I have one foot braced against a table; the other keeps lurching forward on the patterned carpet. In my hands are yards and yards of a black shoelace, which I’m pulling so hard that the tips of my fingers are white.
‘Tighter?’ I ask. The cinched in the waist in front of me shifts experimentally with a creaking sound. ‘Tighter’ he breathlessly replies.
I’ve been doing up my friend Chris’s corset before his drag shows for almost as long as he’s been performing. The first time we discovered I had a knack for it was just before he was due on stage for a Christmas charity cabaret. I’d been taking advantage of his performer’s drinks tokens and was pissed as a newt. We were standing in the stairwell of the fire escape, and Chris braced himself against the black metal banisters as I pulled sharply and with unexpected mercilessness at the corset ties. In my mouth, I had a cigarette I’d borrowed from one of the barmen smoking outside, and intermittently I leaned through the open doorway and released a chest full of smoke into the car park. Chris by this time no longer had the luxury of leaning in any direction, nor of inhaling anything but small, ladylike puffs of air.
‘Jesus.’ he said, ‘You’re very good at this. I hope I can still do the splits.’
I never quite managed to equal the ease and confidence with which I tackled that first lace up (corsets are tricky things, and the strings get tangled, particularly if they’ve spent all day being lugged around in a Sainsbury’s bag) , but I’ve continued to act as Chris’s one woman entourage, not only lacing corsets but zipping him into thigh-high boots, pinning yards and yards of fucking white tulle, drawing dicks on golden balloons and, once, sharply berating a lecherous photographer: ‘Don’t touch what you can’t afford!’ I take photos of his outfits which I then DM him with suggestions for Instagram captions. It helps that I was once a celebrity PA. It helps that I was once a teenage girl.
A lot of the things I do for Sue Gives A F**k (Chris’s drag persona) are things I’ve long since abandoned doing to myself. Putting on uncomfortable clothing to imitate a perfect body shape, crushing my feet into high heels, applying large amounts of makeup and product to my face and hair. These are things I’m happy to help Sue with, but they’re no longer a part of the way I make myself feel feminine. I have my femme moments for sure; I’ll wear a dress and, at a push, a chunky heel. But the performance of ‘woman’ which drag often aspires to is something I associate more with my adolescence.
Of course, drag characters are (or should be) original creations with no uniform relationship to how I, personally, feel about being a woman, and an increasing number of drag artists engage with masculinity rather than femininity, or with an altogether more abstract idea of gender. That disclaimer given, however, I’ve spent quite a lot of my free time helping a man get into a dress while surrounded by men getting themselves into dresses, and it’s naturally had an impact on my own ideas about what it means for me to get into a dress or be ‘dressed up’.
I was speaking with a friend of mine about this recently, and she talked about how getting dressed up makes her feel ‘grotesque,’ like a dishonest and kind of lame parody of who she really is. We were talking about this in the context of drag (I’m always talking about bloody drag these days), and she speculated that perhaps if she got dressed up in that spirit of performance, she might enjoy the whole thing more. I saw what she meant- it explains why I have begged Chris to do me up the way he would Sue for a night out. Maybe I can enjoy the glamour thing, the dress, the lip, the heel, the hair, without feeling so ‘grotesque’ if I, too, have the luxury of calling it a performance, rather than an organic extension of what it means to be a woman.
Which brings us back to the stairwells, the basements full of boxes of cleaning fluid, the curtained off section of a pub crammed with men in wigs and tight panties. How this relates to my own teenage experiences, where we played out the same rituals in our bedrooms in our parent’s houses. A group of us getting ready together convened at the same mirror. We would share makeup, clothes. Self-criticism would be exchanged for compliments: ‘No, babe, you look GREAT!’ We’d be dividing our time between getting dressed up and getting shitfaced drunk, both part of a commitment to the ultimate success of whatever night out or party we had planned.
Now, I don’t, in fact, look back on this as a golden time in my own social life (I was shy and awkward and had to be shepherded anywhere remotely exciting in case I ‘freaked out’). Nor do I necessarily think that a culture of mutual comparison, not to mention literally HOURS spent in front of a mirror as preparation for showing yourself in public, is particularly healthy. Also, drag queens are grown-ups, and as such approach these issues of self-worth and body image differently than young people.
What the scenes do have in common is the atmosphere of camaraderie and, crucially, the acknowledgment that what you are about to undertake is a show, in which you play a character. As a teenager, you’re so unused to yourself, and a party is such a change in pace from the usual routine of school and home, that getting dressed for such an affair really does feel like stepping onto a stage. I think as an older woman you begin to absorb the message that playtime is over, and you should have become accustomed to stepping seamlessly from ‘day to night,’ from dressed down to dressed up. Some of us feel ridiculous when we dress up because we feel that we inhabit an idea of femininity we don’t recognize in our day to day selves, no matter how femme we may be. In this respect, watching Sue and her peers literally transforming from one version of themselves into these glamorous alter-egos has been educational. It’s reminded me of the pleasures of dressing up.
No corset for me though. Fuck that shit.