying to both men and women does not necessarily make them crossdressers.
There are many men who now choose to wear women’s clothing in public, just like women may wear men’s clothes in public — they present as men while fully or partially wearing women’s clothing in public, often of a gender neutral sort (leggings, opaque tights, jackets). This has been variously described as “stealth crossdressing” (with more than one meaning – it can mean to pass completely as the opposite sex too) or recently on Quora “crossdressing DRAB”. Another possibility is being “tomgirls”.
Certain forms of crossdressing DRAB could include 50% cross-dressing, waist down. Above the waist male, below the waist, with the shapely features of femininity including heels, hosiery or a skirt. Below the waist crossdressing is a form of being a crossdresser, though not wholly so – and such practices though mostly confined to an indoor sphere are increasing in public as men try and reclaim a certain freedom to adopt feminine fashions as easily as women seem to adopt male fashions. It’s part of a new culture.
There is a certain amount of increasing gender-bending as a reflection of technology, combined with social media and celebrity culture. Furthermore, the human population is now so large and cultures so complex, that sub-cultures will probably proliferate with less traditional imperatives to physical combat or raising families.
Crossdressing is the act of wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex. A crossdresser is usually a man dressing as a woman for the purposes of trying to emulate the look of a woman, regardless of the purpose of doing so.
Unlike elements of the modern transexual movement, typical crossdressers do not seek to threaten or usurp women and femininity4. Whereas some women consider that crossdressing represents an appropriation of something that such men cannot rightfully own or be, it is certainly not as serious as some “trans-women” and their lackies who keep parroting “transwomen are women” (TWAW). TWAW is never a given. Many “real”(post-op) transwomen disagree with TWAW. Most transvestites and crossdressers don’t claim or appropriate womanhood or such terminology except in a temporary sense. Crossdressing as a verb is quite normal – especially with women, and often with children. In so many ways, it is an expression of barriers between the sexes breaking down at a time when, in the most technologically driven cultures, physical relationships are becoming somewhat less important, and clothing choices may have a role to play.