What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. DYKE A Quarterly No. 1, pages 20-25
Abridged text in grey italics, comments in black. Click to enlarge page to read it in full.
What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear
By Liza Cowan
When I was co-editing COWRIE I wrote a series called, “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.” The quotations her are taken from that series.
“Women have been forced to dress as objects since the invention of patriarchy. Do you object to my saying that women are forced to wear certain clothing? I know some women will say that no one Is forced to wear anything. If women go along with these social/fashion customs, there are just stupid. But this is not true. If you don’t dress the way you are supposed to, you are a social outcast. If you function in mainstream culture you may be fired from your job, kicked out of school, ridiculed by our ‘peers’ and family. It takes great courage to defy your class and sex taboos.” (February 1974)
Sometimes I forget how different we’re looking these days. My eye has become so accustomed to our short cropped hair, baggy work trousers, vests, boots ad our direct stares. The other day Alix and I went up to town to pick up Adrian at school. It was the first time we had been there since school opened. Adrian usually comes and goes on the school bus. Her class wasn’t quite finished when we arrived, so we hung out in the hall. Several classes were on their way to the cafeteria, and every kid in that hall stared at us as if we had three eyes, and they were not merely curious. Lots of them were hostile, especially the little boys.
Ordinarily we would have let the boys know that it was past due time for them to be castrated. Especially me. I hate little boys and I love to make scenes. However, we were in Adrian’s school. She’s five years old and has no choice about where to live or go to school. We know how heavy the other children in that rural public school could make it for her. At least in the city there are bound to be other children whose parents are weird, but here in the country everyone is pretty much the same except for the Lesbians, and Adrian is the only child in our Dyke community. Clearly nobody in that school had ever seen the likes of us, two stompin’ Dykes, trained in the streets of New York City. So we had to act like “Mommie and Aunt Liza” (or whoever I was saying I was that day.) We were wearing the wrong costumes to play that part. It’s way past time when we might want to pass at Adrian’s school. We’d never be able to pull it off, anyway. The last time we put on Ladies clothes Alix looked like Jan Morris. I guess our solution at school is to keep a low profile and hope for the best.
The following is commentary by Liza Cowan, written for this archive in 2011
Thirty five years later, I'm amazed by how much has changed yet so much has stayed the same.
When I wrote these essays in the mid seventies, I didn't have the vocabulary to write cultural theory about clothing. I hadn't been to college yet, but more than that, cultural studies didn't really enter the academy until the late seventies. The idea of reading clothing as text was barely developed, and an interest in clothing was considered feminine i.e. devalued. It's no wonder that my theory was simultaneously rudimentary and passionate. That said, I'm proud that my colleagues and I understood that examining clothing in the context of power was a worthy endeavor. We believed the feminist credo: the personal is political. Our readers, for the most part, found our interest in clothing superficial, classist and apolitical.
From Our Right To Love, Ginny Vida, Ed. 1978
"This visually enticing quarterly magazine abuses valuable news space by filling it with trite meanderings on such superficial subjects as dyke fashions and interior decorating. Lacking political analysis(even of dyke separatism) or the talents to express the written word, DYKE, fortunately still a baby in the lesbian publishing world, unfortuneately displays the temperment of a spoiled brat"
These days there are some excellent blogs about clothing and theory. For example, see Worn Out, a scholarly and beautiful blog. Universities offer cross disciplinary classes and conferences on the politics of fashion. We wer just ahead of our time.
Daily Life Of a little Dyke family in rural New York circa 1975
Alix Dobkin, her daughter, Adrian, and I were living on a farm in the tiny hamlet of Preston Hollow, Schoharie County, New York. Partly back-to-the-land, partly Lesbian Separatist, we had moved there from New York City in 1974 with another Lesbian couple. There were a few other Lesbians who lived somewhat nearby. Penny lived there in the summers. We were the only Dykes with a child. We were the only Jews. None of our neighbors were even divorced. We were in a new territory without much of a map. We were terrified that our neighbors would be vicious. The first time it snowed I cried. We had never lived outside of New York City.
We did try to be good neighbors; we kept our place tidy, waved to folks on the road and chatted with people at the hamlet's one market and post office. It turned out that the neighbors liked us well enough. They thought we were strange, but likable. They cared less that we were Lesbians, and more that we kept our property tidy and we were friendly, so word got out that we were OK. Or OK enough for them to be neighborly. We were Lesbians, but we were their Lesbians. Some became friends.
At age five, Alix's daughter Adrian was in kindergarten. Maybe first grade. She took the bus from Preston Hollow to Middleburg every day. It was a 45 minute ride. None of the other parents knew usexcept by town gossip. Sociable by nature, Adrian nevertheless only made friends with a few of the children who lived down the road.
Adrian remembers that her teachers singled her out to be mean to, and the other children, but for a few, were not allowd to play with her. But it wasn't only the rural parents - the ones from the city could be just as bad. It was, in fact, a city friend's mom who was the most homophobic and vile to little Adrian, who came home one after one weekend in the city with her Dad, crying, "Andrea's mom says we can't play anymore because you are hobos."
"Hobos. Andrea's mom says you're hobos and I can't play with Andrea?"
"Do you know what a Hobo is?
"No, but she thinks you're bad."
It took us a few minutes but we figured out that we were homos. Homos. We explained to Adrian that homo was a word for same sex couples like us. And that Andrea's mom was an idiot. But our theories and explanations didn't make Adrian's life any easier for her. She longed to be treated as if she were normal. Her moms were happliy not normal. All The choices were fraught with consequences.
In a year or so Adrian moved to New York city with her dad, then subesequently they moved to Woodstock, NY an hour's drive south of us, soon followed by Alix, then by me. We had separated as a family, but only in the traditional heteronormative sense. In the Lesbian sense we remained very much an enlarged and engaged family. And Woodstock was full of weirdos: artists, hippies, musicians...so being a Hobo wasn't such a big deal.
Adrian grew up into a wonderful woman: smart, talented, kind, beautiful. She has a terrific family; a husband, three gorgeous kids, doting Grandmas Alix and Nancy down the road, and a bevy of faithful long - term friends. She's the best.
The comment about little boys: I was being dramatic. I hated how boys were raised with the assumption of gender power and it showed all over their bodies, their posture, their clothing, their play. Castration? We lived in farm country, and it was an easy metaphor. It was a castration of the Phallus=symbolic in the Lacanian, theoretical sense, not the actual body. Castration in fact? No. Of course not. I was angry - not delusional.