Thursday, 25 June 2009

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Sex and Suits

Yesterday my sister took me to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (the musical), because she had some tix and knows that I like Very Silly Things. We enjoyed it a lot. She thought the script was clichéd, I thought it was brilliant. She's the one with the degree in English Literature.

I hadn't seen the film, so all I knew about it was that it was about drag queens on a bus in the Australian desert. I won't trouble you with the plot, which was rather touching.

But I was fascinated by the three main characters, or at least, by their choice of clothes, which is what it's all about. They all wear women's clothes at least some of the time, but in very distinct, individual ways. I found myself thinking about what function the clothes performed for each of them. Not why each of them wanted that job done - motivations are unknowable, and and I don't think it really makes sense to try to explain them - but what job the clothes were doing. And how their decisions when they put on women's clothing might be similar to, or different from, my decisions when, being a woman, I simply get dressed.

None of this stuff is explained in the musical, and I don't suppose for a moment it is in the movie. It's three characters doing what they do. This is just what turned up in my head while I was watching it.

Transsexual Bernadette wears women's clothes all the time, and very elegant clothes, too. Perhaps rather formal and old-fashioned; and always specifically, positively, unambiguously female. Whether she actually "is" a woman seems like a question too big, or perhaps too trivial, to answer. It seemed to me that the function of the clothes was to give other people the cue to treat and perceive her as female, and my instinctive reaction to the character is to respect that wish, at least to the extent of using female pronouns.

Wearing clothes as Bernadette does, with close attention to both their social meaning and their visual unity, is how you get elegance. I can only do this by keeping it very simple, because I don't spend enough time or money on it or treat it as a high enough priority to do anything complex. I try, now and then, but I'd never do it all the time like she does.

Bisexual (or maybe just straight) Tick wears women's clothes as an artistic medium. He's a drag artist, and that's it. When he's not on stage, he mostly dresses like a fashionable man; he doesn't wear women's clothes to walk down the street. Nor does he look much like a woman when he wears them on stage. The job being done seems to be artistic. I wondered if in, say, 1708, when everyone's clothes included more elaboration, the same artistic ambition could have been fulfilled without cross-dressing at all. But I'm not sure about this.

Wearing clothes for their artistic effect is something I do from time to time, just not very well, because I haven't got the trained visual sense. Again, success at it requires effort and time and genuine interest. It really is an artistic endeavour beyond just going for what feels right. I can see that cross-dressing is a fascinating artistic thing to do, if that's what inspires you, and of course fashion designers, and women putting together their own outfits, borrow masculine details all the time for visual effect. I have a very smart coat with a masculine cut and militaresque epaulettes; it looks great on me.

The third character, indifferently called Adam or Felicia, was more of a puzzle to me. He's a homosexual man and has no interest in women at all, not even artistically that I could see. He dresses, more or less, like a glamour model; a female one when on stage, or when up to what he considers mischief, and a male one off. My strongest impression was of artificiality, some sort of doubleness I couldn't see the shape of. His stage clothes have all sorts of female accoutrements but don't actually look in any way female; as can happen with haute couture. He doesn't wish, aspire, or pretend for a moment to be anything but male. That, I was sure, was not what the clothes were doing.

So I wasn't sure what they actually were doing. Maybe nothing more than appealing to someone whose taste I don't share. But a detail that struck me was that when, in dressing for a night out, he wishes to be a little naughtier than usual, he expresses that by putting on a bra. I've occasionally expressed the same feeling by leaving off the bra. The bra is a physical necessity for neither of us: I am about equally comfortable with or without. Therefore, both of us must be wearing one, or not, for its social meaning and visual effect, not for any physical job it performs; essentially for the same reason, but with opposite starting points and opposite conclusions.

I think it was that bit that really fried my brain for the evening.

What is it that makes clothes male or female?

