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Cross-dressing is the act of wearing clothing commonly associated with another gender within a particular society. 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.


Nearly every society throughout history has had a set of norms, views, guidelines, or laws, regarding the wearing of clothing and what is appropriate for each sex. Cross-dressing is behaviour which runs counter to those norms and therefore can be seen as a type of transgender behaviour. It is not, however, necessarily transgender identity since a person who cross-dresses does not always identify with the other sex.

The term cross-dressing denotes an action or a behaviour without attributing or proposing causes for that behaviour. Some people automatically connect cross-dressing behaviour to transgender identity or sexual, fetishist, and homosexual behaviour, but the term cross-dressing itself does not imply any motives. (See “Equal clothing rights” below.) However, referring to a person as a cross-dresser suggests that their cross-dressing behaviour is habitual and may be taken to mean that the person identifies as transgender.

The term cross-dresser should therefore be used with care to avoid causing misunderstanding or offence. A new meaning for the term “cross-dressing” has appeared in the African-American community, where it is used to refer to wearing two different name brands of clothing simultaneously. For example, a Tommy Hilfiger hat and FUBU jacket might be referred to as “cross dressing.” This use of the term is exclusively negative. While far removed from the original meaning, this usage is increasingly common in African-American culture and can lead to confusion among those used to more traditional meanings of the term.

Varieties of cross-dressing

There are many different kinds of cross-dressing, and many different reasons why an individual might engage in cross-dressing behaviour. The following examples are by no means an exhaustive list.

Some people cross-dress as a matter of comfort or style. They have a preference towards clothing which is only marketed to or associated with the opposite sex. In this case, a person’s cross-dressing may or may not be visible to other people.

Some people cross-dress in order to shock others or challenge social norms. Both men and women may cross-dress in order to disguise their true identity. Historically, some women have cross-dressed in order to take up male-dominated or male-exclusive professions, such as military service.

Conversely, some men have cross-dressed in order to escape from mandatory military service. Single-sex theatrical troupes often have some performers cross-dress in order to play roles written for members of the opposite sex.

Cross-dressing is often used for comic effect onstage and onscreen. Drag is special form of performance art based on cross-dressing. A drag queen is a male-bodied person who performs as an exaggeratedly feminine character, in an elaborate costume usually consisting of a gaudy dress and high-heeled shoes, heavy makeup, and a large wig. A drag queen may imitate famous female film or pop-music stars. A drag king is the counterpart of the drag queen — a female-bodied person who adopts an exaggerated masculine persona in performance or who imitates a male film or pop-music star.

Some female-bodied people undergoing gender reassignment therapy also self-identify as drag kings, although this use of “drag king” is considered inaccurate by some. Many transgender people cross-dress relative to their birth sex prior to transition.

A transvestic fetishist is a person (typically a heterosexual male) who cross-dresses as part of a sexual fetish. The term underdressing is used by male cross-dressers to describe wearing female undergarments under their male clothes. Some people who cross-dress may endeavour to project a complete impression of belonging to another gender, down to mannerisms, speech patterns, and emulation of sexual characteristics. This is referred to as “trying to pass”.

Others may choose to take a mixed approach, adopting some feminine traits and some masculine traits in their appearance. For instance, a man might wear both a dress and a beard. This is sometimes known as genderfuck.

Finally, for some the motivation for cross-dressing is to undermine the idea that any article of clothing is “only for men” or “only for women.” These people may broadly mix clothing from both genders, in a practice called freestyle.


The actual determination of cross-dressing is largely socially constructed. For example, in Western society, trousers have been adopted for wear by women. This is generally not regarded as cross-dressing. 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 for men.

As societies are becoming more global in nature, both men and women are adopting styles of dress associated with other cultures. Surfers in California have begun wearing sarongs and pareos as an after-surfing wrap, and men throughout the U.S., including those involved in construction and outdoor sports, such as kayaking or hiking, have begun wearing skirts and kilts, such as the Macabi Skirt, the Utilikilt, and other hiking kilts.

