Cross dressing is underrated in my humble opinion. I have secretly harboured this thought for some time only indulging it on occasions. Quite why one feels a slightly superior sense of power when sporting a collar and tie under a three piece trouser suit I don’t know. It could be a masculine thing I suppose but to quote (or paraphrase) Marilyn Monroe ‘I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it’. My lifelong love of the French writer Collette is encapsulated in the photograph above. Cross dressing seemed to be especially iconic in the era Collette occupied. A wit tinged with a menace rooted in a little understood ambivalence underpins the image. The visual artist Gluck and writer Vita Sackville-West command equal attention in this regard.
When I got my first serious management position as Planning Director at the Arts Council of Wales my parents paid for me to go to a tailor in London to have a handmade suit. Mum had seen the tailor in Good Housekeeping in the Look for a Lifestyle make over feature – looking back it was an early take on Trinny and Susannah and more recently Gok. I remember trawling to and from London for what seemed to be months on end before the suit was finally ready.
The three piece ensemble in silver grey herringbone tweed was perfect in many ways. It fitted every bit of my body as one would have expected for £1200 but I never quite understood why the high waisted trousers had to been elasticated. Surely this defeated the object of having something made for my unique measurements? I occasionally buy items from Wall an expensive boutique in London and often the skirts are similarly crafted which I confess tends to direct them to the Post Office rather than my wardrobe!
The main problems with my suit were weight and heat; it was one heavy mother to wear and it required temperatures rather below the ones encountered in the average public sector office. Never having been a fan on dark damp shadows beneath my arms meant it wasn’t the first thing I reached for when seeking to impress colleagues. So sadly the suit didn’t see the light of day very often. It was an investment piece for sure but one which I, (or rather my parents), didn’t see a great deal of return from!
It did however look fantastic with a crisp white collar and tie especially with teamed with black leather boots and gloves. The power tends to be weakened by the carrying of a handbag and I do wonder how to successfully cross dress without carrying a briefcase. Over the intervening decade I have lost a considerable amount of weight to the extent I couldn’t convincingly wear the suit at all. A shameful waste!
How to redeem myself I wondered for months even taking the outfit to a tailor to see if it could be taken in but to no avail. The jacket alone required so much reshaping it would have to be practically remade. I pondered other options running through my contacts to see who might be a suitable recipient. I courted with the idea of e Bay but somehow none of these ideas seemed quite right. The problem was the suit had been made for me specifically, for a ‘me’ who no longer existed physically (and emotionally). My parents had invested in an embryonic young woman, with potential to fulfil, at a time when the right armour would (or could) make all the difference. The suit represented a time and a place, a person and a persona all whose time had passed. The suit’s potential had not yet been fulfilled; my mission was to find a way for it to complete its journey.
Heavens I can hear you say ‘it’s only a bunch of tweed lady!’ No no no I vehemently respond! You simply don’t understand. And then it came to me one day as I was going through my wardrobe. I came across a tunic/dress that I had loved when larger and now looked ridiculous on me. Image a puppet without strings, a marionette so floppy that it seems to be drowning in fabric where the neck is laid bare as the dress droops and you get the picture! Add in a pair of crutches and the image is complete i.e. completely wrong!
I have to say there is a HUGE irony in all this. At a time when I was desperate to be thinner and fit into conventional high street fashions I swathed myself in Evans and Ann Harvey. I shudder at the peach outfit I wore to a friend’s wedding – one of those ‘do’s’ where photos were taken with glee and put in albums! All I can see is the unfortunate relaxed white contrasting revered collar that slipped to reveal my (then) fulsome cleavage to best advantage!
In summary I washed and ironed the tunic/dress and parcelled it up. The recipient was a friend’s daughter with whom I had worked recently. I sound dreadfully maternal when I say she has grown into a beautiful young woman; stunning to look at and developing her own unique style as a photographer. She has a great way with couture with a real knack of creating her own look. But I didn’t know how she would feel about ‘hand-me-downs’ so sending the parcel necessitated an accompanying missive of the Contemporary Spinster kind. Not everyone comes from the Kirsty Allsop school of ‘make do and mend’ especially as this young woman is an only child so would never have had to wear an older siblings cast offs.
Thankfully she loved the gift texting me immediately to say she was wearing it. Relief does not go anywhere near how receiving this response made me feel. I invited her to come over and peruse the stylish overflow adorning the spare bedroom waiting to be rehomed. Hurrah the suit would be PERFECT on her; I could see her standing confidently with the jacket sleeves pushed up, a crisp white shirt with the collar standing up! I was disproportionately excited as only a pretend big sister can be.
Last Friday she came round and tried on coats, jackets, tops, trousers and the suit plus a couple of pairs of shoes and boots. I felt like a proud mother when she put on the suit; it was absolutely perfect – I nearly had to reach for a hankie! OK the trousers will need to be taken up and my only proviso was that she took them to a tailor to have the job done professionally. This request was after her trying on a Swedish silk linen mix outfit I had bought for my father’s 80th birthday and saying would I mind if she slept in it!
No I said once the ownership is transferred my relationship with the items is SO OVER! I confess she might find the silk linen ensemble a tad uncomfortable to sleep in but that is entirely her own affair. The sense of warmth and love I feel for this young woman at the beginning of her professional life is overwhelming.
Earlier we had shared coffee and cake whilst she showed me the project she was working on using images from the Magdalena Festival she had worked on over the summer. The exhibition is going to be a beautiful testament to and representation of her creative talent. Believe me in my line of work I see a lot of portfolios and seldom do the contents last beyond the duration of the encounter; this young woman has potential and now the investment made in me has been made in her.
Who knows where the suit will take her or where it will go next. I will watch and wait peeping in on her every now and then eagerly awaiting the tentative steps she will take. Possibly even wearing the black patent Mary Jane shoes I persuaded her to take too!