Sunday, February 04, 2007

Makeovers, Disguises and Cross-dressing

Here's notification of a call for papers which might be of interest to some of you, and which got me thinking a bit more about fashion in the romance genre:
The focus of the 2007 RMMLA [Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association] panel on "Literature & Fashion" is open regarding genre and period; however, we are specifically interested in papers that explore the "materiality" of clothing in shaping the context of identity and in shaping the practices that continually [trans]form identity--or, adversely, impede its transformation or essentialize it--for either/both wearer and observer.

* performance (in any of its many [dis]guises)
* the process/act of dressing--or of being dressed
* cross-dressing
* how one 'wears' one's gender, class, age, sexuality, etc. and the prejudices this wearing of identity invites
* the relationship between clothing and 'passing' (racial, class, gender, sexual, age, religious, etc.)
* not having the proper clothes, being stripped of one's clothing or unclothed, undressing as an unmasking of identity/ies; clothing as "trappings," being trapped in/by clothes, etc.
Proposals should be submitted by 1 March 2007. More details about the conference are available here, and the full call for papers is here.

I've already blogged about fashion, so I'll not repeat myself on that topic, but there are a lot of romances which feature cross-dressing and disguises and All About Romance has a list of some of them. Makeovers were recently discussed by Mary Jo Putney:
My Regency era books almost always have a makeover scene because I enjoy them so much. [...] It’s said that clothes make the man. This may be even more true of the woman. Since female power has historically been tied up with being attractive and desirable, it’s not surprising that we enjoy makeovers. There is power in beauty. (The dark side of the princess fantasy is that generally the princess is passive, valued for her looks and title rather than any inherent intelligence or competence. [...])
I'm not nearly so keen on makeovers in novels, perhaps because I'm wary of that 'dark side' of this kind of scene, and often I see them as an unfortunate (but necessary) part of the story if the heroine needs new clothes. But there are times when, as Mary Jo Putney says, they function in a positive way, giving the heroine confidence in her own abilities and changing her previously negative view of her own looks and body. One of my favourite transformations resulting from a makeover can be found in Eloisa James' Your Wicked Ways. Eloisa, like Mary Jo Putney, says that 'I adore Cinderella makeovers and have to stop myself from putting a version in every novel'. This book is the fourth novel in the Duchess Quartet which features heroines with a variety of different body shapes (including one with a disability) and each discovers (or has already learned about) her own sensuality and how to dress to enhance her body's beauty. Helene, Countess Godwin, is one of the less voluptously endowed heroines:
Helene plucked at the front of her gown. "Esme, there's nothing here!" She waved her hand in front of Esme's chest. "Just compare you and me." There was no question that Esme won that sweepstakes. [...]
"But gentlemen are not only attracted to large bosoms, you know."
"They like curves. I don't want to get excited about impossibilities. I don't have curves. I can't flirt in that way you have, as if you were - [...] Promising them things. [...]
Esme bit her lip [...] "You'll have to feign desire," she said bluntly. "Because it matters far more to a man that you desire him, than that you have a large chest." (2004: 27)
As Esme points out, it's not just clothes that make the woman attractive, but they can do a great deal to enhance her appearance and raise her self-esteem. Here's a description of Helene in one of her new dresses:
Everyone looked [...] It had a fairly high neck, trim around the neck of a slightly darker color and short sleeves. In all ... unexceptionable. Appropriate for a debutante, really. Except ... except...
Except it was almost transparent.
Where two layers clung together, one could see nothing other than the outline of Helene's body, which was revealed to be slender but not angular. She had curves: her waist curved in, and her breasts curved out. The thin silk of Madame Rocque's gown hugged each of those curves in a way that revealed them to be delicously rounded. (2004 : 46)
Helene is clearly convinced that she needs 'curves' in order to be attractive. The make-over demonstrates that she does, in fact, have 'curves', even though they're not the same as Esme's. I think I'd call this an ugly duckling makeover rather than a 'Cinderella makeover', because the problem isn't that Helene's has dirty clothes and that all she needs is some nicer ones in order to catch a prince. What she needs is a different set of aesthetic criteria by which to judge her body. The ugly duckling has the same problem - as a duckling, everyone thinks he's ugly, but if you think of him as a cygnet, he's beautiful. If you compare this picture of a duckling with this picture of a cygnet, neither is at all ugly, unless you're of the opinion that only blonde chicks are cute.

Another of my favourite makeovers is in Jenny Crusie's Fast Women and here friends swap outfits. On a practical level this reminds us that clothes are expensive but it also suggests that the women have more in common emotionally than might be apparent at first glance: Margie tells Nell "[...] I like trying on this stuff. In the suits, I'm you, and in the sweaters, I'm Suze" (2002 : 140) and then Suze starts wearing Nell's suits and Nell begins to wear Suze's clothes with their bright colours and 'The blue sweater made her hair seem even brighter, and the short skirt showed a lot of her legs, which were terrific' (2002: 148). Nell is sloughing off the greyness of her depression and coming back into life and colour, as well as opening herself emotionally to new sexual relationships. And Suze starts to wear Nell's clothes: 'the grays and grayed-blues [...] made Suze look like a sophisticated and potentially dangerous woman instead of a college kid' (2002: 172). She was a 'college kid' when she met and married her husband, and this new look is one that 'Suze said Jack hated' (2002: 172), perhaps because he wonders if it means she's growing up and away from him.