“Equal Clothing Rights”

It was once taboo in Western society for women to wear clothes traditionally associated with men. It is specifically cited as an “abomination” in the Bible in the book of Deuteronomy (22:5). This is no longer the case and Western women are often seen wearing trousers, ties, and men’s hats. Nevertheless, many cultures around the world still prohibit women from wearing trousers or other traditionally male clothing.

In most parts of the world it is still generally considered taboo for a man to wear clothes traditionally associated with women. Many people perceive this as hypocrisy and 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 dresses or skirts. This issue is often labeled as “equal clothing rights,” which has gained a significant movement around the world.

In fact, some men who wear skirts or similar garments contend that they are simply wearing masculine clothes that currently aren’t in fashion; they may call themselves “bravehearts” after the 1995 film Braveheart, which depicted a leading man in a kilt.[1]

Another element of equal clothing rights is resistance to one’s own traditional gender-mandated clothing. For instance, men may resist wearing neckties or women resist wearing skirts as part of a workplace uniform.


Female-bodied cross-dressers

The behaviour of women in general has historically often received less attention than that of men, and cross-dressing is no exception. However, there are some famous examples of cross-dressing female-bodied persons in history (see Famous historical examples of cross-dressing people, below).

Cross-dressing among women in modern Western societies seems to be rare. Yet the question of how many people cross-dress is difficult to answer, as it depends on social norms that change over time. When only a few women in the West wore trousers, women in trousers were considered to be cross-dressing.

As more women began to wear trousers, the style gained mainstream social acceptance. Trousers are now no longer considered for men only. This broadening of clothing types considered “normal” for women has made cross-dressing behavior in women more difficult to identify. A woman might wear men’s shirts, trousers, and underwear without anyone recognizing that she is cross-dressing, as very similar clothing items are produced for women.

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 attachment to cross-dressing. According to this theory, as articles become acceptable for ordinary wear (e.g. a man’s necktie on a woman, which passed from taboo to fashion in the 1970s) they will cease to be sought by cross-dressers.

The problem of attributing motives for cross-dressing

When speaking of historical figures, when cross-dressing is not clearly related to specific events (like an escape or disguise) it is usually impossible to state clearly what the motives for cross-dressing were. This information was rarely recorded or preserved.

Documents on the subject are often either court records (where the cross-dressing person may have said whatever they thought would minimise their punishment) or accounts by other people who might not understand the motivations correctly.

Furthermore, historic figures were often unable to identify themselves as homosexual, transgender, transsexual, or transvestite because these classifications simply had no names or social recognition in their era.

It can be equally difficult to be certain of the motives of modern day people who cross-dress. The only real proof of motive is that person’s own statement. Yet even this is not always certain, as there are examples of people attributing their cross-dressing behaviour to one motive only to later realise that they may have had another reason.

The classical example of this would be a transsexual person who initially attributed cross-dressing behaviour to transvestic fetishism (for trans women) or the utilitarian practicality of male clothing (for trans men).

Some famous examples of cross-dressing

In Greek mythology

  • Achilles, dressed in women’s clothing at the court of Lycomedes

In Norse mythology

  • Thor dressed as Freya in order to get Mjölnir back in Thrymskvida.
  • Hagbard in the Scandinavian legend of Hagbard and Signy (the Romeo and Juliet of the Vikings). After having slain Signy’s brothers and suitors, Hagbard was no longer welcome in the hall of Signy’s father Sigar. Hagbard then dressed up as one of his brother Haki’s shieldmaidens in order to have access to the chambers of his beloved. When the handmaidens washed his legs, they asked him why they were so furry and why his hands were so callous. Because of this, he invented a clever verse to explain his strange appearance. Signy, however, who understood that it was Hagbard who had come to see her, explained to the maidens that his verse was truthful. Hagbard was, however, deceived by the handmaidens and he was arrested by Sigar’s warriors. Hagbard was hanged and Signy committed suicide as Hagbard watched from the gallows.
  • Hervor from Hervarar saga. When Hervor learnt that her father had been the infamous Swedish beserker Arngrim, she dressed as a man, called herself Hjörvard and lived for a long time as a Viking.

