Transforming Ideas about Gender at Sudley House
Issues of gender identity have increasingly entered mainstream conversation, and the new 'Transformation' exhibition at Sudley House aims to tackle these issues.
Issues of gender identity have increasingly entered mainstream conversation, but confusion and prejudice still remain. Strides are being taken, though, in giving voices to those whose perspectives and experiences have been marginalised. Academics have increasingly turned their attention towards histories of gender-crossing. In my own History courses, ‘After the War’ and ‘Lady to Ladette’, I ask students to think about gender boundaries and the experiences of those who do not conform. So I was pleased to see these issues being tackled in at the ‘Transformation’ exhibition at National Museums Liverpool’s Sudley House.
‘Transformation’ is built around a collection of “women’s” clothes owned by Peter Farrer (1926-2017), a former serviceman and tax inspector who identified as ‘a straight man who liked to cross-dress’. The exhibition’s title could at first be misleading, since Peter did not identify as trans. However, the way Peter’s identity is discussed is one of the strongest aspects of the exhibition. The exhibition explains that people cross-dress for a variety of reasons, some because they identify with another gender, some for fashion or entertainment. Fetishism is not dodged either. Peter cross-dressed as a ‘sexual’ and ‘sensory experience’. This exhibition reminds us to think of clothing as a physical and not just a visual expression. Peter’s enjoyment of the feel of taffeta is a key feature. Displays of dresses that Peter had made for him show how he combined his form with feminine fashion, with shoulders and waistbands adjusted to fit.
There is some temporal crossing going on in the exhibition too. Peter’s collection features dresses from the 1930s to the 1990s. Some of the dresses are reproductions from the 2000s. That the collection is so wide-ranging reflects Peter’s tastes, and it is his history rather than a history of a particular period that most shines through. Peter was a keen collector, but he cross-dressed in private, hinting at the prejudice against those who do not conform to dominant ideas about gender.
You can’t help but wonder what George Holt, the nineteenth-century owner of Sudley House, would have made of the exhibition. Visitor comments left on Post-its on a noticeboard describe Peter as ‘brave’. Some think his tastes strange, while one Post-it proclaims ‘Peter was the Grayson Perry of Liverpool!’ It is clear that, even now, when gender identity and fluidity seem to be so widely discussed, this is a thought-provoking exhibition which asks visitors to rethink gender boundaries which are so often taken for granted.
Find out more
- Find out about our history modules - including studying gender