04 February, 2006

The clothes maketh the. . . ?

Unsettling waters. Yesterday, in a casual googlebrowse of early children's literature, I stumbled across an 1831 short story by Eliza Leslie (pictured, below) entitled 'Lucy Nelson, the Boy-Girl', and intrigued by the title, I read further. Plot: Lucy is a young tomboy who prefers messing around outside in the dirt with the lads to reading books and playing with dolls, as little girls should. After a particular prank, Lucy's parents punish her 'hoydenism' by putting her in boy's clothes, a jacket and 'trowsers', for a month. When the Halfords come to dinner, Lucy is so ashamed of her male attire that she covers her body in an oversized 'apron' (though as it has sleeves it might now be labelled a smock), sewing up the back so as to hide her trousers completely. Mrs. Halford remarks on Lucy's perfect neatness at the table, impressed that the girl is so keen to avoid getting even the 'smallest speck' on her dress. As Lucy is leaving the table, her poor sewing comes undone at the back, and she is forced to leave backwards, prompting the visitor to remark again on Lucy's excessive politeness, 'like a courtier retiring from the presence of a King and Queen'. At this the girl is sufficiently embarrassed to turn around, exposing her trousers at the back, at which point Mrs. Halford begs pardon for mistaking the child for a girl. After a moment of misapprehension, Lucy's mother explains the situation, and the girl is restored to feminine clothes with the promise that she will take more pleasure in appropriate pursuits.

Predictably enough, this story has attracted at least one gender-theorist; Etsuko Taketani writes about this and other related texts in 'Spectacular Child Bodies: The Sexual Politics of Cross-Dressing and Calisthenics in the Writings of Eliza Leslie and Catharine Beecher', in The Lion and the Unicorn 23.3 (1999) 355-372, available online here. Taketani correctly observes that 'Lucy's apron has strong sexualizing implications', but alas! she then resorts to academic cliché:
Hidden as Lucy's "under-dress", the trousers and a jacket serve as an index of sex—the privates—if not a male organ itself. By the very act of concealment, Lucy cleaves out a space under the skirt of her apron, a space replete with meanings, which Mrs. Halford subsequently reads. . . Under the apron is an imaginary space, prohibitive and sexualized, and in Leslie's tale this space calls attention to the "fiction" of sex as donned/doffed.
Concealment, construction of space, "transgressive" sexuality, the suggestion of semantics ('meaning'), gender as 'fiction'—all this is stock critical BS, and ultimately unhelpful. In fact, Taketani explicitly demonstrates her misunderstanding of the sexual overtones by claiming that what Lucy is attempting to hide by backing away are her 'buttocks': but these are never even implied by the text. Specifically, what Taketani misses is that clothes are not presented by Leslie either as concealments or symbolic representations of sexuality, but rather as fetishistic manifestations thereof. She is also unreceptive to the erotic nature of Lucy's parental discipline.

I write all this because academia has become morbidly interested in sex and sexuality: and because in doing so it has reduced sexual impulses by quasi-Freudian analysis and stock jargon to the status of museum-pieces. The phenomenological quality, the feel, of sexual desire has been all but lost. The very vitality and disgustingness of human sexuality (as part of the entire spectrum of human emotion) has become neutralised by a language which keeps it firmly distant and 'professional': just as Carroll did with technology but did not do with sexuality: just as we all do with the more precocious elements of language itself. Contemporary academics, while promoting themselves as progressive in their attempted recovery of 'repressed' human experience (via feminism, queer theory, post-colonialism etc.), have in fact pushed themselves farther and farther from these experiences by an unwillingness to engage with unpleasantness at the personal level.

It would be better in this instance to divest ourselves of Taketani's ossified constructs, and instead to re-awaken the significance of Leslie's imagery by comparison with genuine, living manifestations of similar impulses. Transvestism is associated in the common mind with drag culture, which couldn't be further from the nervous prurience of Leslie's story. The key factor here, I think, is the enforcement of attire upon individuals, which brings us closer to the concept of the uniform; and in particular upon children, which draws us to a very peculiar variety of quasi-sexual activity referred to as 'petticoating'. I alert the reader's attention to a phenomenon much more uncomfortable than anything in academia, and to which a veritable monument has been constructed in the form of the website Petticoat Discipline Quarterly.

This site consists of hundreds of letters and pictures from avid readers, both male and female, describing variations on a theme. The basic plot is simple: a young male is punished for miscreant behaviour either by his mother or his wife/girlfriend, by being made to wear female clothes, and put in a position of sexual and domestic submission. The original transgression is generally either an excessively masculine, boorish conduct, or a act, furtive but discovered, of experimentation with female clothing (almost always underwear). The result of this punishment is almost always an increased docility of character, with a new fetish for women's clothes (mostly feminine to an archaic degree—petticoats, pinafores etc.), and an implausibly happy ending:
I want to thank you for my sought-after advice, which you gave me in this month's 'Advice' page concerning my brattish son. We talked at length (my husband and I) and decided to go for it. When he came home from school that Friday, we had everything ready. We decided to go all the way at first, and then use lesser degrees of petticoating as a bargaining chip. We put him, after a good spanking, in a little gingham dress, with cotton pettis, and a pinafore over the top, with little lace anklets, black Mary Janes, nylon panties and a camisole top.

He was almost ill with fright, but we explained this was for his own good, and that he was going to be dressed like this, or in similar things, for a long time to come - at least until he learned to act like a gentelman [sic], and not run around and worry us to death.

Letter 7, PDQ, Oct 10, 2000.
Needless to say, I was quite taken aback to discover this subculture in my internet research following on from Leslie's story yesterday! Everyone is used to the traditional sadomasochistic stereotypes: but this material has an unexpected familial tenderness, quite cognate with the feeling of 'Lucy Nelson'. In both instances, modes of behaviour follow modes of dress; as the girlish clothes manifest a girlish sexuality, and consequently engender such a sexuality in the wearer, we are presented almost with a private variety of the Stockholm Syndrome. The women in these letters (some fantasies, no doubt) seek to assert the superiority of women over men; what I find strange is that they achieve this not by deprecating male modes (behaviour and attire), but by making men perform as women, thus reiterating the symbolic inferiority of female modes. The conflict between logic and emotion is here inescapable.

I have not studied any of this material in depth: thus I do not have the temerity to present serious conclusions from these musings. But I would suggest the value of examining real expressions of sexual emotion (in PDQ's case, the sexuality is usually implicit or sublimated) so as better to understand the fetishistic power of stories like Leslie's. But such an examination forces the reader to confront something highly unpalatable: live sexuality, not the "transgression" neutered and formaldehyded by the cold scalpels of academic language.

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