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The ladies' men

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Flirt with the skirt: Julius Macwan has been wearing skirts for four years. He feels that there are very few men who dare to wear it and even fewer who look good in it

High heels and sarongs, thongs and tights. . .  Fashion-forward men are feminising their ensembles. Some want to shock (remember Becks in Posh's knickers), others do it for style and yet others to spice up their sex lives. Is it time to stop skirting the issue? TOI-Crest gets up, close and personal with the gender benders.

Bare-chested, his muscled torso on display with arms crossed above his head, 23-yearold model Karan Sood strikes his signature pose in a crinkled georgette skirt. Once the photo-shoot wraps up, he opens a bottle of fizzy water, pouts and exclaims in an animated voice at his personal secretary, "Why, hello darling?" After some purring and air-kissing, he plonks down on the couch. "Yes, I am wearing a skirt in my portfolio. What's the big deal, yaa," he says, in a half-bored, halfcocky voice, running his fingers through his curls.

That's right. What's the big deal, after all? Men have, through history, taken pride in wrapping themselves up in feminine attire - from Scottish kilts to our very own lungi - and continue to do so. In fact, in the Mughal period, the chakdar jama, a four-pointed skirt, was worn both by men and women. Similarly, the sarong was traditionally worn by both sexes in the Malay Archipelago, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and some parts of India. Yet, today, such appropriation of what is classically known as woman's clothing - skirts, saris and petticoats - is frowned upon, poked fun at and defined as 'cross-dressing'.

Rebel without a cause

Julius Macwan, a brawny Mumbai-based artist who wears skirts in various styles, textures and fabrics, feels the body should be free from human conditioning. It is, perhaps, this somewhat avant-garde artistic philosophy that is reflected both on his canvases and in the way he chooses to dress. "I define the skirt when I wear it and not vice-versa," he says, self-assuredly.
Prasad Bidapa, fashion-guru and talent scout, couldn't agree more. "I don't see any problem with wearing flared ghagras or embroidered bandhgalas unless one dresses in womenswear for kinky reasons, " he says. Bidapa, known to make grand entrêes at soirees in his eclectic mix-and-match ensembles, is a favourite with shutter-bugs. "I elicit either shock or awe," he says.
Kolkata-based designer Kallol Datta, who is smitten by the Gothic look with its deathly pallor contrasted by noir hues, is of the opinion that "gender is an outdated concept". Ebony nail paint, smoky kohl-lined eyes, flowing black kurtas and oxidised metal jewellery - he even sports a nose-ring - are his thing. "Gender tells people what to do and what to believe in. Who is to say what you should be wearing and what you should not?"

Frills and thrills

While Datta, Macwan and Bidapa flaunt their devil-maycare attitude by dressing 'differently', at the other end of the spectrum are men who slip into a woman's accoutrement for purely fetishistic reasons. It is fantasy meeting fabric - the touch, texture and lingering fragrance of a woman who wore the clothes before them that drives men into a tizzy. The act is often described as a simulacrum of sex, wherein the man enjoys a feeling of heightened pleasure by dressing up in lace and satin.

Kartikeyan, who defines himself as a "100 per cent married man with two kids", says wearing his wife's undergarments and sari is a sexual turn-on for him. "I dress up in her clothes when she isn't around. Sometimes I pack a few of her garments discreetly when going on business tours and wear them in my hotel room. I do it when I am not watched, " he says, in a hushed tone, pleading, "My wife should not get to know a word of this. "

In a society where even diapers and baby clothes come gender colour-coded - pink for girls and blue for boys - a non-conformist, more often than not, elicits confusion and shock. Saurabh Shukla, who proudly proclaims his heterosexuality, says, half smiling, "I find it bizarre. Why would men want to wear women's clothes?" Shukla likes to flaunt his masculinity in wellcut trousers and double-collared checked-shirts.

Sociologist Prema Rajagopalan, who understands Shukla's bewilderment, explains: "Everyone likes to draw attention to oneself and assert their individual identity. This results in a conflict between a person's perceived collective identity and his or her individual identity. Many men experiment with long hair, body-piercing and subvert clothes for the sake of being different. It is, at some level, extremely superficial. "

I want to break free

Himanshu Verma, who is open about his homosexuality, begs to differ. In a half-hour long chat with TOI-Crest, Verma vehemently clarifies that while most people may well slot him as a "cross-dresser", in his mind he clearly isn't. Draped mostly in vibranthued saris, the Delhi-based art-curator finds the unstitched garment fascinating. From kanjeevarams to dhakais and balucharis, his collection of saris is enviable. In fact, most of his female friends drag him along for shopping marathons to help them make the perfect pick. "I love wearing saris for aesthetic reasons. My sexuality is purely co-incidental. But most people come to the clichêd conclusion and say, 'Oh, he is gay, so he is into all this'," he says, exasperated.

