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Using Cross-Dressing to Understand Ancient Conceptions of Gender and Identity

Nicole Nowbahar

Rutgers University

In my talk, I discuss the value of examining cross-dressing in teaching students about gender norms and gender nonconformity in the ancient world. Gender is a key component of identity that is often reflected in clothing. The distinction between men and women’s clothing is as true in antiquity as it is today; people are shocked, and even uncomfortable, when seeing someone whose clothing is considered inappropriate for their gender. A notable modern example of dress that does not conform to the gender binary, Billy Porter’s tuxedo gown, is comparable to Clodius’s saffron robe at the Bona Dea festival. Both are a source of ridicule and blame through associations with femininity. However, context of cross-dressing impacts respectability, as in the case of the boys in Exeter who wore skirts to combat a ‘no shorts’ policy, and the Minyan husbands in Herodotus who wore women’s clothing to escape imprisonment. Comparing modern examples of nonconforming dress to ancient examples of cross-dressing elucidates the strict gender boundaries in self-presentation. Devoting time to discussing these insignia of gender and identity will lead to a greater understanding of gender roles and attitudes towards nonconformity.

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Beyond Reception: Addressing Issues of Social Justice in the Classroom with Modern Comparisons

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