Do Clothes Make the Woman?

Aug 1, 2010 | 2010 Summer - Bodies

By Marcia Deihl

Years before I came out, I dressed as a Marlene Dietrich sort of dyke for Halloween. I loved how I felt. Later, I wondered if anyone else had ever dressed up on Halloween as a future self. Wasn’t it just for fun? Didn’t most people just like being a whore-for-a-day (what class entitlement to think that such a life would be “fun”!) or a hobo (ditto)? Only my gay friends responded in the affirmative. “Of course! It was crucial to my childhood survival! Thank God for Halloween!” No wonder the Halloween Parade in New York City is one of the great gay holidays.

Thinking back to my early years, I leafed through my diaries trying to see at what age my “sexual identity” began. And how much of that was mandated (hmmm, good word, that) by the mid-sixties culture surrounding me? How much was the soul, whispering underneath all the learned gender messages, deeply hidden but leaking out from the edges of consciousness?

I saw that I’d always felt like a “female female impersonator” when I wore a dress. I’d also always loved drag queens, and they looked better than I did as a woman, and got more joy out of playing a traditionally female role. But in my twenties, my feminist friends frowned on men in drag, saying that they were oppressing women and mocking women’s market-made excesses. I thought they were simply following a sort of theatrical-spiritual mandate. In fact, camp culture was part of the reason I had left my small town for a city as soon as I could. Queens were my compatriots, misfits in gender land.

Who would’ve thought that I’d have my own born-again dress-wearing experience at age thirty? I was a member of the Boston branch of “Ladies Against Women,” a satirical theater troupe which shouted slogans like, “Procreation, Not Recreation; Close Your Eyes and Do Your Duty!” at rightwinger Phyllis Schlafly appearances. The others changed out of their dresses and into comfortable corduroy pants. (And yes, flannel shirts and work boots. But no one I know ever burned a bra. That was just a feminist theater event in Atlantic City on the boardwalk, and they really only threw their bras in a waste basket. Why burn them and make a mess? Just take the damn things off and hang loose.)

The night of the Ladies Against Women performance, I slowly realized I liked that white polka dot flouncy dress I was wearing. I actually looked, well, cute. Pretty. Attractive. For the first time in my life. I felt like the real me, not a self-parody, in a dress. Oh, did I mention that I’d just lost fifty pounds and left my lesbian lover?

Some of my dyke pals were not happy about this. I felt bad. For years. But since when did I answer to them? I rebelled against the “Them” of the Viet Nam war mongers, and yet I could not bring myself to rant in public against my lesbian sisters. Privately, it was another story. Would they change their sex partner choices if I asked them to? Of course not. Personal life is just that—personal. I knew of a commune in Vermont where bedmates were chosen by lot, so as not to slight anyone who was not as attractive or popular. Isn’t sleeping with someone you’re not interested in a form of self-inflicted sexual abuse? Why should I be a lifetime martyr to their opinion of me? I never said the above thoughts to them, but it cost me hours of diary writing and several hundred dollars’ worth of therapist’s bills. As Zippie the Pinhead said, “My libido has a mind of its own.” I left her for myself, not for a man.

I claimed that I was still a woman-identified woman, even if I wanted to date men. In the end, a political movement is about politics—marching, lobbying, writing. And that stayed the same. I had no ID card in my pocket to show at Women’s Music Festivals, and if you knew me, you knew who I wanted to be with; if you didn’t, it was none of your business. Plus, I was a foot soldier in a huge movement, not a Fidel Castro, so what I did in my private life went largely unnoticed. It was my activism that was important, and nothing about that changed.

I’d always had a handle on outer empowerment, and then I began the inner part. I went back as usual to my diaries, where I was writing my true heart, way before politics and self censorship crept in.

My diary revealed that I did like men the most, but they didn’t like fat girls like me. Or so I assumed. I’d also started calling myself “bisexual” at age twenty. When I turned thirty and lost fifty pounds, men noticed me for the first time. I guess I wanted to explore that option. When I realized how easy it was to be a “sex object”—just makeup and a certain walk will do a lot, as drag queens know—I couldn’t help trying out some dates with “cute guys.” But it was almost too easy. After about a month, I yearned for my ugly duckling, poetic-minded, eccentric friends. Well, I thought, the trick is to find a cute eccentric guy. I needed a fairy tale guy—“half fairy and half tail,” as one writer put it. But it seemed those guys were all taken by women with more field experience.

Now when I dressed in pants, men thought I was a sexy butch, not a fat slob. I was cowed to realize that I had to get a normal body before I could love myself, for unlike many of my big woman friends, I had always been plagued by recurring nightmares of ghoulish dancing elephants in pink tutus. It started, of course, when I was young and my brother called me “Fats.” But what now? If a gay woman dressed like Barbara Bush and a straight woman dressed like Barbie, what did I choose to wear? And why would that even matter? Lipstick lesbians were cover-girl beautiful and Barbara Bush was straight. Thirty years before, you would not have found a professional or senior-aged woman in pants, except for a few devil-may-care retired anthropologists and writers.

Clothing aside, what was my sexual identity? I did not consider myself an ex-gay—I was a Kinsey 2. First I went to a coming out support group and, as usual, fell in love with all the gay men. No more of that for me; I deserved reciprocity. So I thought, “Where are bisexuals?” Everyone said they were in show biz, or swinging in the suburbs with the men calling the shots. Then I saw a bisexual support group listed at the Cambridge Women’s Center in 1981, and I hung in through the next two ill-fated groups. Finally, in 1983, a couple of us founded the Boston Bisexual Women’s Network. We laughed together about the years of being “not quite right.”

Q: Which gender person does a bisexual love? A: Any gender she wants.

Q: What does a bisexual woman wear? A: Anything she wants.

Q: What does a bisexual do at night with a lover? A: Anything anyone else does, with the agreement of her partner(s).

So, in the end, what do clothes mean? They can telegraph something, but not necessarily. Today I just dress, like many middle-aged transgender friends, in what I feel like wearing. End of story. Oh, I might wear khaki pants with jewelry, or cowboy boots with floor length skirts (along with everyone else). And I often wear only one earring, a tiny signal of androgyny if one is looking for that. Men have fewer options, since a man in a dress sets off way more alarms than a woman in pants.

My former boyfriend felt most powerful and sexy in full 1950’s-era sex war regalia: nylons, girdle, lingerie, and cocktail dresses. At work he was just another hippie computer guy, but in his personal life, he could let it all out. Other than his choices of fabrics and colors (magenta polyester? Please!), I found him very sexy. In bed, we made it up as we went along. It was a perfect match sexually, after some initial shyness on both our parts until we felt safe. For whether he was a man or a woman in my house and in my bed, I stayed the same. We were both fluid, creative, and real. As with clothing, I stay me no matter what I wear or what I do.

I look back with bemused compassion to my twenties, when new clothing signified a new life and when I thought everyone was looking at me and judging me. Today I know that most people are pretty interested in themselves, and may have a passing opinion of me, but even that is not my business. Today, clothing is a comfort or a toy, and life takes the lead, naked, writing itself day by day.

Marcia is a cofounder of BBWN  who lives, sings, and agitates in Cambridge, MA. Being bisexual is one of the main blessings of her never-mainstream life (see  

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