If I were to take a large piece of cloth, fasten it at each shoulder, and tie a girdle round the middle, I would be wearing something that would be regarded as female clothing anywhere in western Europe at any time in the last thousand years. I wouldn't necessarily be well, or fully, dressed; but I would not be cross-dressing - certainly not if I took another piece and wrapped it around head and shoulders as a shawl.

If I were a man and wrapped myself in the same two pieces of cloth in the same way, the same would not be true, or at least not clearly, unless we went back at least another five hundred years. I would be not just eccentrically dressed, but additionally disguised as a woman.


What would a Martian make of all this?

Luckily, Anne Hollander has written a rather good book about that very subject - at least the history of the why, if not the Martian - called Sex and Suits. She argues from the history of European art and dress that men's clothing is creative, dynamic, and modern, whereas women's clothing is extremely conservative and has only approached modernity in very recent years. Along the way she gives us the exceedingly interesting history of the male suit, which I now see in a new light and with far more appreciative eyes. I think I'll have to read it again. She also curated Fabric of Vision - dress and drapery in painting, which was fascinating but sadly is no longer on the National Gallery's website. I wish she would do a lecture or something about Priscilla and put it on the web.

Anyway, I came home with the feeling that there were great mysteries in everyday things, and that the contents of my wardrobe and drawers were suddenly written in Linear A. I have no idea what they mean any more. The force of habit should tide me over until my illusions come back.


ghost said...

Miranda Priestly: [Miranda and some assistants are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit. Andy sniggers because she thinks they look exactly the same] Something funny?
Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y'know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about all this stuff.
Miranda Priestly: This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

(The Devil Wears Prada)

I have similar wonderings about oriental clothing which is essentially modern western pyjamas.

The only real conclusion I came to is that in modern society women want to wear "mens" clothing because frankly it's less fuss and more comfortable. For the same reason most men have no interest in wearing "women's" clothing. I like trousers. I just sit down however I want :o) Some men do like the option to express themselves with women's clothing though - good luck to 'em. I've never heard of a group of transvestites chasing anyone and beating them senseless because they were wearing "normal" clothing.

Jo A said...

The Devil Wears Prada was such a disappointing film, but there were great moments in it, such as the one cited above. I wish the main character had not been such a goody two shoes and Miranda Priestly not such an ambitious-working-woman-must-be-unhappy-and-neglecting-her-family-life cliche.

On the other hand, the Priscilla film is great. It sounds like the stage show has stayed true to the feeling. The one thing that cannot be replicated on stage is the Australian landscape. That has a starring role in the film - much like whats that one with Jenny Agutter? Walkabout?

Anonymous said...

"Great mysteries in everyday things" indeed!

Truly a fascinating topic Ms. H. I'm amused because I actually took a shot of that theater with the Pricilla marquis while we were there.

As for what our clothing says about us - I address that in my book. But what we want it to say and what people interpret what we are saying are usually two different things.

msHedgehog said...

@ghost - Trousers are not more comfortable than a skirt. Ask any Scotsman. If trousers are ever 'less fuss' it's purely because they save shaving your legs; it's not intrisic to the trousers. Fuss is optional, and has a purpose.

I remember how irritated I was at that performance where she was all dolled up and he was in cargo trousers and a denim shirt; blatant disrespect. If he'd spilled something on his adult clothing he ought to have said so and apologised for making her look silly.

It does annoy me when men dress as children to dance tango; asking the women to look like their mothers. Funnily enough the only actual child I can think of who regularly dances tango, dresses like an adult for the purpose, presumably on the advice of his mother, who he accompanies.

ghost said...

Telling a scotsman his kilt is a skirt is a real good way to get into a fight. I've been told that Kilts were originally rather different - they were designed partially as armour and partially as something you could actually sleep in. The commonality that keeps coming up about scotsman and kilts is they like being able to go out in public, especially dancing, with no underwear, so not so much a comfort thing as a thrill / macho thing.

