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Encyclopedia > Crossdressing

This articles is about cross-dressing in general, that is the act of wearing the clothing of another gender for any reason. For specific information about cross-dressing for sexual reasons, see Transvestic fetishism. Compare also the List of transgender-related topics.

Cross-dressing is the act of wearing the clothing of another gender for any reason. The usage of the term, the types of cross-dressing both in modern times and throughout history, an analysis of the behaviour, and historical examples are discussed in the article below.

Contrary to widespread societal views and prejudices associated with cross-dressing, many people who cross-dress do not do so for sexual or fetishist reasons. Similarly, although cross-dressing is one type of transgender behavior, not all cross-dressing is caused by transgender feelings or identity.



Every society today and throughout history has a set of views, guidelines, or laws regarding wearing clothing of the opposite sex. Cross-dressing can be seen as a type of transgender behavior, but not always transgender identity. In other words, a person who cross dresses does not always identify themselves with another sex, although this can sometimes be the case.

The term cross-dressing simply denotes an action or a behaviour, without attributing or proposing causes for that behaviour. Some people though automatically connect cross-dressing behaviour to transgender identity, sometimes also to sexual, fetishist or homosexual behaviour, and are offended by what they see as motives being attributed that may or may not be appropriate. This is a misunderstanding, though, since cross-dressing itself does not imply any motives.

However, the term cross-dresser is not only used to describe people who cross-dress (without attributing motive), in some modern western societies it is also used as a self-description of a group of usually male bodied, male identified heterosexual cross-dressers, who are not transvestic fetishists or doing drag, and who usually regard themselves as being part of the transgender spectrum. (In absence of an article about this group, compare Transvestism#Other groups distinct from these meaning.) Labeling a person as cross-dresser which is not a member of that group therefore will very likely produce misunderstandings, and sometimes offense is taken.

As an example for the complications involved, male "Goths" may wear visible make-up, long hair and lace blouses, and even skirts or dresses (which are usually different from those skirts and dresses female "Goths" wear, though). While this appears to many people as cross-dressing, within the "Goth" subculture this is not viewed as such, and certainly the person wearing such an outfit would not identify as cross-dresser.


While some people who cross-dress, depending on their motives for cross-dressing, may have no desire or intention of adopting other behaviors or practices common to the gender indicated by their choice of clothes, many endeavor to project a complete illusion of belonging to another gender, down to mannerisms, speech patterns, and emulation of sexual characteristics. This is referred to as "passing".

Others use a more "mixed" approach: for instance, a man who wears both a dress and a beard. This is sometimes known as genderfuck.

Specific types of cross-dressing

The following points describe specific types of cross-dressers. Especially the list of labels is not exhaustive; there are many other types of cross-dressing that do not have a specific label, or which are not listed here.

Cross-dressing not related to transgender

  • Many cultures have elements of ritual cross-dressing.
  • Women wanting to escape capture and rape in wartime.
  • There are many stories about men trying to flee from somebody or something who cross-dressed for that purpose.
  • Women who want to take up male-dominated or male-exclusive positions or professions. See Famous historical examples below.
  • Cross-dressing can be used to make political statements, or to attract attention to a political statement or action. For example, during the first wave of gay activism after the Stonewall riots, cross-dressing was quite often used to ridicule the notion that "proper men are not gay".
  • Many movies, books, etc. feature cross-dressing for comic effect. (For examples, see below.)

Cross-dressing related to transgender

Transgender people who completely changed their gender role and are living in another gender role than the one they were assigned at birth are usually not regarded as cross-dressing. Many transgender people who eventually did transition however cross-dressed (relative to their birth sex) prior to transitioning, usually to alleviate their transgender feelings.

  • Cross-dresser: See above
  • Transvestite: See transvestism
  • A drag queen is a male-bodied person who performs in female drag: a costume of extremely gaudy dresses and shoes, large wigs, et cetera, or that imitates famous female film or pop-music stars. Many drag queens claim that they are not imitating female persons or behaviour, but that "drag" is a category by itself.
  • A drag king can be the counterpart of the drag queen — female-bodied persons performing a male or pseudo-male role. It can, however, also denote the complete cross-dressing spectrum of female-bodied persons; also some female bodied people undergoing gender reassignment therapy self-identify as drag kings, so in fact a person identifying as drag king can come from almost the whole of the transgender spectrum. This use of "drag king" is considered inaccurate by some people.

Sexual preferences among people cross-dressing for reasons related to transgender vary as much as they do in the general population, though, contrary to popular belief, most male-bodied self-identified cross-dressers are heterosexual. Some (but by no means all) lesbian women also cross-dress; compare butch.

