What is Cross-Dressing? - Definition & Psychology

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

The practice of wearing the clothing of another gender figures largely in many media, literary, and popular cultural sources. In this lesson we will explore cross-dressing, including its definition, how the practice is viewed differently in Eastern and Western cultures, and the psychology behind it.

Classic Example of Cross-Dressing

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is one of a variety of films that contain cross-dressing as a strong thematic element. It continues to have a following, years after its production, making the film a cult classic. This kind of film, however, often fails to spell out the facts of the matter when it comes to cross-dressing. In this lesson, we're going to discuss what cross-dressing is and what it isn't.

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  • 2:02 Types of Cross-Dressing
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Definition of Cross-Dressing

Simply put, cross-dressing is the name for the act of a person wearing clothing meant for a different gender. Another term for cross-dressing is transvestitism. Someone who engages in transvestitism is called a transvestite. However, the term transvestite is considered a slur word within some communities. There is a proper way to use both terms in a clinical context, and this is the context in which transvestite is used in the rest of this lesson.

Notice that the stress here is on the way a person dresses, rather than his or her sexual preferences or gender identity. Cross-dressing individuals may be homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual. Though wearing the clothing of a different sex is part of the behavior of many transgender individuals, it is not necessarily the same as cross-dressing. Transgender describes people who feel that their gender identity is different from their biological sex. When transgender people dress according to their gender identity, it is not necessarily the same as cross-dressing. Some of these factors certainly may overlap and not all sources will agree with the specifics used here.

The clothing included in cross-dressing can technically be anything, but generally involves gender signifiers. These signifiers, such as the color pink, dresses, or revealing clothing are linked strongly in people's minds with their use by one particular gender. Most signifiers in Western culture are female in nature; male clothing is often considered gender-neutral. Because of this, the most visible cross-dressers are male.

Types of Cross-Dressing

If cross-dressers are not gay or transgender, why do they dress as they do? Well, there are a number of reasons, and, for this lesson, we will focus on three of them. The first reason someone may cross-dress is linked to an individual's culture. Not every culture has a distinct line between the two Western genders. Some cultures, like Eastern Indian culture, recognize more than two genders. In India and nearby countries, the Hijra are typically men transitioning into a third gender, neither male nor female. Generally, Hijra form their own communities and have been legally recognized as a third gender in several parts of the East. Further examples of cultural cross-dressing include some Native American cultures that feature men dressing as women for particular rituals and dances.

Some individuals also cross-dress as part of a type of performance art called drag. What differentiates drag from other forms of cross-dressing is that the dressing is part of a show. The performance aspect of this form of cross-dressing involves a variety of different categories of dress, from the casual to the outlandish. A major type of drag is the performance of the drag king or drag queen. A drag king is generally a female who dresses as a male, while a drag queen is a male who dresses as a female. Both king and queen are expected to play their roles in an exaggerated and sexualized manner as part of the performance. Some drag queens prefer the term female impersonator, especially if they impersonate celebrities as part of their performance.

The third major reason a person may choose to cross-dress is because he or she expects to pass as a member of a different gender. Passing is essentially the practice of changing the appearance of one's gender in order to go places one's actual gender is not allowed or expected. The most familiar version of this practice has found its way into stories as that of a woman dressing as a man in order to enter military service, like in the myth and Disney film of Hua Mulan. This practice has been woven into a variety of stories and myths over the years. Notable in history are the charges made against Joan of Arc, one of which included dressing like a man.

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