Wednesday 15 November 2017

Where's my mermaid trousers? A wardrobe for both roles

This is a somewhat edited and expanded version of the 15-minute talk I presented to the "Queer Tango Salon", which was two days of presentations and discussion organised by Ray Batchelor, a retired academic who is deeply interested in Queer History and its relationship with dance, and artist Birthe Havmøller, in September. My talk came out of a conversation with Ray about how dress and gender presentation interact with the roles and the social aspects of a partner dance. I hoped to learn by reflecting on my own experiences, choices and motivations and comparing them with the obviously different experiences, choices, and motivations of that community.

I found it extremely interesting to think about this question, and to put together my experiences in some kind of order. This is a very long post, and inconclusive. It's not exactly what I said - that was, necessarily, shorter - but the headings and quotes follow my slides, and the text follows my speaking notes.



I don’t claim to be part of the Queer Tango community, or any Queer community – that’s up to you – I am just one of the very many women who regularly dance both roles socially in one of the strands of social practice that is not Queer.

I hope this talk will be of some interest, even if only for comparison with your own experiences and thoughts. What do I wear when I go dancing, what choices do I have or make, what experiments have I tried, how do I feel about them, and what, if anything, do they mean?

Tanguera Battle Dress

Couples waiting for the top 5 to be announced in the Mundial Final Pista 2015. Aires de Milonga.
Final Pista 2015 – Screenshot (video © Aires de Milonga). Click through for original video
“… when all men wear a white tie and a black tailcoat in the evening, the individual character of each man is made more important, not less; and a curious effect then occurs in mixed company. If each woman at the ball is carefully wearing something different ... the faces might as well be all the same, just as if the same doll were dressed in many different ways.” (Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits)
This is the look in relation to which everything else is gets its meaning. Anything I wear to dance tango does whatever it does in relation to, and by contrast with, this look. In as far as any look is prescribed to me by authority, this is it – although the rules of the Mundial specifically say that they don’t prescribe it.

In fact, this is a two-part look. The women have one part, and the men have one part, and there is such a gulf between the two that it seems they are trying to look like different species. It’s tempting to suggest that the men’s part would also be appropriate in a gathering of only men, while the women’s part would be out of place in a gathering of only women, but I expect that’s not true for everybody.

I’d like to introduce Anne Hollander, who wrote books about the history of fashion, considered as a genre of western art – I don’t claim her ideas are right, I don’t know, but I have found them helpful in understanding my own experience. I recommend Seeing Through Clothes, Sex and Suits, and Fabric of Vision, the catalogue of the wonderful exhibition curated by her at the National Gallery.

Hollander’s argument is that the overall look of men’s and women’s dress, considered as genres of European art, diverged from the seventeenth century, so that surface decoration, visible complexity, colour, exposure and detail became reserved for women, and as a result, became coded as un-serious. She then says that they started to re-converge in the early twentieth century, with women reclaiming seriousness, and then in the later twentieth century with men reclaiming visible complexity, decoration and detail.

My Tanguera Battle Dress

The author dressed for a milonga in a plum-coloured knee-length flared velvet skirt and plum-coloured chiffon top
© the author
The author leading, in black lace and heels (partner in trouers and flats)
© Emilia Patruno – Estoi, 2016
I have a complicated, on-off relationship with this look.

For me, most of the time, this look feels like an armour, a cloak, a symbol, a subterfuge, a surface, a distraction. I may feel good, I may feel pretty, I often get compliments and much more overt interest from men than I do otherwise, but I also feel that the purpose it serves is to say “I am other” – a different species from you – and no threat. There certainly are many men who will not even perceive my invitations if I don't “other” myself sufficiently by wearing a dress. They don't care at all that I lead – or even, often, notice – they only care or notice what I'm wearing.

But those men are not much of a loss compared to the women gained; the best dancers will almost always have the confidence to invite and respond to invitations; and in some situations this all works entirely to my advantage.
"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." (Boswell, Life of Johnson)
I mention Johnson's famous line because this look mainly draws attention to the fact that I am a woman, and distracts the eye rather dramatically from how I dance. There is, perhaps, a partial exception when I dance milonga with an excellent follower and both of us are wearing heels. The whole point of heels is to look spectacular, and two pairs apparently being worn by a single animal dancing a fast-or-daft milonga will, by their designed function, get you a few vocalisations of applause. Or you could consider it as just more of the same thing.

