When someone uses clothing to change or hide their identity, it is often because society deems their identity unacceptable because of gender, race, class, or sexual orientation. During the early part of the twentieth century, women sometimes dressed as men – they wore pants – to get jobs women were excluded from, to get better wages, and to conduct their daily lives more freely. In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, the black feminist writer Audre Lorde speaks about the perceived power accorded black women “light enough to pass for white” in the 1920’s and ‘30s on the streets of New York City.
Women often served as couriers during the Jewish Resistance in Europe in part because they could pass more surely and safely as non-Jewish than Jewish men, circumcised at birth. They were at risk of revealing their identity at any moment if ordered, “to drop their pants.” To get work at a decent wage and to own property – to survive – during the 1930s and1940s, working-class lesbians, who could, passed as men by affecting “a mannish appearance, by haircut, by the manner of wearing clothing, by posture, [and] by stride.” (Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire) Similarly, lesbians who appeared more feminine, made considerable effort to pass as conventionally proper women to ensure their safety. In this way, two women could live as a couple and survive. This practice still occurs in areas of the United States where homosexuality is forbidden.