Mary Jo Putney said that 'female power has historically been tied up with being attractive and desirable', but it's not just heroines who get makeovers: heroes can have them too. In Georgette Heyer's Powder and Patch Philip Jettan is rejected by Cleone Charteris, his childhood playmate, because
However masterful and handsome he might be - and Philip was both - he was distressingly boorish in many ways. [...] Philip's speech was direct and purposeful, and his compliments were never neat. His clothes also left much to be desired. Cleone had an eye for colour and style; she liked her cavaliers to be à la mode. Sir Matthew Trelawney, for instance, had affected the most wonderful stockings, clocked with butterflies; Frederick King wore so excellently fitting a coat that, it was said, he required three men to ease him into it. Philip's coat was made for comfort; he would have scorned the stockings of Matthew Trelawney. He even refused to buy a wig, but wore his own brown hair brushed back from his face and tied loosely at his neck with a piece of black ribbon. No powder, no curls, unpolished nails, and an unpainted face - guiltless, too, of even the smallest patch - it was, thought Cleone, enough to make one weep. (1965: 17)
Six months later, after his transformation has taken place, 'Scalding tears dropped on to Cleone's pillow [...]. Philip had returned, indifferent, blasé, even scornful! Philip who had once loved her so dearly, Philip who had once been so strong and masterful, was now a dainty, affected Court gallant' (1965: 99). I have the impression that Heyer much preferred Regency fashions for men.

Philip's clothing after his transformation is, in a sense, a disguise, because underneath the paint, powder, satins, silks, lace and jewels, he is much the same man he ever was. Heyer also wrote other novels which feature disguises. One of these is The Masqueraders (synopsis here and extract here) in which Prudence, the heroine, is disguised as a man, while her brother Robin, the secondary hero, is disguised as a woman. It's not a role which is new to her, however:
Ludicrous to think of security with Mr Colney for sire. She reflected ruefully that her father was somewhat of a rogue; disreputable even. A gaming house in Frankfort, forsooth! She had a smile for that memory. Hand to mouth days, those, with herself in boy's clothes, as now. The old gentleman had judged it wisest, and when one remembered some of those who came to the gaming house one had to admit he had reason. A dice box in one pocket, and a pistol in the other, though! Proper training for a girl just coming out of her teens! (1971 : 36)
It is this background of long years spent learning the necessary skills for her to 'pass' as a man which make the disguise credible. Her brother Robin's is even better. His disguise also consists of far more than a change of clothing: 'You're incomparable,' Prudence said frankly. 'You've even more female graces than ever I could lay claim to, even in my rightful petticoats.' (1971: 41), 'She had coached him to the best of her ability [...] His curtsys were masterpieces of grace; the air with which he held out a hand to young gallants so consummate a piece of artistry that Prudence was shaken with silent laughter. He seemed to know by instinct how to flirt his fan, and how to spread his wide skirts for the curtsy (1971: 43).

I'd like to take a very quick look at the convention of the cross-dressing heroine (and the occasional hero) in the romance genre in the light of Sarah's discussion of cross-gender reincarnation in Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou. Sarah commented that 'all romance heroes, are, of course, created by women. They're "reincarnations" of women in the image of what we wish men could be'. So we have women writing men who may represent 'what we wish men could be' and/or, who may, as Laura Kinsale has suggested, represent aspects of the female reader:
What does it mean to a woman to feel - to want keenly to feel - what the male character feels as she reads?
I think that, as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace (adjectives very commonly applied to heroes, including my own), can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (1992: 37)
Linda Barlow similarly argues that
I see them [romance novels] as psychological maps which provide intriguing insights into the emotional landscape of women. The various elements contained in them function as internal archetypes within the feminine psyche. This includes the hero, whom I see not as the masculine object of feminine consciousness but as a significant aspect of feminine consciousness itself. (1992: 46)
I suspect it's more of an 'and' than an 'or' situation, with different readers responding to heroes in different ways. For some readers the hero may be the ideal or fantasy man, for others, the romance may represent a way for her to explore sides of her personality that she normally conceals or suppresses. Either way, there's gender-bending going on, and the whole situation has the chorus of Blur's 'Boys and Girls' playing in my head.

Eric suggested that perhaps 'paranormal romance lends itself to allegorical reading, or at least metafictional reading. That is, [...] the "paranormal" part of the world correspond[s] in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself'. I think the same may be true of romances featuring cross-dressing heroines and heroes. Cross-dressing by romance heroines can perhaps be read metafictonally as a device which corresponds to the reader's experience of 'becoming' a man. If one is reading these romances in a pragmatic, literal frame of mind however then, as Anne Marble observes,
Most cross-dressing pants already have to work hard to convince the reader. First, we're supposed to believe that no one can see through her disguise, or that only the hero can see through it. Then, you have the problems of everything from an unbelievable disguise to practicalities such as "What if she has to pee?!" (At the Back Fence, 1 May 2005)
She also quotes Lynn Spencer's comments on another aspect of romances featuring a cross-dressing heroine: 'in many of them, the heroine is seen as bright and capable while in disguise, but as soon as her gender is revealed, she must become a swooning idiot in need of the hero's protection'. This certainly suggests that the heroine is not simply putting on clothes, but also a whole gender identity, and that gender roles can be assumed and discarded as easily as the clothes. Even on a non-metafictional level, cross-dressing heroines and heroes may challenge the assumption that femininity and femaleness are inextricably linked, just as they sometimes question constructs of masculinity.
  • Barlow, Linda, 1992. 'The Androgynous Writer: Another View of Point of View', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 45-52.
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2002. Fast Women (New York: St. Martin's Press).
  • Heyer, Georgette, 1965. Powder and Patch (London: Pan Books).
  • Heyer, Georgette, 1971. The Masqueraders (London: Pan Books).
  • Kinsale, Laura, 1992. 'The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 31-44.
  • James, Eloisa, 2004. Your Wicked Ways (New York: Avon).

No comments:

Post a Comment