Posts Tagged ‘Zoe Howe’

A Week in Men’s Clothing

In Uncategorized on May 31, 2013 at 11:56 am

Music writer, wearer of sharp suits and drummer. Twitter: @zoehowe

Music writer, wearer of sharp suits and drummer.
Twitter: @zoehowe

How different can you feel – and how differently are you treated – when you swap dresses for a sharp man’s suit? Very, according to part-time cross-dresser Zoë Howe.

I’ve always admired the insouciant way Patti Smith wears men’s clothing, loved how Marlene Dietrich looked in tails and was fascinated by music-hall era cross-dressers like Vesta Tilley in their three-piece suits. Bianca Jagger’s white 1970s wedding suit exuded power and confidence, with an underlying message that stated that the wearer was clearly so secure in her dazzling femininity that she needed no bows, ribbons or frills to flag it up. There is simply something confident, unusual and eye-catching about a woman in a well-cut suit.

From an early age, I also loved and envied the way that men, no matter what shape, size or age, could look effortlessly cool in a whistle, and wished it could be as easy for women, who have an embarrassment of options in front of them to choose from and regularly worry about getting it wrong.

For some reason, however, I didn’t embrace the suit for years, preferring a Strawberry Switchblade-esque, ribbons and nylon scarves-swathed look: all tutus, lace fingerless gloves and complicated layers. I deemed myself too short and curvy to embrace the man’s suit (and it had to be a man’s suit, I reckoned – I didn’t want to look like a power-suited woman on her way to the boardroom. Not for me thanks.) and believed you had to be super-slim and rangey like Annie Lennox or Florence to get away with it.

However, the penny dropped when I realised that one of the most stylish women I know is built in exactly the same way as me but she dresses like a rakish (male) character from Jeeves and Wooster and looks incredibly cool and sexy. Why this epiphany took me so darn long, I don’t know.

After recently going into one of my favourite clothes shops, I gravitated automatically to the kind of thing I always am magnetised to – a girly dress with a flared skirt. I tried it on, and had a moment of clarity. My first and overriding thought was this: I looked like a little girl.

I previously felt that there was a kind of power in succeeding in what is essentially still considered a ‘man’s world’ (rock journalism) but to still skip around dressed like ‘True Colours’-era Cyndi Lauper; some people, for some reason, still find it hard to believe that someone young (ish) or girly would be even interested in rock ‘n’ roll, let alone involved in any way other than being, at a push, a ‘groupie’. Apparently you have to dress like Joan Jett and wear it on your sleeve. I quite liked surprising people, I suppose. Don’t get me wrong, I wore what I wanted, but was interested by the reaction that came with it. “What, YOU write books about rock ‘n’ roll?” Annoying and amusing in equal measure.

But I was ready for a change and I was ready to meet my inner Eurythmic via a bit of sharp tailoring (or off the peg whistles). I’d recently, inadvertently, tried this out when my husband and I went to a fancy dress party as Reggie and Ronnie Kray (it’s a long story), so, to paraphrase the Daily Mail, I ‘poured my curves’ into one of my husband’s black suits and a white shirt, topping off the look with a pair of braces and a skinny tie. It worked rather well. So well in fact that one female guest even tried to get a bit saucy. I made like Ronnie, that famous fearer of women, and edged away. Partly because I was handcuffed to ‘Reggie’ who was heading outside for a smoke anyway.

But what had initially been a jokey idea did seem to have quite an effect, not just at the bash but via the photos on Facebook afterwards. People weren’t so much concentrating on my painstakingly made ‘Ronald Kray. If found please return to Broadmoor’ luggage tag that I had attached to my lapel or customised Elvis wig and spectacles (I admit I felt I looked more like a gender-bending Buddy Holly impersonator than Ronnie Kray, hence the luggage tag), but some kind souls at least did seem to think I was rocking the shirt, braces, man’s suit et al, so it was only a matter of time before I got suited and booted for real. And what was really interesting was how I would get treated from day to day. Here’s a diary of my metamorphosis.


I log onto Twitter and consult the online hivemind as to where I should look for a cool man’s suit, but for me. Several interesting replies turn up, all from chaps, one of whom suggests H&M and Topman, for good ‘skinny’ suits. I respond that I am rather curvy but will try. ‘You can go for the Morocco look’, replies my Twitter stylist. ‘Harem pants?’ I reply, horrified. ‘I’m not SO curvy that I need swathing in great whopping tarpaulins thank you…’ ‘No,’ he says patiently. ‘I mean like Marlene in Morocco. Suit, hat, rose… bewitching.’ That’s good enough for me.


My husband agrees to come with me to Topman and H&M so off we go. It’s early in the day and no one is in the men’s section of the shop, so we rifle through the suits and, after some hesitation, I zoom into the (empty) changing room with my find – a ‘skinny’ (imagine my glee) blue suit. There was no shop assistant to help (or halt) me so my mission commences. It’s a powerful look. I’m sold. I can’t get the buttons done up over my child-bearing hips, but what did I expect? And I like the way it clings. A good start.

Inspired, I zoom back out to hunt for more treasure – there’s a nifty black three-piece suit on a mannequin that I reckon will make me look like a Mafioso (albeit with long scarlet hair and Bardot eye-makeup) so I start hoovering up more goodies, including a cool black shirt. But, as I root out a shop assistant to ask where I would locate the waistcoat, I am stopped in my tracks and TOLD OFF.

Practically quaking, my fearful new chum informs me in no uncertain terms that I should not have used these (empty) changing rooms, I should have gone downstairs. I can’t be bothered to say that there was no one there, and that I had no intention of doing any perving, but she is not placated. I was concerned that if I took the suits away, it might have been assumed that I was shoplifting, but no, apparently trying on a man’s suit without actually having a penis is far more worrying.

