Drags and strictures at an exhibition

Related Topics
WHO WOULD have thought, a few years ago, that drag - that old staple of stage, panto and party - would pass into contemporary mores?

While androgyny has been in the air for some years now - witness pop stars galore - open cross-dressing has, despite Jean Paul Gaultier's attempts to sell males skirts and fitted bodices, only recently come out of the closet. What J Edgar Hoover had to hide, others now proclaim, and The Crying Game has brought external sexual duality firmly into the Zeitgeist in a way Some Like It Hot never even imagined.

Recently I went to check up on the state of this particular art at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. This is a pretty modest establishment alongside its homonym in London, though no less pretentiously oppositional. Perched on the upper and inelegant end of Boston's 'art' street and feebly funded by the usual suspects (state and federal), it is really a rather moral and didactic institution, designed to instruct Philistines in how to think and feel about the various oddities that these days pass as art.

Having paid your five bucks to enter 'Dress Codes' - get it? What you wear is a code - you are invited to go downstairs for a video backgrounding; or, should you choose, to turn left (past the bookstall) where a rack of frocks, a dressing room (with curtains for the nervous) and sundry remnants of make- up invite you to exercise your fantasy. Dress up and join the fun.

When I visited, no one did, but then the visitors consisted only of two young women who were already women (I'm pretty sure), and they were very earnest indeed: they watched each and every video right to the end.

Depending on when you attended the ICA show, you were either left on your own, compered through it by a thirtysomething man with an orange frock and hairy legs, or graciously received by performance artist Hunter Reynolds (currently exhibiting himself in Berlin). In Reynolds' (or his alter ego Patina du Prey's) case, the performance was freighted with social Significance. His black satin dress, from the bodice of which peek the usual variegated chest hairs, is embroidered in gold, with what he says are 25,000 (it looked like 10 per cent of that) names of people who have died of Aids.

Reynolds is a 'Queen', and the word is etched into the glass of the mirror before which, for the public, he transforms himself from a bald 40-year-old into . . . well, a simulacrum of a man dressed as a woman.

As such exhibitors and exhibitionists go, Reynolds is a pretty straight homosexual. 'Everyone should play with their identity,' he says. 'Drag is about fun, about play. Everything I do, I do to resist social structures.' I think he meant strictures, those limitations imposed by reality, by the gender to which one belongs.

On a nearby video, somewhat dreamily conversing, are a young man and a much taller young man-as-woman in a white ribbed knit dress. They are having an obscure dialogue about France, for she smokes Gauloises and pretends she has only just learnt English. It's a short film about seduction and sophistication (France is so much more sophisticated]), there to show you how normal it is for a man to play a woman and go through the courtship ritual. It is utterly un-outrageous and about as erotic as a mid-day soap opera.

Elsewhere there is the Japanese computer-photographer Yasumasa Morimura, who transforms his own image into such women as a barmaid in Manet or, when he is feeling political, into both victim and killer in a remake of that most famous of all Vietnam icons, the execution of a prisoner out there on the high street at high noon.

Given the venue, this show offers not so much as a vestigial frisson. The public has a free choice; it need not go. And indeed, the audience that does attend is, in the majority, homosexual. But when my students were sent to write up the show (no choice there), I found their reactions curious. To the girls the show was 'no big deal'; the men, as intended, were made to feel thoroughly uncomfortable. Two of them, in fact, could not cope, and one wrote eloquently: 'I just gave up. I guess it's OK to do just about anything.'

Transvestism is a growth industry in America. New York's Village Voice regularly advertises 'counselors' for cross- dressing (they will help you with fittings, make-up, wigs). There are a half- dozen specialised magazines catering to the would-be cross-dresser, including self-help and how-to articles, advertisements from speciality shops that deal with such arcana as how, without silicon implants, to mould the male body into a more feminine shape (waist- cinchers and such), and 'personals' listing others in your neighbourhood with whom you can party in full fig. There are group reinforcement clinics, regular TV parties, special bars, and a whole sub-culture devoted to the art of becoming femme.

While much cross-dressing is in fact homosexual (declaring an adopted role within a homosexual relationship), the latest studies continue to bear out that cross-dressing is at least as common among heterosexuals as in the gay community; and indeed - judging by the number of lonely hearts ads that specifically exclude 'femmes' and TVs, cross- dressing is not generally in favour among homosexuals.

The ICA exhibition had a whole portfolio of happy dads in dresses frolicking with their kids, and the literature of transvestism is full of articles such as 'How to make your wife understand'. And why not? History is full of notable transvestites; and many is the man (myself included) who is fed up with the tyranny of male dress: the trouser (a demonic invention which ill fits the male anatomy), rough and uninteresting fabrics, constraining clothes, heavy and ugly shoes.

As the sexes merge, it is hard to see this phenomenon receding. Will the 21st century see men returning to the 17th? To wigs, the foppery of the Restoration, to doublet and (panty-)hose, lace, the kind of preening needed in the animal world to attract the female of the species? I wouldn't bet against it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Interface Developer - HTML, CSS, JS

£17000 - £23750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Liverpool based international...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: winter crisis for the NHS – Miliband and Burnham don’t know how to fix it

John Rentoul

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness