Abridged text in grey italics, comments in black. Click to enlarge page to read it in full.
What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear
By Liza Cowan
When I was co-editing COWRIE I wrote a series called, “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.” The quotations her are taken from that series.
“Women have been forced to dress as objects since the invention of patriarchy. Do you object to my saying that women are forced to wear certain clothing? I know some women will say that no one Is forced to wear anything. If women go along with these social/fashion customs, there are just stupid. But this is not true. If you don’t dress the way you are supposed to, you are a social outcast. If you function in mainstream culture you may be fired from your job, kicked out of school, ridiculed by our ‘peers’ and family. It takes great courage to defy your class and sex taboos.” (February 1974)
Sometimes I forget how different we’re looking these days. My eye has become so accustomed to our short cropped hair, baggy work trousers, vests, boots ad our direct stares. The other day Alix and I went up to town to pick up Adrian at school. It was the first time we had been there since school opened. Adrian usually comes and goes on the school bus. Her class wasn’t quite finished when we arrived, so we hung out in the hall. Several classes were on their way to the cafeteria, and every kid in that hall stared at us as if we had three eyes, and they were not merely curious. Lots of them were hostile, especially the little boys.
Ordinarily we would have let the boys know that it was past due time for them to be castrated. Especially me. I hate little boys and I love to make scenes. However, we were in Adrian’s school. She’s five years old and has no choice about where to live or go to school. We know how heavy the other children in that rural public school could make it for her. At least in the city there are bound to be other children whose parents are weird, but here in the country everyone is pretty much the same except for the Lesbians, and Adrian is the only child in our Dyke community. Clearly nobody in that school had ever seen the likes of us, two stompin’ Dykes, trained in the streets of New York City. So we had to act like “Mommie and Aunt Liza” (or whoever I was saying I was that day.) We were wearing the wrong costumes to play that part. It’s way past time when we might want to pass at Adrian’s school. We’d never be able to pull it off, anyway. The last time we put on Ladies clothes Alix looked like Jan Morris. I guess our solution at school is to keep a low profile and hope for the best.
The following is commentary by Liza Cowan, written for this archive in 2011
Thirty five years later, I'm amazed by how much has changed yet so much has stayed the same.
When I wrote these essays in the mid seventies, I didn't have the vocabulary to write cultural theory about clothing. I hadn't been to college yet, but more than that, cultural studies didn't really enter the academy until the late seventies. The idea of reading clothing as text was barely developed, and an interest in clothing was considered feminine i.e. devalued. It's no wonder that my theory was simultaneously rudimentary and passionate. That said, I'm proud that my colleagues and I understood that examining clothing in the context of power was a worthy endeavor. We believed the feminist credo: the personal is political. Our readers, for the most part, found our interest in clothing superficial, classist and apolitical.
From Our Right To Love, Ginny Vida, Ed. 1978
"This visually enticing quarterly magazine abuses valuable news space by filling it with trite meanderings on such superficial subjects as dyke fashions and interior decorating. Lacking political analysis(even of dyke separatism) or the talents to express the written word, DYKE, fortunately still a baby in the lesbian publishing world, unfortuneately displays the temperment of a spoiled brat"
These days there are some excellent blogs about clothing and theory. For example, see Worn Out, a scholarly and beautiful blog. Universities offer cross disciplinary classes and conferences on the politics of fashion. We wer just ahead of our time.
Daily Life Of a little Dyke family in rural New York circa 1975
Alix Dobkin, her daughter, Adrian, and I were living on a farm in the tiny hamlet of Preston Hollow, Schoharie County, New York. Partly back-to-the-land, partly Lesbian Separatist, we had moved there from New York City in 1974 with another Lesbian couple. There were a few other Lesbians who lived somewhat nearby. Penny lived there in the summers. We were the only Dykes with a child. We were the only Jews. None of our neighbors were even divorced. We were in a new territory without much of a map. We were terrified that our neighbors would be vicious. The first time it snowed I cried. We had never lived outside of New York City.
