Binary Be Damned! Thoughts on the Red Dress Party

red dress

Beards and drag and ladies and men, oh my!

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Growing up as a fashion conscious, closeted trans girl (and later trans woman), countless hours of mine were spent longing to throw social custom and taboo to the wayside–I longed to dance and party in dresses.

Arriving at the Sandbox Studio on Saturday, then, and encountering a sea of presumably cisgender men dressed uniformly in red frocks was like falling into a queer rabbit hole I likely still haven’t processed.

It was only when I started to transition that I realized how much of what we call “gender” is just a bunch of rules our culture is so afraid of violating that we never even whisper them out loud, let alone ask questions about who made them or why anyone takes them seriously.

Squeezing into a giant warehouse for a ball dedicated to breaking all those rules, even if only for one night, was like a festive gender studies field trip, then, full of interesting findings.

My first take away arrived even before I did, as I saw packs of party goers streaking through the rain toward the venue while I drove up: like cross dressers on their first outings in public, or teenage girls dressed for a formal dance, a sizable percentage of Red Dress Party attendees, offered the opportunity to express their ordinarily forbidden feminine sexuality, clothed themselves like models in an ’80s hair metal video.

Short, tight dresses were everywhere! I’m not judging. When you’re told all your life you can’t eat chocolate, the day you decide to, temperance will not be on your mind. Short, tight dresses are the fudge of female sexiness, and I saw many men indulging themselves that night.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so aware of facial hair as I was at the Red Dress party. In our rigidly binary culture, “beard plus dress” creates a dissonance, or, at least, it does the first hundred or so times you encounter it.

At some point I surrendered, and stopped asking myself why everyone hadn’t shaved.

For the younger me, the desire to wear dresses was comprehensively tied to the desire to present as female. Seeing hundreds of assigned-male-at-birth people practice the former while exhibiting no interest in the latter, was confusing, and, as I’m a lesbian, aesthetically disappointing at first.

In time, though, I warmed to the undeniable queerness of what was going on, in all its variety.

By my estimate, about ninety percent of the Red Dress attendees were cisgender males, and of those, about seventy percent made no attempts to appear feminine. This meant a lot of beards, buzzcuts, Doc Martens and loafers, all surrounding red dresses. The sheer repetition of this look, and the lack of variation from it, lent it a uniform air, as though the leather skirts from “Gladiator” or “300” had been swapped out for poorly fitting, skimpy evening wear.

The remaining thirty percent of the men went for more festive, costume-y approaches to their looks. There was a pack of Marie Antoinette types, for instance, with towering wigs, drag queens, for whom the red dress was simply one piece of an elaborately constructed look, neon wigs (a personal favorite, which I wish could somehow become mainstreamed and ubiquitous in daily life), and ultra sexy partiers, for whom red dress seemed to mean “red lingerie, with gigantic hair, make up and heels.”

It would be interesting to interrogate folks from the majority and minority groups about their motives in coming the way they did. Were the beard and loafer types long time attendees who were over making a fuss? Were the girly types just getting in the spirit, or expressing a feminine part of their identity they normally have to keep under wraps? Was our culture’s bias against transfeminine expression a deterrent to those in the majority group against dressing up further, even at an event called the Red Dress Party? Gender studies aficionados want to know!

Perhaps because they were so few in number, encountering ciswomen at the Sandbox was striking in its own way, as, in their often elegant gowns and coiffured dos, they inadvertently served to reinforce the gender norms being dismantled all around them. Spotting such a woman, her outfit fitting as intended, with no surplus of body hair, filled me with gratitude at my having completed my physical transition, as well as a little guilt over how unqueer my own views on gender tend to be.

Of the various subcultures present visually at the event, the one that appeared least interested in the red dress theme was one that might be termed “sex positive.” To be fair, they were also the least clothed, sometimes with only a thin red petticoat or garter, which, accessorized with various jewelry or leather items somehow gained them entry, despite the “Red Dress Required” signs posted at the ticket tables. Different than the previous mentioned “ultra sexy” types, in that they were making no attempt to present as female, this group gave off a libidinal air that suggested they had not come for the dancing or free hors d’oeuvres.

The dancing at the party was fun, and fairly essential, as it felt as though it was about five degrees in the drafty warehouse space.

I’m told the party takes on a Bacchanalian air as it progresses, with its costume aspect allowing people to indulge themselves in ways they might normally not, but, as my date had a cold, I did not get to witness this for myself. I believe it, though, for, as I can say from experience, rules are made to be broken.