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 peasant girl who joined French armies against English forces fighting in France during the latter part of the Hundred Years’ War. She is a French national heroine and a Catholic saint. After being captured by the English, she was burned at the stake upon being convicted by a religious court, with the act of dressing in male clothing being cited as one of the principal reasons for her execution. A number of witnesses, however, testified that she had said she wore male clothing (consisting of two layers of pants attached to the doublet with twenty fasteners) because she feared the guards would rape her at night.[2]
  • Pope Paul II, Catholic pope known to have worn women’s clothes and was nicknamed “Our Lady of Pity”
  • 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.
  • Rrose Sélavy, the feminine alter-ego of the late French artist, Marcel Duchamp, remains one of the most complex and pervasive pieces in the enigmatic puzzle of the artist’s oeuvre. She first emerged in portraits made by the photographer Man Ray in New York in the early 1920s, when Duchamp and Man Ray were collaborating on a number of conceptual photographic works. Rrose Sélavy lived on as the person to whom Duchamp attributed specific works of art, Readymades, puns, and writings throughout his career. By creating for himself this female persona whose attributes are beauty and eroticism, he deliberately and characteristically complicated the understanding of his ideas and motives.
  • Billy Tipton was a notable jazz pianist and saxophonist in the United States during the Great Depression. He was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in 1914, but began living as a man in the 1930s. He was married five times to women, and adopted three boys. He led a full career as a musician and, in later life, as an entertainment agent. Other than his birth family, no one knew of his birth sex or cross-living until after his death in 1989.
  • Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax was a lead singer in several important gospel quartets, most famously the Spirit of Memphis Quartet. When he died in 1994, it was discovered that he was female bodied.
  • Because female enlistment was barred, many women fought for both the Union and the Confederacy during the American Civil War while dressed as men.
  • Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, colonial governor of New York and New Jersey in the early 1700s is reported to have enjoyed going out wearing his wife’s clothing, but this is disputed. [3]
  • The Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, and the Disney movie Mulan derived from it, feature a cross-dressing heroine.
  • The Roman Emperor Elagabalus often dressed in women’s clothes; and was often referred to as a “queen”.

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.


The explosion of the Internet and the World Wide Web has provided new opportunities for cross-dressing people to express themselves. Numerous websites cater to cross-dressing men by providing dresses, shoes, and other feminine accessories in larger men’s sizes. In addition, the Internet has given many cross-dressers a safe forum for sharing photos and stories


Bugs Bunny occasionally engages in cross-dressing, usually to confound a foe. His transformation is typically so effective that his adversaries (especially one Elmer Fudd), who moments earlier had been trying to kill him, are smitten by his “feminine charm.”

The film Revolutionary Girl Utena (also known as 少女革命ウテナ Shōjo Kakumei Utena) is perhaps one of the best-known examples of Japanese animation involving cross-dressing. The female protagonist, Utena Tenjou, cross-dresses as a result of her desire to be a heroic prince.


In the Japanese comic book series Urusei Yatsura (1978-1987) created by Rumiko Takahashi and published by Shogakukan, a girl character named Rynosuke wears a white shirt with the Chinese ideogram for “male” on the back of her shirt along with pants, along with other male attire as part of her father’s misguided insistence that his child is a male.

More recently, in the Japanese action comic Gunslinger Girl (2003), published in the United States by ADV, one girl character brainwashed to be an assassin, takes pleasure in wearing a men’s style suit and tie.


David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly focuses on a love affair between a French diplomat and a male Beijing opera singer who plays dan (旦), or female, roles. The Takarazuka Revue is a group of six associated all-female Japanese acting troupes, known for their elaborate productions of stage musicals.

Takarazuka actresses may specialize in either male or female roles, but the most popular stars tend to be those who play male characters. Beethovens’ only opera, Fidelio, involves the story of a woman who disguises herself as a young man as part of a plan to rescue her husband from prison.


  • 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.
  • Peggy J. Rudd, Crossdressing With Dignity: The Case For Transcending Gender Lines, PM Publishers, Inc., 1999. ISBN 0962676268.
  • Charles Anders, The Lazy Crossdresser, Greenery Press, 2002. ISBN 1890159379.

External links

Adapted for T-Vox from pages on Wikipedia by Jennifer Kirk.