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Drags and strictures at an exhibition

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.