Whilst I am enjoying a period of enforced unemployment I thought I’d take a day off from using avoidance tactics from looking for jobs. I popped into London to visit The Photographers’ Gallery, just off Oxford Street. The currently have an exhibition called Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers.
(Image courtesy of The Photographer’ Gallery)
If the link above is still live when you are reading this, you can find out what the official explanation of the exhibition is all about.
The work is based on the photograph collection of Sébastien Lifshitz. This is the bio from the site about Lifshitz
Sébastien Lifshitz was born 1968 in Paris, France. An avid collector of photographs and an award-winning film director, his films have included Wild Side (2004), featuring a transsexual heroine and Bambi (2013), a documentary about France’s most celebrated transsexual woman.
Now before I get into writing about the contents of the exhibition itself I must say I was a little disappointed with how the pictures were displayed. It didn’t really affect me, but the images are all hung at a height which was nearly at my eyeline. It did make me wonder how those who make use of a wheelchair would access the displays without getting a thoroughly bad neck ache.
The images date from the 1880’s to the 1980’s. It would be too simplistic to say these images are just about crossdressing people. As most of us know in our small, but diverse community there is a whole lot more going on than just wearing clothes designed for the opposite sex to that which nature has packaged us up into. Indeed one of the first few images you see as you follow the gallery round is an early example of implied nudity. The subject at first glance appears to be male, but gives off an feminine quality through their stature. There are no clothes to give the viewer an indication of this person being feminine. just their pose, and to a small extent subtle details like having no body hair. This one image, perhaps, brings home the idea that it is not just about what clothes you wear, but how body language, and mannerisms are emulated, and craved by many for whom gender is not a straight forward facet of themselves. The introductory images portray early images of both men, and women: each assumed gender is eschewing the characteristics that society expects of their birth sex. The pressure to appear strong strong or virile for men or mild mannered and gentle for women is resisted in these photos. Of course we do not know the story behind many of these pictures, and can only make assumptions as to how the subjects felt.
There were many pictures from the 1930’s to the 1950’s with crossdressers in the most amazing frocks, shoes, and with perfectly coiffured hair. How did they get hold of them? Today we have all manner of online shopping, self service tills and the like, but back then, and indeed throught the history of crossdressing it must have been extremely difficult to get things to wear, and to be able to put together amazing outfits would have been risky to say the least. Surely these people can’t all have been posing in their wives clothes. Most would probably risked mail order, and hoped not to be exposed for what was considered then a deviance. Some of the photos are of the same person, and it becomes apparent that a lot of the techniques used then often apply today. If you have ever looked at online galleries on sites such as flickr you will often find people posing in exactly the same spot; the geography having been carefully calculated so as not to be overlooked by neighbours or passers by in the street. The same seems to apply to a lot of these collections from years ago. One can only presume photo’s were self processed and printed for the very same privacy concerns. Here in the UK we were quite fortunate. Yes we had the most ridiculous laws against gay men until relatively recently, but in countries like the USA they had the added complication of local, as well as federal laws not just against being homosexual, be also against being a crossdresser. These could change from state to state, and probably from county to county. To have even the risk of being exposed to your peers, and society at large could risk your whole livelihood, freedom, and I’m sure in some places in the world your life.
One of the strong threads in the exhibition was the amount of performers. The earliest photographs on display were taken for entertainment, and although there was nothing salacious or titillating about them they must have been quite shocking at the time of their publication. As time went on the idea of men emulating women gains more acceptance. Many of the later photos, especially those of the 1950’s onward are very similar in style to those of hollywood starlets in the contemporary movie magazines. In the middle of the 20th century in the USA drag artists become much more popular. With often draconian laws in place these artists were almost exclusively gay, and their audiences almost exclusively heterosexual. The relationship seemed to work however. The drag artists of those times bear little resemblance to the modern day equivalent with perhaps the only common physical sign being the disguised over arched eyebrows. The vintage drag artists seemed more concerned with looking like the movie stars of the day rather than the more parody style of drag that seems to have become more prevalent in recent decades.
Another group of performers were those incarcerated as prisoners of war during the two world wars. To alleviate the crushing mental health conditions the men faced concert parties often formed to entertain fellow inmates, and provide respite from the harsh reality they faced. Often the soldiers would take on female roles, and became stars in their own right, often carry on their onstage persona’s after the performances were finished. These artists took great pride in getting all the details correct from their costumes, to makeup and even removing their body hair to appear as feminine as possible.
Although a lot of the images focus on what we have often come to know as male to female (MtF) crossdressers, there is also a good proportion of the display shedding light on women who dressed as men. With the rise of feminism images of women dressed in traditionally male garb were used to try and undermine the movement with traditionalists foreseeing the masculinisation of women. However this backlash backfired as the women of the early 20th century moved towards a more androgynous look which was eagerly taken up by the fashion houses who were more than happy to exploit the boyish look, and promote masculine accessories such as top hats, monocles, and cigars. In the USA the campus environments of universities help to foster this look, and young women of the time could dress in suits, shirts and trousers, coats etc.
Presenting as the opposite birth gender is the main thrust of this collection, but it does touch on the growing recognition that there is often far more to this than just putting on a frock or a pair of trousers. The medical world has accepted transgender for longer than society has, but hopefully it is catching up fast. In some of these images there are people who have managed to transition to their correct gender despite prejudices local to them, and also facing the risks of being early adopters of medical practices that were often untested or at best still in their infancy. A number of famous french artistes were taking over the counter hormone treatments to aid their feminisation, but had to travel to Morocco for surgery which was illegal in France. As a historical record this collection indicate that medical help for trans men was non existent. Without the use testosterone, and surgery nearly all of the women crossdressers still had a very feminine look. Perhaps it is another indication of male privilege that the medical assistance to help male bodies transition was developed far sooner than that for female bodies.
If you do get a chance to visit do not forget that Grayson Perry has lent his early photo albums to the gallery for the duration of this show. You won’t find it in the same room, but two floors above it. Grayson is one of the most well known contemporary crossdressers in the UK. These photos date from a few years after he started he started being more open about his feminine persona. The fashion is a blast from the past, and a good reason not to ever, ever buy blue eye shadow. It does give some insights into his artistic style.
There is a lot more I could ramble on about after visiting this exhibition, but I suspect I’ve bored you enough already. If you get a chance pop along. It is a well thought out gallery, and the subject matter is treated with respect. It is at the Photographers Gallery until the summer. If I’ve slipped in my political correctness here and there I beg your forgiveness.