There’s no better master class on the semiotics of getting dressed than the documentary Paris Is Burning. Released at the start of the 1990s, it chronicles the Ball scene in late 1980s New York. The Balls featured bisexual and gay men and transgendered women in all manner of drag – from clothes intended to convincingly portray a beautiful woman to clothes intended to convincingly portray an executive or a member of the military.
For folks like these, passing was and is essential to living safely, and being conversant in cultural norms was more than just a passing interest. As one of the interview subjects above says, “When you’re gay, you monitor everything you do. You monitor how you look, how you talk, how you act. Do they see me? What do they think of me?”
I’m guessing that most of the people who read this blog were born in a position where they don’t usually rely on cultural signifiers to ensure their physical safety, like the people in Paris Is Burning. The stakes are lower for most of us. Thankfully, they’re even somewhat lower for GLBT men and women twenty years after the film was made.
But if you want to learn something about how cultural cues like clothing can affect your place in the world, watch Paris Is Burning. That’s realness.