We did try to be good neighbors; we kept our place tidy, waved to folks on the road and chatted with people at the hamlet's one market and post office. It turned out that the neighbors liked us well enough. They thought we were strange, but likable. They cared less that we were Lesbians, and more that we kept our property tidy and we were friendly, so word got out that we were OK. Or OK enough for them to be neighborly. We were Lesbians, but we were their Lesbians. Some became friends.
At age five, Alix's daughter Adrian was in kindergarten. Maybe first grade. She took the bus from Preston Hollow to Middleburg every day. It was a 45 minute ride. None of the other parents knew usexcept by town gossip. Sociable by nature, Adrian nevertheless only made friends with a few of the children who lived down the road.
Adrian remembers that her teachers singled her out to be mean to, and the other children, but for a few, were not allowd to play with her. But it wasn't only the rural parents - the ones from the city could be just as bad. It was, in fact, a city friend's mom who was the most homophobic and vile to little Adrian, who came home one after one weekend in the city with her Dad, crying, "Andrea's mom says we can't play anymore because you are hobos."
"Hobos. Andrea's mom says you're hobos and I can't play with Andrea?"
"Do you know what a Hobo is?
"No, but she thinks you're bad."
It took us a few minutes but we figured out that we were homos. Homos. We explained to Adrian that homo was a word for same sex couples like us. And that Andrea's mom was an idiot. But our theories and explanations didn't make Adrian's life any easier for her. She longed to be treated as if she were normal. Her moms were happliy not normal. All The choices were fraught with consequences.
In a year or so Adrian moved to New York city with her dad, then subesequently they moved to Woodstock, NY an hour's drive south of us, soon followed by Alix, then by me. We had separated as a family, but only in the traditional heteronormative sense. In the Lesbian sense we remained very much an enlarged and engaged family. And Woodstock was full of weirdos: artists, hippies, musicians...so being a Hobo wasn't such a big deal.
Adrian grew up into a wonderful woman: smart, talented, kind, beautiful. She has a terrific family; a husband, three gorgeous kids, doting Grandmas Alix and Nancy down the road, and a bevy of faithful long - term friends. She's the best.
The comment about little boys: I was being dramatic. I hated how boys were raised with the assumption of gender power and it showed all over their bodies, their posture, their clothing, their play. Castration? We lived in farm country, and it was an easy metaphor. It was a castration of the Phallus=symbolic in the Lacanian, theoretical sense, not the actual body. Castration in fact? No. Of course not. I was angry - not delusional.
This following is abridged text from the orginal article
“Why are women forced to dress certain ways? Because our clothes help keep us oppressed. At (a) transvestism panel a woman said that male transvestites made her very angry; she hated the way they minced and pranced and imitated all the superficial women stereotypes. It occurred to me while she was saying this that the male tvs act like that partially because they are wearing those closes. It is the function of ‘feminine’ clothes to make a woman a dependent, helpless, silly, decorative object. (February 1974)
The time Alix looked like Jan Morris was when she, Penny and I were getting into lady drag for a part in my slide show, “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear” that I was preparing for the Lesbian Herstory Exploration. It was last March. The point of these pictures was to show how absurd we would look in drag, and how absurd straight women really look. (Later I decided not to use the whole drag series) We were supposed to dress subtly and tastefully, the way a chic working woman might look on an informal occasion. None of us really knew how this lady would dress, but we tried. I wore a navy wool midi skirt, red tights, brown shoes (aaugh!) a flowered blouse, rings, choke necklace and eye makeup. Alix wore a knit mini skirt, brown tights, light blue turtleneck skirt, red shawl, clogs and makeup. Penny had been out less than a year, and had not yet acquired her true Dyke look. Alix looked like that pretend woman.
