Rather than unsettling us with their gender-bending propensities, we laugh at their exaggerated take on femininity and marvel at their use of lip-liner. They're a British tradition straight out of the music halls and on to Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Nothing too challenging there, then.
Well there wasn't. But just as we've had New Man, now we've got New Trannie. He's the one dragging Men in Frocks kicking and screaming into the next century. These men reckon that black stockings and bristle, tinsel and testosterone, glitter and gonads go together like Dolce and Gabbana.
The latest chap to get on the slap is Kevin Rowland, the former dungaree- clad frontman of Dexy's Midnight Runners. He's re-emerged on to the pop scene and landed on the cover of his new CD wearing a dress. He's rolled up his skirt to reveal a rather healthy lunch box nestling above his stockings and he's staring at the camera in a rather aggressive way. This is hardly the Boy George cuddliness we've come to expect from our cross-dressers, so what on earth is going on?
Rowland has gone to great pains to point out that he's not trying to look like a woman or is, in fact, a transvestite. He wrote a letter to Alan McGee at his record label, Creation, earlier this year where he explained: "I am not dressing up as a woman ... I'm wearing men's dresses ... It's not a gay thing ... It's me as a man expressing my soft sexy side."
In the video for his single release, he's frolicking with lookers of both sexes like he's at a bisexual exhibitionists' convention. Occasionally he lifts his white dress to reveal that lunch box again and the famous Rowland voice belts out from candy-pink lips. This isn't some diva drag, but a man exploring and expressing himself in a frock.
It's something the thespians are in on too. The actor Mark Rylance plays Cleopatra at the Globe Theatre in London complete with frocks, but he's determined not to make it a drag. "It must not be camp," he said recently. "I will be a woman."
And why not? Women have been wearing combat trousers and blokey shoes for yonks, so maybe it's time that we accepted a geezer in a skirt. According to a trend prediction survey this month, most teenagers reckon that men will wear skirts regularly by 2010 while the most "manly" fashionable blokes will wear make-up. So perhaps Kev's just ahead of his time.
Of course, rock stars if not teenage boys have always enjoyed frocking up. Remember the Mrs Bates chic of Kurt Cobain in a flowery dress or Nicky Manics in a frock over his jeans? But it was Eddie Izzard, the crowned king of the Weird Drag, who announced that the difference between drag queens and transvestites is that "drag queens tend to be gay men being glamorous while transvestites are male tomboys".
This description would fit Kevin Rowland down to a T. At the height of his fame in the early Eighties, he was an aggressive little sod, trying to get poor Eileen into the sack and punching the lights out of anyone who caused him offence. When it all went horribly wrong he resorted to cocaine. He was, in fact, masculinity gone mad.
So it's no surprise then he's now trying to "express his soft sexy side".
"Somebody who has shown the very male aspects of their personality in their past and who has lived that quite masculine life for a long time may need an expression of something different," explains Mick Cooper, author of The Manual (a guide for men on emotions and relationships) and senior lecturer in men's issues at the University of Brighton.
If the predictions are right, men won't have to wait for cross-dressing parties to wear short skirts. "There's a lot of talk about a crisis in masculinity as men's roles change in society," continues Cooper, "and some men are using these changes to explore different parts of their identities. As men get more confident about expressing their emotions and sensuality - states classically associated with women - the more confident they get about wearing a dress or skirt without compromising their masculinity."
So if Kevin Rowland wants to wear dresses, all power to his elbow, even if it is clothed in a feather boa.Reuse content