The Mezzo-Soprano Trouser Role

The author leading in tailored black trousers and a white gathered blouse
© Charlotte Hammer - Lillehammer, 2015
This is a tactical look, a transitional experiment for me that was all about social signals.

This picture is from a three-night weekender before everyone knew that I danced both roles. I’d specifically promised the organisers that I’d lead about half the time, which really helps them at role balanced events, so I wanted to make sure I could achieve that. I wore wide, tailored trousers made of a substantial fabric, with a waistband at the natural waist, and a full blouse tucked in. The effect is slightly Romantic, and certainly influenced by theatre. I wore this for the first half of the milonga, focused my invitations on the women, and led exclusively. I then disappeared for a tanda, changed, and came back in battle dress. This only really works at a long milonga, because you lose a few tandas in the change.

It is a lot of logistical effort. I didn't change my hairstyle, since if there are more than about 150 people present, those who didn't know me might have thought I was two different people.

My problem with this look is that the tailored trousers go a little too far towards being read as socially male. If I go too far towards this look in general social dancing at home, I start to resent that. I feel like I’m pretending to dress in a masculine style for theatrical effect – just a bit inauthentic, as though the costume is doing too much of the talking, and I feel cut off from my own sexuality. Having tried it, I find that it’s not self-expressive for me.

As I got better at leading, and better known, this strategy became unnecessary, and I probably won't wear it again – I'll come back to what I do now in similar contexts. The trousers were rather expensive, but luckily I can wear them to work; and I've found a couple of tops that can take them in a different direction.

Alternatives - a road not taken

Peninsula Cho and Jinsuk Muchacha,video still, Lihui Tango. Peninsula wears a white suit, flat white shoes, orange tie.
Peninsula Cho and Jinsuk Muchacha,
video still, Lihui Tango - click through
to the original video
I thought briefly about going in the suit direction, but I quickly abandoned the idea. This look would feel even more theatrical and inauthentic to me; even if I entered the Mundial, I wouldn't wear it. (What I would wear is an interesting question, but hypothetical, as it's really not my style). This look would not get me a single dance that I wouldn't get anyway, and I wouldn't feel sexy, so there's no point.

For me, it also has, sort of, the same effect as leading in heels. It neutralises the threat. The message to the men of leading in heels is “I am a different species, and no threat”. The message of this is “I am one of you, and no threat”. But for me, of course, I am a threat, and that's not a million miles away from the point.

I do have a made-to-measure corduroy jacket that looks very classy with my jeans, and has the full set of pockets like a man's jacket (1), and I often wear it for dancing outdoors. I also own a couple of good suits for business, and they look great, but they're too long in the leg – they are made to be worn with  heels.

Dressing as a woman in exactly what the men wear

The author following in striped shirt and jeans: partner (male) in checked shirt and chinos. Friend (male, behind) also in striped shirt and jeans.
Paquita 2016-17 © Letizia Gianni
“… When two women wear the same dress, however, the first thing you see is how different the actual women really look.” (Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits)
At a certain point, it struck me that in some situations – especially afternoon milongas at festivals – I could look sort-of feminine and definitely-hot by wearing precisely what most of the men wear – well fitting jeans and a striped or checked shirt. Here I am dancing in this outfit with a partner who is wearing the version with chinos.

Notice in the background, my friend on the stage is wearing the same outfit as me - cheerful stripes and jeans - but quite a bit more cleavage.

By not doing 'femininity’, except perhaps with earrings and hairstyle, I almost accidentally visually emphasise my femaleness: how our individual bodies really look in comparison to one another.

It functions almost like the leading lady look (which is next), but it feels subtly different to me.

Leading Lady Style

Video still: Praesenjit Saha,
Esta Noche de Luna
Click through for original video
Demanding a man's status, but as a woman, not as a man: My body as “a visibly working, self-made and unified instrument” (Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits)
This is more like what I usually wear at practicas, and is more or less what I feel most comfortable leading in. For social dancing, I usually “feminise” this look with bare shoulders, or lace. I want a simple shape and a matte texture, colour by all means, but a smooth envelope over separate and articulated legs, so you can see what I am doing with legs and shoulders. It functions like a suit, without the bulk (and it’s much more revealing).