When I tried to set up the tripod I discovered that one leg kept collapsing. I too it inside to fix it, and it was as if I had suddenly become another woman! I couldn’t get my balance kneeling. I had trouble using the screwdriver, my eyes wouldn’t focus properly. I had to take off the skirt and high heels before I could fix the tripod.
The following is commentary by Liza Cowan for this archive, September 2010
Good for me for recognizing that women in women's clothing is drag. At the time I wanted to make a poster like this:
I never made it. Louis XIV was powerful enough in his tights, robes and wigs and beribboned shoes. But these were symbols of power, not powerlessness, so perhaps it is the transfer of power from symbol rather than cloth that makes the difference.
Here's some more from the original article I excerpted in the DYKE article. Written by LIza Cowan, published in Cowrie Magazine, Vo. 1 no. 5, February 1974. Liza Cowan and Carole Hardin, editors:
"A few months ago Lesbian Feminist Liberation sponsored a panel discussion on women's transvestism (The Village Voice refused to use the word "transvestite" in the Bulletin Board ad.) Several women spoke about their experiences wearing men's clothes, passing as men, or not passing. There were many women in the audience who could not understand why anyone would want to dress "as a man." They said it doesn't make any difference what a person wears. I have one question in response to this idea. if it makes no difference what a person wears, why have women always been forced to dress differently from men? Yes, I mean forced. Women in the past have been physically tortured by clothes. Whalebone and steel corsets squeezed women's internal organs entirely out of shape, permanently. Chinese women had their feet bound, the bones were deformed, permanently. They were in constant pain and could not walk without assistance. In the Renaissance, Venetian ladies wore shoes, called chopines, which had eighteen inch platforms (the grandmothers of today's platform shoes). ..." snip
"Don't underestimate the power of clothes. People in the army wear uniforms not only because it's easier but because uniforms de-individualize the members. Everyone must look the same, and follow orders. Doormen in fancy apartment buildings wear uniforms to differentiate them from the residents, to de-humanize them. One no longer has to relate to the people, only to the services they perform. This is inherent in the clothes..."
end of quotes from Cowrie...back to abrideged text from Dyke a Quarterly
“My mother loved the way I looked in overalls ad when I wa six she cut my hair very very short. I decided to grow it when I got sick of everybody calling me a boy.
“A few months after I came out I cut my hair short because I wanted to identify myself with dyke culture, and because I was no longer afraid of being called a boy (or a Dyke)…Long hair is a patriarchal symbol of femininity.” (June 1974)
I’m beginning to use hair as a political barometer. Long hair usually indicates that a Dyke is trying to pass. Most dykes with long hair will deny this. They will say that they just like longhair. I’m sure they do. But why?
Last March I shaved my head. I had been planning to do it for several months, finally I saw three women in Woodstock who had shaved their heads about two weeks before. At first they looked so startling, then after a few minutes my eye adjusted. I felt their heads, each one felt different. Several women were talking to them about it, some were touching the fuzzy heads. So I set a date for the beginning of Spring, then convinced my straight neighbor who has a beauty salon to shave my head. She thought I was kidding, but finally she was convinced. Alix, Smokey, Mary and Adrian came over to watch. It took two hours. My hair was quite short to start, only about one inch long, but I have extraordinarily thick hair. Dorethea had to use a scissors, electric razor, clipper, and straight razor with shaving cream. Alix took pictures for my slide show, and everyone was laughing and being festive. When it was done I could feel my friends talking over my head. I could feel their breath.
It was freezing cold so I had to wear a hat most of the time. But my head felt fantastic, and I could see how round and smooth it was. Not lumps. We could practically see the hairs grow overnight. Fuzz began to stick to it, hats came off inside out, it was really noisy when anyone patted it. After about one week Alix said that It was like a Velcro bowling ball. It was exciting, sometimes I would look in the mirror and it was like looking at an entirely different woman. When my hair was about ½ inch long, I had a full covering.