Grudgingly I am allowed to try on the other suit – it’s not quite right anyway – and I take the first suit downstairs to pay for it. As I leave, the shop assistants giggle and gasp in their Victorian disbelief. I am thrilled. I LOVE confusing squares. But then I am disturbed. How would they treat a male cross-dresser if they find the concept of a woman wearing men’s clothing so incredible? Shudder.

To be fair, I’m not too bothered by this reaction to my Topman purchase. I know I look sharp, and, as Beth Ditto said after being abused over her appearance by a moron in the street, ‘That’s ok. I don’t want stupid people to like me.’ Yes. Next time I shall go in wearing a false beard.


After having also invested in a lovely pin-stripe number (too big but cheap, and will be perfect when taken in), I get ready for my first outing in Le Suit – complete with a man’s shirt, the buttoning of which (it’s all on the other side!) is quite a novelty.

As I get ready in front of the mirror, quite enjoying looking unfrilly and no-nonsense, my husband approaches. ‘Are we in Vegas then?’ he enquires, tweaking at my collar which is open and rests on the lapels of the jacket.

I allow him to tuck the collar back in, but halt the proceedings as he buttons up the shirt. ‘I have boobs!’ I declare. ‘The higher the buttons go, the lower the bosoms appear. We must still respect the feminine form.’ He backs off. With a final tweak or two, a brush of the hair, a swipe of lipstick and the insertion of a small lilac flower into my hair (just a tiny tribute to Strawberry Switchblade) I am ready to rock this suit like it’s never been rocked before.

As I wait for my train, I pop into the nearby newsagent and make an instant coffee from the machine. Suddenly the usually switched off staff are falling over themselves to help me, and I don’t even need any help. Maybe they think I’m some kind of newsagent inspector. I’ll bring a notepad next time and really put the wind up them.

‘Maybe you’d like more milk? Ali! Bring fresh milk! Is semi-skimmed ok?’

‘Er… yes, I should think so…’

Milk is poured. How kind. I then ask for a lighter.

‘Which one?’

‘You choose,’ I respond. ‘Surprise me.’

The man behind the counter giggles like a girl and becomes flustered. ‘Ooh, I don’t know! I can’t decide, erm… Teehee!’ etc. Oh, for goodness’ sake.


It’s interesting going on the tube in my new whistle. Gentlemen wearing the same clothes as myself look on with interest. Women seem more disturbed than men. As I rise to get off the train, I am aware of a woman behind me staring at me, then staring at her boyfriend, and then back at me. I assume it’s the suit that’s bothering her. I rejoice in having upset another square or two, but I am quite bemused by the effect it’s having. It’s not exactly that outrageous, is it?

Often, when wearing my lady clothes, I never feel quite confident that it’s all doing what it’s supposed to. There are so many bits and layers and accessories. Today I don’t worry about any of those things. I feel confident and in control and I don’t care about much at all. In a nutshell, I rather like the cut of my jib today.

I meet up with my friend. He makes no reference to the fact that I am basically in drag and, when I take off my jacket, it says ‘Topman’ on the lining. He’s cool. But then when I last saw him I was wearing a headband with two cute black feather antennae on it, and he didn’t say anything about that either.

Later that evening, I prepare the tracks for the radio show I am going to broadcast the following morning on the station where I DJ. The first song has to be ‘Gloria’ by Patti Smith, a wondrous gender-bending version if ever there was one by the effortless queen of the cross-dressers. I then tune in to my colleague’s show, which is broadcasting live. The first song? ‘Gloria’ by Patti Smith. It’s a sign!


My husband, for the first time (as far as I know) considers borrowing my clothes. Which means, it just dawns on me, that I can borrow his suits too. This is fun.

I had been invited to be on the panel of an event about rock journalism as part of the esteemed Essex Book Festival to celebrate Smash Hits, NME, Rolling Stone and everything in between, so I sported my whistle and lo! was certainly treated with a little more ease by some of the boys in the audience than I usually am at these things. Maybe I have inadvertently become one of the chaps now?

There was one exception, incidentally. An older fellow with a very good camera took me aside and asked for a picture. Not of me and my fellow panellists. Just of me. ‘Maybe we could do a photo shoot?’ he then ventured, smiling hesitantly. Hm. Not sure whether this is an example of what Smash Hits would refer to as a “pervtastic Uncle Disgusting’, but I’m not hanging about to find out.

Basically, I’m liking this new suited-up life. I don’t think I’ve sacrificed my femininity, I’m just expressing myself in a different way and it’s fascinating to see people’s reactions. I haven’t flung out my ‘50s dresses or tulle skirts, mind, but it’s good to have a different option, and I’m surprised I’ve managed to pull it off. I thought I’d look like a hapless security guard (no offence to hapless security guards) but apparently not.

However, my hopes that this new look would simplify my sartorial life may have been naïve. I’m already looking for the perfect waistcoat, the nattiest tie, the ideal Crombie that won’t look like it’s wearing me… what next? Plus-fours? A monocle? The sky’s the limit.

Zoë Howe is a music writer whose books include the critically acclaimed authorised biography of punk band The Slits (Typical Girls?), How’s Your Dad? Living In The Shadow of a Rock Star Parent, the bestselling Florence and The Machine – An Almighty Sound and Wilko Johnson – Looking Back At Me. Her next book is Barbed Wire Kisses, the official biography of the Jesus and Mary Chain, which will be published in October 2013. Zoë also writes for the Quietus from time to time and plays the drums.

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