Take Me to the Cos-Bar
Or, why gays dress up
Of the LGBTQ community’s foibles one can say with certainty we have mastered the art of costuming. Be it drag queens, leather men or lesbians in flannel and bib overalls, there’s something about our penchant for dressing the part. Of course, it’s not strictly an LGBTQ thing. Straights do it as well although, perhaps, not quite as well or with the same conviction.
Clothing as an identity marker goes back to the first fashionable fig leaf. Back in the day, laws were enacted to ensure everyone dressed according to his or her station and gender. Naturally, rules are made to be broken, and that included extravagant dress and crossdressing. Besides, gay people always had that certain secret, and clothes were the perfect conduit.
Going back to the 15th century, fops, and later macaroni of “Yankee Doodle” fame, certain men exaggerated their gay apparel for its own sake. In both European and Asian theater, women weren’t allowed on stage. Consequently, men played women’s roles (although I suspect there was something more to it). Later, women followed suit. In opera, women sometimes perform as men. They still do. The parts are known as “pants roles” or, as famed Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli more appropriately calls them, “transvestite roles” (she recently performed as the bearded warrior namesake of George Frideric Handel’s Ariodante). It’s all a bit queer, to be sure.
Otherwise, famous female crossdressers include suspected lesbian Joan of Arc. Confirmed lesbian, 19th-century French artist Rosa Bonheur actually carried an annually renewed permit issued by the police allowing her to dress as a man. Then there’s Maria Bochkareva. She led the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion of Death (no, that’s not a Brew City Bruisers roller derby team…although perhaps it should be). It was back in 1917. Apparently, it was fine with the tsar.
A more recent fad is cosplay, or costume play. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Adults dress up as their favorite video game, Disney, Marvel or other character. Our own drag diva, Trixie Mattel, started her career at the Oriental Theatre appearing as her favorite role “Trixie” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Anyway, aficionados do cosplay in the privacy of their homes (no doubt in front of a mirror), at conventions (the famous Gen Con is actually named after Lake Geneva, Wis., where an early convention was held in 1968) or for any other occasion. Our local Bristol Renaissance Faire attracts LGBTQs as costumed performers and visitors. Last Halloween, a conflicted friend desperately texted me to get my opinion—Power Ranger (the red one) or Captain America? He’s a muscular black guy so either would set him off. In my indecisive Libran way, I said I could envision him as either. “No,” he insisted, “which one?” Now on the spot, I opted for Captain America. Otherwise, it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure the extent to which cosplayers indulge their fantasy.
Interestingly, my friend’s 8-year-old son came home from school heartbroken that his classmates had made fun of him for his Spiderman shirt. I’m not sure how his father consoled him. I might have simply said, “Just wait until you grow up.”