Our friend Val cut Alix and Penny’s hair to about ¾ inch long. We went into the bathroom at Penny’s to look at ourselves. We had to laugh. We said, “We look just like boys.” That’s what everybody straight said when my hair had just grown in. Alix and I used to have fights with women explaining that we didn’t look like boys, it’s just that the only ones who were allowed to have hair that short were males, and since we didn’t have beards etc, we looked like boys, because that was an old connection that people’s brains were making.
Alix, Penny and I discussed this while we were looking in the mirror. Then we realized that for the first time we looked exactly like ourselves. Lots of women are really afraid to cut their hair all the way because they are afraid of what they are going to look like. All our lives we have all heard about certain hairstyles that suit certain shapes of face, we have learned to want a hairstyle that flatters us, that “suits” us. What a joke on us all. We found that our hair no longer “suited” us, it was us. Each head of hair grew differently, like fingerprints. We could see our cowlicks, our curl and growth patterns. Our hairlines were all different.
We all looked so clean and youthful with such short hair. Penny and Alix’s hair had only been about an inch longer, but that last ½ inch made the difference. We decided that the demarcation between short hair and “ultra short Dyke short” can be a fraction of an inch. When hair can no longer be styled, when it can’t be parted, curled, smoothed down, teased up, brushed over the ears, nothing, that’s Ultra Dyke Short Hair. Lots of Dykes are doing it now. Smokey, Mary and I shaved our hair with horse clippers at the beginning of the summer. My friend Moon, and half of her New York City karate class cut theirs. Lately in the Dyke press I have been seeing it more and more.
“Makeup, long hair, dresses, stockings, high heels, etc. are the basic uniforms of women. I refuse to wear feminine clothes because I know why I am supposed to. I would just as soon wear a ball and chain. And to pretend that one can transcend the meaning and effect of these clothes is bullshit…Fashions do not happen by accident. Clothes have a function and a meaning. I don’t want to wear bluejeans and suits for the rest of my life; in fact I’m already tired of them, but our revolution is still young. I am confident that there will begin to evolve a true Dyke fashion, just as Dyke music and theater is already beginning. I have no idea what these clothes will look like, but I do know they will be liberating physically and psychologically, and they will be beautiful.” (February, 1974)
I met Dyke designer Moregan in the fall of 1973. By February 1975 I had pretty much decided what I wanted her to make for me. I wanted pants that were cut like sweat pants, drawstring waist and elasticized cuff. I wanted the jacket to be cut like a bathrobe, with a tie belt. I wanted to feel comfortable and confident wearing it. I didn’t want it to look like a man’s suit. I did want it to be stunning and machine washable. I went over to Moregan’s and we spent the evening discussing my suit. The next week she showed me fabric samples. I wanted the suit to be soft, but velvet was wrong, too intimidating. I decided on velour, so Moregan died velour to the smoky green I wanted. She made the dummy suit in muslin for me to try. We decided that she would appliqué a flying horse on the back of the suit. I thought that I would like to have two pockets, shaped like crescent moons. Moregan chose to put piping on the pockets, the lapels and around the semi bell sleeves, this would give the jacket body.
When the suit was almost done, Moregan moved to California. A few weeks later she met me at the Lesbian Herstory Exploration with the suit. It looks like a combination costume of a magician, Mandarin, karate fighter and outer space woman. It is flowing, yet sturdy, and the fully liked velour is soft and plush, it feels like I’m wearing pyjamas. The drawstring waist could fit me if I gained or lost fifty pounds. I bought a hot pink sleeveless dance body shirt to wear with it. It looks good with a turtleneck too, or I could wear nothing underneath.
I wore my Moregan suit to give my slide show at the Exploration and again at Alix’s big concert in Los Angeles, (where everybody was decked out in the hautest of Dyke finery) I think that it was a little too jazzy for the Bay Area women’s taste, but I wore when I showed my slide show at the Women’s Skills Center in San Francisco. It’s neither butch nor femme. It is made by Dyke inspiration, by Dyke hands for a Dyke body.