For me comfort is also about freedom of movement. I can move how I want in trousers. I don't have to worry about how I sit or them blowing up. I remember one lady's look of panic out dancing "Don't dance near that fan!". I can clamber over railings, up trees, through nettles etc and my legs stay warm in the winter :o)

Similarly for fuss, I don't have to rearrange my trousers when I sit down, I don't have to hitch them up to climb over things etc. Anyway Scotsmen don't shave their legs either way. And trousers have pockets :o)

Mercifully I've never seen the dress-up child / mother thing in tango. Sounds deeply Freudian. Is this for performance or actual social dancing too?

Simba said...

@MsH: Very interesting post, so interesting in fact that I just ordered 'Sex and Suits' from amazon. I have a half-written post about clothing in tango, maybe this will give me what I need to finish it, besides time..

@ghost: I don't know what kind of trousers you wear, but mine are generally not suitable for railings, up trees etc, and I have to mind how I sit, at least with the trousers I use for dancing. ;-) Very delicate fabrics are available. Have you ever seen a lion dancing dressed in jeans, now that would look rather silly, not? A sharp suit on the other hand...

msHedgehog said...

By child and mother I mean two actual people you have probably often seen, both elegantly dressed and dancing well, socially. And by dressed like an adult I mean he wears a proper shirt and trousers. And no, I don't think there's anything odd about it.

ghost said...

@ Simba - ah well I like clambering up trees so I make sure the trousers I buy are up to the task :o)

@ MsH - I think I've misunderstood this
"It does annoy me when men dress as children to dance tango; asking the women to look like their mothers."

I took this to be a performance thing with the guy literally dressed as a "child" and the woman as a "mother" similar to the vid of guy dressing up as a woman to follow (mocking the overuse of adornments).

Sure I know the actual mum / son you mean. I'm always impressed at his dignity, grace and gentleness.

But if you mean actual couples go social dancing with the guy deliberately dressed as a "child" and the woman as a "mother" - that would be fairly freudian.

A possible answer to your origianl question - some languages eg french and german consider inanimate objects to be male or female. Though in a lot of cases I have no clue where they're coming from.

msHedgehog said...

@ghost, you're with me now. With dressed 'as a child' I was continuing an idea towards the end of Anne Hollander's book, forgetting that you had not read it. I won't repeat her argument, though, it's too long. But what I was thinking in context was that the woman looks as though she's made an effort and selected appropriate clothing for the occasion (no matter how misguidedly), whereas the man looks as though he has deliberately refrained from doing so, to a degree bordering on active contempt for the occasion; it gives a strong visual impression, normally but not always unintentional, that he thinks he is still four years old and the centre of the universe. And I thought you had seen the performance I was thinking of, but I was wrong about that too. I remember now that it was a different day.

@simba, it's very well written and interesting. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. I'm not sure if her arguments are entirely justified by the evidence, but they are very illuminating. If you want to quote any of the above - go ahead - just link me.

I am SO going to sleep now.

ghost said...

Aha - and now I finally know what's been bothering me about so many tango performances.

There's a way for men and women to dress for traditional tango, a way for nuevo (although it's often ignored by women) and a way for show. What makes no sense is when a couple are dressed for traditional and then randomly start doing nuevo or show in their performance.

In the cases you mention where the woman is dressed for trad, and the man is dressed for nuevo I'm assuming they proceeded to dance / perform trad?

Simba said...

Finally finished the book and my post on clothes and tango .

@Ms H: Now that I read the book, I am curious about what you don't think is supported by the evidence. I quite enjoyed it, particularly from the part where she writes about the suit and onwards. The Joan of Arc stuff seemed a bit far fetched.

msHedgehog said...

@simba, I feel she's being honest when she says 'these speculations' and although it all sounds very plausible to me, she's not pretending that these ideas come from a survey of all the evidence available. I don't know what's out there. But she has told a good story using at least some of what's out there. And I found it quite illuminating.