NPJ Book Review: Vested Interests, Cross Dressing & Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber

Vested Interests, Cross Dressing & Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber (1992)

My take: This rather substantial academic leaning work has been sitting on my shelf for over a couple decades.  I originally used it as a bibliographic source among others for a paper I was writing back in the 90’s. Fashion possesses power – culturally, socially and politically. The work shines a thought-provoking light on the West and the fascination people have with cross-dressing and transvestism. 

At the time Garber’s work was considered bold, and the language used might be out of sync with some of today’s cultural and political perspectives. It’s step on a ladder so to speak in understanding the political and cultural disruptions caused by cross-dressing from dressing codes, to dressing for success, transvestism, religious habits, the erotically pansexual, and observations about various cultural groups and how they dress and what may seem to be culturally unacceptable or acceptable.   

Fashion is potential power.

Garber in the beginning discusses sumptuary laws in Europe linking dress codes with what one wears in public. Her scholarship is substantial. This is an excellent introduction.

Fashion also can create anxiety and anxiety can cause hate. For example, the author notes later on in her work when writing about cross-dressing and religion, particularly among saints: St. Joan “whose transvestism itself was viewed as a mark of abomination. The transvestite female saints of the Christian monastic tradition were her models.” At her trial her cross-dressing became a focal point as she assumed the role of a man by dressing as one…and she was executed within that context. 

Times change…the examples Garber uses in the film industry may appear dated but yet entertaining – suggests approaching cross-dressing through humor helps alleviate anxiety. 

If one looks at the clothes of today the anxiety among various people may appear obvious in terms of hate crimes. What does what we wear say about us? Who gives the person power over another because of what they wear? Who and what fosters the stigma over dress? What does “what we wear” say about our sexuality? Who makes the rules and why? What is the fear of appearing effeminate to the point in going to the extreme opposite of appearing macho?

This is a superbly written and well-researched cultural criticism, indeed a tour de force in observations through film, literature, history, politics, religion and culture….the list is long, contextual and relevant but with updated research wanted. 

What is it we fear about others and ourselves when people express themselves through cross-dressing and transvestism? Are humans that insecure about their own sexuality / gender? Are cultural disruptions needed such as cross-dressing for a renaissance in thinking? – There can be no culture without the transvestite – What is to be gained by criticizing others for what they wear or how express themselves? Who makes the fashion rules and why? Is control, power, gender self-expression, sexuality and money at stake? How will humans and humanity evolve? 

The author offers insightful observations in how people have dealt with cross-dressing and transvestism through various genres. Fashion, though in the news everyday, still leaves open the door for a deeper conversation about humanity and how we treat each other regardless of political / cultural / religious persuasions.

This is an excellent reference tool.