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tell me about the ladyboys

From London’s designers to the Living Dolls’ mask-makers, with the fashion for androgyny nothing is quite what it seems.

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At 10:00 pm last Monday night, Channel 4 aired an informative documentary, Secrets of the Living Dolls, exploring the floating world of middle-aged men that dress up as girls in elaborate rubber second skins, and somewhat less elaborate masks. At 9:00 am the following morning, J.W. Anderson showed his latest, much anticipated menswear collection - his first since LVMH announced its investment in his label and his appointment as Creative Director of Loewe - and wowed London Collections: Men with male models in high heels. It’s been a very important week for cross-dressing! And the most interesting androgynous fashion is not girls in suits - alluring as Hedi Slimane sending Natalie Westling down the catwalk dressed as a skinny indie boy is - but, rather, boys in high heels and halternecks.

Cross-dressing’s nothing new; its popularity started around 2,500 years ago amongst the cult of Aphroditus on the sunny Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Aphroditus - a hermaphrodite perversion of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty - was worshipped at debauched erotic festivals that spread across Ancient Greece and were soon celebrated in Athens itself. At these rituals worshippers would cross-dress, girls as boys and boys as girls, and mingle together in a drunken train following an impersonator of the god/goddess. Aphroditus was also celebrated through classical sculptures of an attractive female figure lifting her dress to reveal an erect phallus. And in today’s fashion world there’s still a fascination for androgynous models; such as 22-year-old Andrej Pejic, who was scouted whilst working in a McDonald’s in Melbourne and went on to walk in both the men’s and women’s shows for Jean Paul Gaultier. (He was also ranked #98 in FHM’s “100 Sexiest Women in the World 2011”.)

Nowadays it’s not that unusual to see Kanye in a Givenchy skirt or A$AP in an Ann Demeulemeester dress - or as he calls it, outraged, an “oversized shirt” - and as such they reflect perfectly the recent Tokyo street style trend of “skirt men”; Harajuku already has a couple of shops specialising in A-line’s, mini’s and pencil’s for these skirt men. On the autumn/winter 14 catwalks of LC:M this week, androgynous menswear was the number one trend; as seen, for instance, in Craig Green’s psychedelic gowns and Lee Roach’s backless, tightly strapped waistcoat. Really though, as we’re talking about cross-dressing chic, it’s all about the Andersons/the Andersens!

J.W. Anderson - along with Phoebe Philo and others - moved on from minimalism with a playful indulgence that, backstage, he compared to the comfort of eating macaroons. (Maybe passion fruit and milk chocolate Pierre Marcolini macaroons.) This was a polysexual collection of floral prints and abstractions, of crop-topped, knitted straitjackets that hug you tight. While the girls in his womenswear show wore flat slides, the boys wore tottering platforms accessorised with bangles, brooches, handbags; and nipples, prominently displayed through too-tight sweaters. I think this was London’s standout show, but not everybody agrees. In the only comment under Style.com’s adoring review, one Brian Bennett counters: “Ridiculous. What man wants to even come close to looking like this ass clown? This isn’t fashion, it’s absurd. Ok fashion seals you can stop clapping. It’s nonsense.”

Astrid Andersen also presented a, very other, vision of contemporary androgyny in rain-swept London with a collection that moved away from last season’s homoeroticism and towards the explicitly feminine. Tonk male models were made beautiful with long silky weaves and shiny off-the-shoulder tops; with lacy light blue tracksuits and cropped T-shirts. Very nice. So, there’s a lot of cool cross-dressing options. However, as I’m not in the Cult of Aphroditus, why would I want to dress as an androgyne? Why would I - or anyone else, really - want to look like a so-called “ass clown”? Well, certainly there’s the element of fantasy and role-play. When I play video games I like to play as a girl character (just one of the things I have in common with Justin Bieber) like, mostly, Ling Xiaoyu or Nina Williams in Tekken 3. One of my flatmates plays Grand Theft Auto online with the avatar of a bikini-clad Chinese fashion designer; he has even been taken out on virtual reality dates as her.

In Secrets of the Living Dolls this fantastical escapism is taken to an extreme, a lot further than only clothes, as men dress up as girls in handmade second skins commissioned, at great expense, from a family-run business in Florida; complete with bespoke rubber vaginas and installed rectums. 51-year-old forklift truck driver and father of six John/Vanessa explains:“When I’m a man, I go out into public and I just blend in, and when I walk down the street people don’t pay any attention to me. But when I dress up and I put this mask on, and the wig, I look very nice. It’s like a beautiful woman walking down the street. You become one of the, what you would call, the ‘beautiful people’, and you draw a lot of attention… I decided to emulate a sexy female to, basically, make what I couldn’t have.” So, for him, cross-dressing is a sort of wish fulfilment. Be the change you wish to see; become the girl you want to fuck.

Actually these dolls look like a mess. They’re a long way off the “Real-Life Barbie” Valeria Lukyanova, and her impossible levels of avatar perfection; they’re even a long way off Shawn and Marlon Wayans in buddy cop comedy White Chicks. But that’s ok. These are men who enjoy masquerading as unconvincing sex dolls; who take pleasure in their own imperfection. Towards the end of the show - on an unusual journey into the night outside whilst wearing their second skins - the Living Dolls leave a party in Minneapolis. “Outside the club,” explains the narrator, “the mood suddenly changes. A local has been shouting abuse at the dolls, and mask-maker Adam has stepped in to defend his creations…”

Now, obviously, a custom-made second skin is a way away from a J.W. Anderson high heel, but both represent startling new models of masculinity in 2014. Wear a mask, join a cult, enjoy a macaroon… do whatever you want! Still, one way or another, you should probably start dressing like a girl.