Continuing Under Cover, with A Secret History Of Cross-Dress[ing]

Mon. 18 June 2018

Cross dressing remains the theme of this News item as I follow up my previous article on the exhibition Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers, which concluded its more than three-month run at The Photographers’ Gallery in London on Sunday 3 June.

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition; it was both fascinating and educational, and the curators were well aware of the historical and contemporary importance of the photographic collection on exhibit and its role in offering a “context for today’s Trans community and look[ing] towards a world where personal choice is celebrated”. I can only applaud everything this exhibition displayed, conveyed and stood for.

Now, I would strongly recommend that you – if you haven’t already – begin by reading my previous News article Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers, an exhibition. It will better prepare you for the greater detail following here.

Briefly, French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz has, over very many years, collected photographs of cross-dressing men and women wherever he could find them – flea markets, garage sales, junk shops, ebay, etc. – at first casually and then seriously. The photographs of the collection date mostly from the 1880s to the 1960s; the subjects (or “sitters”) are mostly anonymous, their lives lost in time. Today, his collection is historically significant and of international importance, and that’s why it was a featured exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery.

Most of the photos were single-shot portraits and self-portraits, some in situ in groups, some posed in solitude with only a blank house wall or the interior of a photo booth as a backdrop. But some of the sitters posed in a series, acting out a transformation from one gender to another either by “documenting” their discarding of their regular clothes for those of the other gender, or by progressively adopting the – usually exaggerated – body language and mannerisms of the other gender. Or sometimes both.

The exhibition was divided into sections dealing with a different manifestation of cross dressing, as determined (or suggested) by the context of the individual photograph. A great deal of research obviously went into the historical background surrounding each image; and, considering most of the photos are both anonymous and “found” by Lifshitz, this would have been no small task and in many cases were, I expect, approximated. Each section was introduced with a text explaining as closely as possible the social or cultural setting and circumstances of the photographs grouped within it. As one section text read, “The motivations for the sitters’ cross-dressing is of course uncertain”. This same section’s introductory text was particularly thought-provoking; it continued with:

“Wearing clothing that society associates with ones ‘opposite’ gender is not always related to sexuality. The men in these pictures may well have been heterosexual, or fetishists. What is certain is that these subjects are enacting a transgression against the established norms of the time. With the emergence in the 19th century of increasingly binary concepts of gender, a higher societal value was placed on masculinity. With this, men stopped wearing the flamboyant outfits of 17th and 18th centuries which included shimmering silks, ribbons, ruffles and bows and a significant separation between genders was drawn.”

Not all the photos were of cross-dressing men, however: there were whole sections devoted to female cross dressing. I took photos of a number of these examples and have included them here with this News article. Most of the female cross dressers were American, mostly college students around the turn of the 19th–20th centuries, and mostly associated with mock weddings and reliving semi-sanctioned nights out dressed in masculine attire. Intriguing; one learns something new all the time!

Another section was devoted to Bambi – the stage name of French-Algerian Marie-Pierre Pruvot (b. 1935) – presented as “France’s most celebrated transsexual woman”. Pruvot’s story is quite something, her struggle and journey from Jean-Pierre to Marie-Pierre including the taking of over-the-counter hormones as a cabaret performer in Paris and a significant operation in Casablanca in the 1950s. Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers was curated by Sébastien Lifshitz in collaboration with the senior curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuaid. Exhibition texts were by the curators, with Christine Bard and Isabelle Bonnet contributing. Visit the exhibition’s page on The Photographers’ Gallery website: Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers.

Finally, I thought it was an appropriate touch on the part of the gallery regarding its toilet-door signs.

Mistress Geo

Cabaret performers.

Now for the women.

Transformation in action (detail below in four “panels”).