What I feel about this look is that it exposes the quality of my leading. In the video, which is from a couple of years ago now, I’m not leading particularly well, but I and everyone else can see exactly to what standard I am doing it, without distractions, and because I am ambitious to do it well, and willing to put the work in, that’s exactly what I want.

I get a beautiful cognitive dissonance from seeing pictures of myself leading: I look so small compared to the men. Inside my head, I'm the same size as they are.

Leading Lady - Léna

Léna Lamorelle and Marie Primat (Clermont Tango)
at Saarbruecken, 2014. Click through for original video.
To explain why I like it so much, I'd like to show you how this look functions at its best. This is Léna Lamorelle, leading. I admire her dance: and her look, in this, is what I’d most like to be wearing when I lead.

It says stability, dynamics, and power. For me what this look does is demand to be taken seriously and emphasize the physical power of the female body. To make it look good, you have to deliver, dance-wise. I’m not really delivering in the previous video from Provence, it's just barely ok, but I’m fine with that. I will one day. Lena does.

I encourage you to click through to the video and watch the whole thing, but with particular attention to the walk from 01:58, ending with the "Wonder Woman" turn from 02:17 to 02:27. Why would you watch any stage show when you could watch that?

She dances basically the same style and technique as Carlitos, but it looks totally different because her body is totally different, and this look reveals that difference instead of replacing and concealing it with another, artificial one.

The problem with this style is that although it's not remotely masculine, and it also looks great, it is still read as a leading look. It’s also just not what I’d most like to follow in. The problems can be overcome, up to a point, by changing shoes, but it puts too much on the shoes, practically speaking. If I really want to spend half my time following (or more), in most social situations, I need to do something more complicated.

The Mermaid

John William Waterhouse, The Mermaid (1901)
Nudity above and scales below: “It is really no wonder that women seeking a definitive costume in which to enact their definitive escape from such mythology should choose trousers … women have ordinary working legs, just like men (not … flashing under tinselly froth) … ” (Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits)

So I am often searching for a compromise:

If I wear a dress, I will get new dances as a follower. If not, I will mostly only get old ones. I will generally get new and old dances as a leader no matter what I wear, if conditions are otherwise good in the sense that there are plenty of people I want to dance with and they know enough to watch the floor and look for invitations, and provided I can get the first one.

I want an outfit that looks like a dress to the men, feels like a dress to me, in the sense of formal, glamorous and appealing (complex and questionable concepts I don’t have time to unpack in a 15 minute talk or in an overlong blog post), but at the same time gives me a unified outline, looks 'right' with both heels and flat shoes (2), and steps away from the Mundial look, because the Mundial look mostly does my head in.

Recovering 'femininity" in mermaid trousers

Milonga with Andreas Wichter
at Abrazos 2017. Click through
for video
(3) © Matthew Cooper

Ballet slippers. © the author
This outfit is a pretty good compromise, but not the final word. I have this in black, in purple and silver, and in peacock blue and green, with or without midriff exposure.

It's extremely comfortable and cool to wear, and the rather 1910s shape works well on my figure. It looks relatively serious, but can be very colourful. It looks equally complete and harmonious with heels and with ballet slippers - just not with my 'good' leading shoes.

It even has pockets. They're concealed between hip and knee,  and are more than adequate for a tissue and, if necessary, my glasses.

I feel totally comfortable following, and pretty good leading. It’s what I wear at festivals where following is a priority for me, but I will still want to lead.

Men understand that they can invite me, but they still think they need to look at the shoes – and indeed, sometimes this is exactly what I want.

I do change shoes, but not always. And here, we get beyond how I decide what to wear, into how I decide what to do. I wear this look when that decision is going to be made on the fly, and is going to be difficult. I decide who I want to dance with - both partner and role - based on availability, partner, and music. That's a lot to fit in to a few seconds, but it can be done. Each person has a different feeling depending on the role as well as the music.

For other occasions, I find that I now usually wear some sort of ‘leading lady’ look; unless I’ve made a decision to sacrifice dances as a lead to the waiting-around time required to get dances as a follower, for instance because it’s my first visit to a place and I’m going “undercover”. (4)

So, when I get dressed to dance, I am usually embodying some sort of compromise. How complicated the decision is depends on many things, including the time and the place, who else will be there, my self-expression, their possible interpretations, how I feel about the event, and how I feel about whatever I am doing. The process of creating my solutions over time is a constant and stimulating artistic endeavour. 

