A growing number of stores cater to cross-dressers
At age 71, there are few things he enjoys more then slipping into a smart dress, touching up his makeup and walking out the door in heels for a day of shopping around New York.
"Alana" started cross-dressing in his 60s, after the kids moved out and his wife divorced him -- perhaps, he says, because he insisted on picking out her clothes all those years. Though he now calls himself "one helluva woman" when he dresses up, he dreaded his first shopping trip.
For Alana, the solution came in a small ad in the back of The Village Voice, where Frishman's, a shop in the Bronx, quietly billed itself as a "Cross-Dresser's Heaven."
He could almost hear his heart beating the first time he walked into the store.
He went home a new woman.
As long as there has been women's clothing, there have been men who have wanted to wear it. But until recently, only fetish shops catered to cross-dressers. Now a growing number of women's clothing stores are trying to make it just as easy for men to buy themselves smart dresses as it is for their wives.
"For every woman who burned her bra, there is a man ready to wear one," said Veronica Vera, who runs Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls, a training center for beginning cross-dressers in Manhattan.
Vera, a former porn star and sex columnist, overflows with femininity: raven hair, three-inch heels and even more cleavage. She says she has helped 700 men over the years with courses like Dining Debutante, Campus Co-Ed, Girl on the Go and Maid to Order. (Prices start at $635.)
Next fall, Vera plans to publish "Cross-Dress for Success," her second advice book. She's still compiling a list of stores that welcome cross-dressers.
At first glance, Frishman's, family-owned since 1932, looks quite genteel with its high ceiling and peach and pine interior. Its large front windows showcase lingerie, eveningwear, coats, shirts and pants.
The women who walked through the store on a late-winter day didn't seem to notice the man in the pink dress shopping quietly among them. And when another man asked for help buying panties, a saleswoman seemed unfazed. "They are for my sister," he said, pausing before he broke into a giggle. "I guess you hear that a lot."
"Honey, it doesn't matter to me," said the clerk.
In the back, Frishman's offers a separate changing area that can be used by cross-dressers. Its on-staff seamstress specializes in altering women's clothing and underwear -- even girdles -- to fit a man's body. She spends her free time making lacy men's underwear. "They are called sissy panties," says Sandi Simon, daughter of the store's founder. "They're very popular with some of our customers."
Catering to cross-dressers is not a large part of her business, but Simon says they are some of her most loyal shoppers.
Decades ago, Simon's mother had a pair of regular customers who were cross-dressers. But it wasn't until the store launched a Web site in the 1990s that it began to attract so many inquiries from men. Word-of-mouth advertising and the Internet have helped the store draw more customers.
Other stores have had similar experiences.
At Florence's Fashions in Wakefield, Mass., Barbara Mirlocca, the owner, advertises in alternative publications like The Transgender Tapestry. Now, cross-dressers and transvestites represent about 40 percent of the shoppers at her 42-year-old store, a tightly packed boutique in a two-story house. Most come in dressed as men and shop discreetly, she said.
"It's not a kinky thing or anything like that," she said. "It's just a regular store."
The Sally Ann Corset Salon in Chicago has even been tinkering with new products to attract cross-dressers, such as a Cross-Dresser Starter Kit for "the novice." Send your measurements and $125, and the Salon will mail you head-to-toe lingerie -- including pads for your bust and butt. (It's quite popular.)
Leaders of a national cross-dresser's organization, the Society for the Second Self, suggest that as many as 5 percent of men like to wear women's clothing. But most are secretive, never leaving the house for fear that they will be recognized.
"Most cross-dressers are ordinary guys who really want to express a feminine side from time to time," said Frances Fairfax, editor of "The Femme Mirror," the organization's quarterly magazine. "They are heterosexual, have been married or are still married, have children, pay their bills and their taxes -- all the normal middle-class things."
Her husband, for instance, is a doctor and father of three who goes by the name Mary Ellen. He leads the organization.
Despite their stability and buying power, many cross-dressers remain an underserved market, from baby boomers to younger men entering their peak earning years. They are desperate for places to shop, she said.
Many department stores will let male cross-dressers use the women's changing room if they are discreet, said Veronica Vera. "If you conduct yourself like a gentleman you can be treated like a lady."