a shift

elegy for a nice dress I acquired in or around 2003

Sometimes a memory catches. The last couple of days, I have been remembering a dress that I used to wear, around 2004 or so - a brown linen shift with a slightly clerical vibe that afforded me a convenient alibi. I used to wear it, mostly, over jeans; a style I had picked up from two women whose looks I had admired: one, a l girl I used to go clubbing with as a teenager, and the other, a fellow student at my college of whom I was dully envious. Both were lesbians, though the clubber didn’t come out until years later, at least, not to me (I don’t want to imply that we were close) - at the time she was dating a straight (question mark?) boy in fluffy, cloud-like wools. I had a crush on who told me, guilelessly, on a bus in 1998 or so, that he thought I was “pretentious, maybe, in the sense that you like to see where ideas will take you... but also a bit queer, like me.” So I guess not straight? It seems extraordinary that someone would have said such a thing in such a way at that time, but he did and my heart and dick grew three inches apiece. The first boy I made out with was his best friend, who had a lupine jaw and enormous eyes, who wanted to kiss an intellectual. I wasn’t wearing the brown shift I wanted to write about, but the memory is eddying, pooling.

I liked the way this shift pulled my shoulders back. It was by no means the only dress I owned and wore regularly: the one I wore most often was a more bubbly red dress, which eventually my girlfriend scrawled all over in black biro, a DIY paisley that I loved, felt as full a gift as I had ever been given. I had inherited the dress from my roommate, who was an athletic woman - a rower - whom I liked immensely and who had a vigorous and affirming attitude towards my penchant for dresses that one would have expected from someone much posher than she was (though she wasn’t unposh, this being Oxford University etc). A photo exists of me somewhere, cigarette balanced between my lips, storming into a room wearing this red dress: short-haired, charismatic, breezy. I didn’t have a word for what I was doing exactly, but the word I liked most was “pervert” - it seemed unrecuperated, and vague. I dreamed of a gravestone that would have said “Jos Lavery, 1983 - 2013: a very passionate and committed pervert.” (I always assumed I would be dead by the age of thirty, which was not a wholly unreasonable assumption.) I needed a word that did not give too away, and did not sound like a request. 

Most of the dresses I wore were cast-offs from my rower roommate, or some of her friends. I suppose this might be more evidence that butch and masculine women were among the most affirming and helpful sponsors of my transition, except that I suppose it wasn’t obvious that that was what anyone was doing, very much including me. I suppose, frankly, that friendships like these are rarer in the UK now, because the gender-criticals have taught everyone to be afraid of us. I am sure that rowers who give cast-off dresses to avowed perverts today do so either more cautiously, or more deliberately. In any case, there was a rotation of dresses, mostly acquired through such means, that constituted my primary wardrobe in 2003-04. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, to ask whether these outfits looked “feminine” or not. Maybe they did not? Strangely enough, a few years ago I was at a work dinner with my former college tutor - now we are colleagues, which is lovely - and she was remembering how “you always used to come to tutorials in tutus.” My one transphobic colleague chuckled with the joy of a new and potentially leveragable secret. I was able to push back - no, they weren’t tutus, they were dresses, and actually they were quite important to me, it wasn’t a joke - and my former tutor was moved and apologetic, but maybe I shouldn’t have been so prickly. What would it have mattered if they had been tutus? Would that have meant something different? What is clothing, anyway?

The brown shift was, I believe, the first dress I paid for with my own money (which, as regular readers may recall, was mostly reserved for alcohol and drugs). It was my dress, and it was quite proper. It was designed to mimic a dykey kind of nineties low-fashion, like a female member of Ocean Colour Scene, if anything quite so appalling can be pictured. With a little sunhat and a pair of boots, I imagined, it might have been possible to pull off a kind of sexy-frumpy thing. I doubt I ever managed it exactly, but I liked the way it pulled my shoulders back, as I say. It asserted a certain kind of dignity, which is an odd thing for a man in a dress to assert. A response to that oddness, I think, is the origin of terfism as a political ideology: why will you not admit how absolutely ridiculous and comical this is? Men in dresses are supposed to be funny-and-a-bit-scary, like clowns! Meanwhile they don’t think to investigate our laughter at all. But the story of my transition, I suppose, is one that pushes in the opposite direction. I would have loved this to be a joke, but it isn’t one. My mother said, the first time she saw me in the brown shift, “oh I really like you in that. You look so masculine. Wearing a dress really brings out the breadth of your shoulders and the manliness of your frame.” I mean, fuck that.

The last time I wore the brown dress was in early September 2004, for my first shift at the William the Fourth pub in Brighton (my first post-college job). I had imagined that its plainness would be a good fit for a new employee - and there was something about it that suggested the pleasingly neutral affect of an effective barman. My new boss, Richard, did not agree, and sent me away as soon as he laid eyes on me - “come back when you’re wearing something normal, or don’t come back again.” I popped home, changed into jeans and a t-shirt, and laid the whole thing to bed. It was fitting that it was a working-class man who disciplined me out of this odd, Oxford affectation. I felt the corrective as an invitation to leave the fairy-town of Sebastian Flight, and rejoin the world of working men. I declined to return to Oxford to sit for the All Souls fellowship exam, and instead spent the next few years growing drunk and despairing in a set of very gender-appropriate t-shirts, and nurturing fantasies of perversion. 

It was a good, soft, linen shift; a dress that a woman could have done some good work in.