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  • The secret history of cross dressing with Sebastian Lifshitz

Queer photography

The secret history of cross dressing with Sebastian Lifshitz

A new exhibition at C/O Berlin traces the secret history of cross-dressing through the impressive photography collection of Sébastien Lifshitz. We talked to the Frenchman about cross-dressing war prisoners and the joy of browsing fleamarkets.

Photo: Courtesy Sebatian Lifshitz

What first made you want to start this collection?

When I started to buy photographs from flea markets, garage sales or antique shops, it was just because I was in love with photography. I had absolutely no idea that I was building a collection. I had this feeling that if nobody would take care of these snapshots then they might end up destroyed. Progressively, I realised I was archiving a lost memory. All those pictures of anonymous queer people that we don’t know anything about are incredible. I feel that we owe them a kind of tribute for who they were in times when it was not so easy.

What drew you especially to these images of cross-dressing?

Many of these pictures will remain forever a mystery

As a young gay teenager, I felt that I needed to connect with this history of homosexuality – how it was to be a homosexual in the past. In the 1980s, when I started to look for queer history, there was very few things you could find. There was no internet, nothing on TV. Even the gay press was only focusing on youth and present times. Of course, there were some articles on famous writers or fashion designers but nothing about ordinary people. Most of the stories and films you could find of past lives were tragic. I felt a kind of gap between what I could read or watch and my situation, which was more banal and quiet. I wanted to know more.

Photo: Courtesy Sebatian Lifshitz

Some images stretch back as far as the 1880s. Were they easy to come across?

Not at all. You need to consider that for the longest time producing a picture of yourself cross-dressing was considered a transgressive act that could bring you a lot of problems. So they were made in secret and many were destroyed. It’s miraculous that I could find them after all these years. Actually, back in the early 2000s you’d find a lot of good material on eBay, archives, books, and great pictures for little money. I remember that pictures of cross-dressers were not that popular. Today it’s totally different, queer topics are in the centre of the media. The new generation is looking for them, so they’ve become rare and much harder to find.

Are you still hunting them with the same enthusiasm?

I don’t have the free time I did when I was a teenager, but I try! Whenever I travel to film festivals, the first thing I ask is, “where are the flea markets, where are the antique shops?” I’m just totally obsessed with trying to find new pictures from each country. I suppose it’s a kind of world memory that I’m trying to collect.

Photo: Courtesy Sebatian Lifshitz

Do you think that the people appearing in these images were using photography to empower themselves in some way?

There are different levels of interpretation. Sometimes the person photographed was truly playing with his or her appearance; sometimes, he or she was expressing his or her inner identity. And in that sense, you probably can see pre-queer people from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. For some images, it is obvious that what you are looking at is a transgender person crossing gender boundaries. For others, we will never know. I think many of these pictures will remain forever a mystery, an enigma – and it doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, I like that there is some resistance. I would like the audience to be in the same position as I was when I first discovered them. Everybody is free to project whatever they want.

Do you see yourself as providing an opportunity to honour these people who have taken this risk and defied societal expectations to show themselves cross-dressing?

These queer people have been so invisible for decades. They were pioneers. But the collection you can see at C/O in Berlin is focused on cross-dressing men and women, not on gay people, which is a different story. We have to be careful not to mix them because the situation of homosexuals and transgender persons is very different. So we’re talking about the question of gender identity, not sexual identity.

Photo: Courtesy Sebatian Lifshitz

Many of the portraits are not extravagant and are in fact quite ordinary, like people dressing as housewives…

Exactly. There’s a section in the exhibition called The Apparition of the Fairies which is made up of a group of really intimate pictures. They are fascinating because they’re so mysterious. I believe that due to the danger inherent in taking a picture of yourself cross-dressed, these images were about creating a new self-identity, and they were very heartfelt and authentic. I could feel that these pictures were important to their owners. My idea was to put them all together, all types of men and women cross-dressed in private, and see what it could reveal. And you realise that the way they play with their identity reveals somehow their profound inner selves, away from the general hostility that prevented them from going out into the public sphere as a cross-dresser or a transgender person.

You’ve structured the exhibition into 14 different chapters building a narrative along the way. Some chapters are more obvious like the Cabaret world or photographs from the Café-Concert, but what about those images from cross-dressing prisoners during World War II? They’re fascinating!

At the time, captivity was really difficult for many prisoners and perhaps to keep the camp quiet and disciplined, a few camp commanders allowed prisoners to perform and create their own theatre of sorts. Most of them were making really amazing stage designs and extraordinary costumes to go with it. Of course, they had to make costumes for the women parts and perhaps because they were missing their mothers, their wives or sisters, the way they chose to crossdress was really realistic. It was not burlesque or anything ridiculous. So, instead, you have all these beautiful pictures of soldiers from France, Germany or England who were playing women’s parts in a very authentic and respectful way. Yes, it is quite amazing.

The man himself. Photo: Courtesy Sebatian Lifshitz
  • Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers Through Jan 18 C/O Berlin.
  • Sébastien Lifshitz Born in France in 1968, Lifshitz studied at both the Ecole du Louvre and the University of Paris. A screenwriter and director, he has made numerous films and documentaries that focus on gay themes including the award-winning Bambi (2013), winner of the Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film at the Berlinale and Little Girl (2020), winner of Best Sound Designer at the European Film Awards.