Cross-dressing that may or may not be related to transgender

  • A transvestic fetishist is a person, typically a heterosexual male, who cross-dresses as part of a sexual fetish. It is often difficult to distinguish between fetishism that happens to have female clothing as an object and transgender behaviour that includes sexual play.
  • Female masking is a special form of cross-dressing where female clothing and behaviour are combined with female head or face masks, typically made from latex.
  • Some stories or fantasies or sexual roleplays have an element of forced feminization in them, where a man is forced to wear female clothing, or pretend to be a female, often as part of some humiliation.


The actual determination of cross-dressing is somewhat socially constructed. For example, in western society, pants used to be a generally male item of clothing, but have been adopted for wear by women — this is generally not regarded as cross-dressing, and some women wear some male items of clothing (such as a suit, shirt, or jacket) for fashion, without fear of stigma from others. As a result, it has become very difficult for female bodied persons to noticeably cross-dress and to "pass". However, the reverse for men is generally not true. For example, in Western societies, a man who wears a typically female item of clothing such as a skirt will not be able to do so for the sake of fashion or as an expression of their personal style as a woman may.

Similarly, in cultures where men have traditionally worn skirt-like garments such as the kilt or sarong, these are not seen as female clothing, and wearing them is not seen as cross-dressing.

"Equal Clothing Rights"

It was once taboo in western society for women to wear clothes traditionally associated with men. This is no longer the case and women are often seen wearing trousers, shirts, ties and even full suits. It is still taboo, however, for a man to be wearing clothes traditionally associated with women. Many people perceive this as being an imbalance in the equality of men and women in society and believe that men should not have to suffer discrimination for wanting to wear, for example, a dress. A frequent speaker on this subject is the comedian and actor Eddie Izzard who likes, occasionally, to wear traditionally female clothing or make-up for completely non-sexual reasons. This issue is often labeled as "equal clothing rights".

However, many traditional cultures in other parts of the world, such as Africa, continue to prohibit women to wear trousers or other traditionally male clothing.

A flip side of this is resistance to one's own traditional gender mandated clothing; i.e. males resisting wearing neckties or females resisting wearing skirts when the same is not required of the opposite gender are some examples.


Female-bodied cross-dressers

Cross-dressing among women, at least in modern Western societies, seems to be rare, which some people attribute not to an actually lower number, but to the difficulties involved that were mentioned above, and also to the fact that the behaviour of females has often received simply less attention than that of males. However, there are some famous examples of cross-dressing female-bodies persons in history, see below.

Some students of differentiated reception of cross dressers have suggested as a reason for this aforementioned behavior, is that for a woman to take on a male role (for example through her clothing) in a patriarchal society thus may raise her social status, whereas for a man to take on a female role in that same society will lower his social status. Thus the woman may be unsympathetically viewed as some kind of social climber, but the man will most likely be unsympathetically viewed as a self-confessed failure in the male quest for dominance, culled by himself from the breeding stock, etc. However this is only one view, and relies on the view that a woman adopting male characteristics in society will be "rewarded" for doing so, which may not be the case.

There are some famous examples of cross-dressing women in history, see below.

The classic psychoanalytic view

Classic psychoanalytic views of cross-dressing emphasized the role of taboo in the behavior. Only items that were proscribed to a gender would be appropriated, and therefore it is not the general association of an item with one sex or the other, but the prohibitions against the item that give satisfaction to those with a fetish (as opposed to political or sexually expressive) attachment to cross-dressing. As articles become acceptable for occasional wear (a man's necktie on a woman, for example, which passed from taboo to fashion in the 1970s), they cease (according to this theory) to be sought by cross-dressers.

The problem of attributing motives for cross-dressing

Especially when speaking of historical figures, when cross-dressing is not clearly related to specific events (like an escape), it is usually impossible to state clearly the motives for cross-dressing, because few documents survived, and most of those are either court documents (where the person who cross-dressed would have tried to say whatever would minimize their punishment) or accounts by other persons who might not (or might not want to) understand the motivations behind the behavior. Furthermore, some categories did not exist at the time a particular person did live. That is equally true of homosexual, gay and lesbian, and transgender, transsexual, transvestite and all other terms describing gender variant people or behaviour. Therefore people were not able to categorize themselves as belonging to one of those groups, either, and neither were their contemporaries.

It can be equally difficult to be certain of the motives of modern day people who cross-dress. Not only is the only way to be reasonably certain of any motives that person's own statement, there are also many examples where people attributed their cross-dressing behaviour to a certain motive, only to notice later that they may have had another motive they themselves did not recognise at the time. The classical example for this is a transgender or transsexual person who fully transitioned at some point, but who attributed their cross-dressing behaviour to being "just a cross-dresser", or even fetishistic transvestitism (in case of transwomen) or plain practicality of male clothes or wishing to appear as a woman who does not conform to patriarchal cliches of femininity (in case of transmen).