Dressing as a man, in (almost) exactly what (some of) the women wear

“ ... trousers and tailoring and short hair are now wholly female in themselves … it follows that current male clothes have less of a uniquely masculine meaning even when men wear them … during the second half of the twentieth century, women finally took over the total male scheme of dress, modified it to suit themselves, and have handed it back to men charged with immense new possibilities.” (Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits)

Signing off, I’d like to reflect and remark for a moment on what the men do. I’ll show you my two friends here (both of whom follow socially a lot) and point out that what they are wearing is very stylish, but nothing like the men’s “Mundial” look. They are both just very well-dressed; with lots of personality, but no eccentricity. And as far as my observation goes, that's true of almost all the men who actually get dances as followers at the kinds of events I go to. And I find, when I honestly reflect, that it is exactly what gets my attention if I want to lead them.

What we actually see on men in social dancing – not just those who follow – is a riot of colour, texture, and interesting detail. Floral prints, contrasting piping, bright linings, stripes, suede, snake-skin, colourful shoes – I’ve seen hologram glitter – night-time satin shirts, tailored “milonguero trousers” with complex construction and flattering unnecessary seams, bright bits of pocket lining, embroidery, and a special extra pocket for the fan. The women are much more likely to wear smooth and unified black.

(1) If you want one, ask me and I'll get you a referral code for modest discount. If you are a woman, it's best to ring them up and request the internal pockets, rather than just order online, but it doesn't cost any more. 
(2) The questions of how clothes look "right" or "wrong", and what that really means, is extensively discussed by Hollander in Seeing Through Clothes, in which she treats it as an aspect of the history of Western visual art. I am not sure that the conclusions are fully supported by the evidence, but I found it full of beautiful and inspiring ideas. 
(3) If you click through this video you may notice the leader in front of Andreas and me, whose solution to the same problem is different from mine.
(4) Reflecting as I edit for the blog, there's definitely something that I haven't unpacked about the connection between femininity and youthfulness, and how that creates a tension with what looks 'right' for leading. There are lots of trousers that are wholly feminine, but specifically not youthful. We might say that both split skirts and skinny jeans, when worn by a woman, are both youthful and feminine because they expose the knees; however, the aesthetics and physical requirements of the dance generally suggest that the motion of the leader's knees should be somewhat heavily glossed over. All types of harem trousers, and a lot of lamé, could be seen as sidestepping the conceptual youthfulness of female knees. I don't know what the answer is, for the present. Maybe it's a basque, or something.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I would have loved to get to Ray's event but I was helping my mother move house in September and more or less everything else had to be on hold. I caught up with him more recently at the QTL event in Hackney and had a lovely dance - both of us wearing heels.

As a man who likes to dance with both women and men, and to lead and follow I confess I don't think much about what my choice of clothes says about that. It's fascinating to learn how much more this means to a woman - or perhaps just to this particular woman.

To practice I wear black combat trousers and a button up shirt. To events I often wear some milonguero trousers - but in a grey pinstripe. I've just ordered some more in black with a satin seam, to match my dinner jacket. How terribly traditional-male! Hey-ho - we are what we are.

I occasionally experiment with wearing heels more to understand how they feel and how they make the wearer dance than for any particular effect on observers or potential partners. Not having worn them from my teens like most women it's unsurprising that I find leading in them very tricky. I'm not able to get the same drive from the floor with my foot held up at that angle. Having been led by Helen "La Vikinga" I know that it is perfectly possible - I guess I just need more practice. What I have noticed though, is that wearing the heels definitely does signal to leaders that I am available as a follower.

Plain Jane said...

What an entertaining, thoughtful piece. But I'm even more impressed by the fact that you're still blogging after so long. I petered out some years back, but am considering coming back. You're an encouragement.

msHedgehog said...

@mikeintonbridge - those are interesting points - worth two short posts or one long one! Maybe I'll do them both.

@Plain Jane: I don't do it so much now - just the odd short one, and the long ones when I am really interested in something - but thank you :)