Verma is fortunate that most people from the creative fraternity with which he associates don't express horror when he breezes past them in a sari. On the contrary, they are appreciative of his sartorial style.

But for those who aren't in a profession that sanctions freedom of thought and expression, the chances of being misunderstood are high. Chunari, a 36-yearold sales executive from Hyderabad, is too shy to come out in the open and admit that he cross-dresses for fun. "I would be picked on if my colleagues ever found out," he says. He lives out his fantasy in online chat rooms meant for people like him. In real life, though, he is paranoid about his identity leaking out. "I keep changing my login as a safety measure."

Is it only the virtual world that gives such a group space to vent their inner thoughts and feelings, exchange notes and find solidarity? Is there no real social platform that is democratic and non-judgmental enough to accept them as they are, allowing them to socialise, drink, dance, and even flirt, like 'normal' people? Nakul, the 32-year-old director of Salvation Star, a Mumbai-based event management company catering to the LGBT community, says their parties are open to people of all sexual orientations. "We don't believe in dress-codes," he says. "You can be naked or fully-clothed;the mantra is to create a space where the guest is comfortable."

Dude looks like a lady

All pumped up with brand-new silicon breast implants, Bobbee Darling, a reality television sensation and a regular at parties, says she is a woman trapped in a man's body. "If I were to introduce myself to a guy, I would say, 'Hi, I am a chick, my name is Chicklet. Would you like to chew me?" And would they, one ventures indecorously. "Earlier, men were scared to approach me, but now that I am a well-known face, thanks to the small screen, things have changed."

Bobbee, who is besotted with Rahul Gandhi, doesn't cross-dress just for fun. She feels she was destined to be a woman but God got confused and gave her a man's body. For her, dressing like a woman is not a matter of challenging social norms but emulating the opposite sex because she sees the truth in doing so.

Jitendra Nagpal, psychiatrist with Vimhans, explains, "It's only when one expresses distress about one's own body or genitalia that cross-dressing is considered a problem or translates into a gender identity disorder. If the individual is indulging in it for fun or as a statement of being a non-conformist, it is not an issue."

There is no denying, though, that the world is harsh on men who dress like women or display feminine traits. It is ironical that a woman showing off a neck-tie, like in the '70s, is considered cute, but a man wearing a bright scarf would be belittled. Take Rajeev Aggarwal, for instance. For most hours of the day, the man, who works in a travel agency, lives a false life - waiting, as he says, "desperately" for the time he can head home after work to his one-roomed Delhi apartment. That's when he changes into himself, indeed herself. "The first thing I do, " he says in his wispy voice, "is take off the trousers and shirt I wear to office, and get into my skirts, sometimes even a frilly pair of shorts. I like pink."

His dream, he says, is to be successful enough someday to be able to dress the way he wants and get away with it. "The rich and famous get away with it. At the most, it's seen as a quirk. But for a middle-class man, cross-dressing is like inviting hell - one risks getting groped or propositioned by men looking for gay sex."

Aggarwal recounts a particularly sordid incident that scarred him for life. "I was still in my early 20s and I had just moved out of my hometown in Siliguri and arrived in Delhi. Encouraged by the great big city and what I mistook to be anonymity, one day I boarded a DTC bus wearing salwar-kurta and a little make-up. Not much, just lipstick and eye-shadow. The bus was crowded but I managed to squeeze into an aisle seat. There was a bunch of guys teasing me and harassing me. Most people laughed and indulged them. And before I knew what was happening, one of them had masturbated on me. I was physically sick for days."
Before hanging up the telephone, he adds in a hurt tone, "Come to think of it, who do I harm by dressing in woman's clothes?"

Dare to wear

Dorothy Lawrence was an English war reporter who disguised herself as a man so she could become a soldier in World War I Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer, spied on behalf of the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution where he cross-dressed to gain information from Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat Red Hot Chilli Peppers' frontman Anthony Kiedis has been known to cross-dress on stage British writer and doctor Vernon Coleman cross-dresses and has written several articles defending men who do so, stressing they are often heterosexual and usually do not want to change their sex Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the American grunge band Nirvana, often cross-dressed at home and on stage Billy Tipton, a notable jazz pianist and saxophonist who lived in the US during the Great Depression, was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in 1914, but began living as a man in the 1930s. He was married five times to women, and adopted three boys. He led a full career as a musician and later as an entertainment agent. Other than his parents, no one knew of his real sex or cross-living until after his death in 1989.

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