Some examples of cross-dressing

First World War photograph of English war reporter Dorothy Lawrence who secretly posed as a man to become a soldier.

Famous historical examples of cross-dressing people

Famous historical examples of cross-dressing people include:

  • The legend of Pope Joan alleges that she was a promiscuous female pope who dressed like a man and reigned from 855 to 858. Modern historians regard her as a mythical figure who originated from 13th century anti-papal satire.
  • Joan of Arc was a 15th century French military commander who led French armies against English forces occupying France during the latter part of the Hundred Years' War. She is a French national heroine and a Catholic saint, having been martyred by the English. After being captured by the English, she was burned at the stake upon being convicted by a pro-English religious court, with the act of dressing in male clothing being cited as one of the reasons for her execution. Eyewitness accounts quote her as testifying that she wore male clothing because it allowed the pants and tunic to be fastened together, thereby serving as a defense against rape. However, see the caveat about historical persons and testimonies above.
  • Anne Bonny and Mary Read were late 17th century pirates. Bonny in particular gained significant notoriety, but both were eventually captured. Unlike the rest of the male crew, Bonny and Read were not immediately executed because Read was pregnant and Bonny claimed to be pregnant as well.
  • Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée Éon de Beaumont (1728-1810), usually known as the Chevalier d'Eon, was a French diplomat and soldier who lived the first half of his life as a man and the second half as a woman. In 1771 he claimed that physically he was not a man, but a woman, having been brought up as a man only. From then on s/he lived as a woman. On her/his death it was discovered that her/his body was anatomically male.
  • George Sand is the pseudonym of Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, an early 19th century French novelist who preferred to wear men's clothing exclusively. In her autobiography, she explains in length the various aspects of how she experienced cross-dressing.
  • Dorothy Lawrence was an English war reporter who disguised herself as a man so she could become a soldier in World War I.

Cultural examples of cross-dressing

Cross-dressing is the subject of many works of literature and plays a significant role in popular culture. References to cross-dressing are frequently used for comic effect, though more serious uses are also common.

Movies and TV

Many movies feature cross-dressing as a central plot element, including:

All of the above films are comedies; many other films reference cross-dressing for comedic effect but do not feature it as a central plot element.

Films in which cross-dressing is referred to in a more serious context are relatively rare, though The Birdcage attempts to portray subculture that could be labeled as transgender in a positive, accepting light. The Crying Game, a 1968 novel by John Braine, was adapted into a drama film in 1992. The plot revolves around a transsexual woman, implicitly involving the issue of cross-dressing.

On television, some comedy sketch shows, such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, League of Gentlemen and Kids in the Hall routinely feature cross-dressing, with men dressing as women and speaking in falsetto. Cross-dressing is a common comic device used in sitcoms, such as Saved by the Bell's Zach and Screech, who occasionally dressed as a ladies either to disguise themselves or for comic effect. Agent Pleakley, a male alien character in the animated 2002 film Lilo & Stitch (and television series of the same name) dresses in female clothing because he misunderstands human gender roles. Incidentally, the character is voiced by Kevin MacDonald, a Kids in the Hall veteran. The plot of the 1980-1982 television show Bosom Buddies, starring Tom Hanks, centered on cross-dressing. The 2004 reality television series He's a Lady involves male contestants competing with each other to act as effeminately as possible, including cross-dressing.

Bugs Bunny is prone to occasional cross-dressing, usually to confound a foe. His transformation is typically so effective and his idenity so altered that his adversaries, (especially one Elmer Fudd), who moments earlier had been trying to kill him, are smitten.

See also


  • Rudolf M. Dekker, Lotte C. Van De Pol, Lotte C. Van De Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, 1989, ISBN 0-312-173342

External links

  • Mary Read and Anne Bonny (http://arthur-ransome.org/ar/literary/pyrates.htm)
  • Charles d'Eon de Beaumont (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/deon.htm)
  • A gallery of female maskers (http://www.maskon.com/marti/gallery.htm)

  Results from FactBites:
Queer Play (4904 words)
In the case of gender crossdressing, this is, quite possibly, because there was nothing to say: dressing across gender boundaries, as is well known, was the standard practice in medieval theater.
Although crossdressing could be tamed by confining it to spaces of licensed misrule, such as the theater, licensed misrule always threatened to spill over into the world beyond the play space.
In both cases, crossdressing proves only a temporarily expedient gesture, and the disguise is thrown off in the end as the status quo is reaffirmed.
FAQ – Crossdressing and Crossdressers (1698 words)
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