Review

Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods --- My Mother's, My Father's, and Mine

by Noelle Howey



When Noelle Howey refers to her father as "she," you know
immediately that this is no ordinary memoir. She isn't coy about
the reason: "I have a girl for a dad." Transsexuals may be a staple
of daytime TV, but before you dismiss this book as one more piece
of kinky confessional literature, listen: DRESS CODES is not
sensationalistic. It's poignant (when Noelle first sees her father
dressed as a woman, it made me tear up). It's wildly readable. And
how Mr. Howey became Ms. is a gripping story, even if you already
know how it comes out in the end.

It must have been a real brain-twister to figure out how to
construct a narrative that was judicious but not boring, dramatic
but not cheesy, and fair to everyone involved. If Noelle had stuck
solely to her particular point of view, about nine-tenths of her
childhood wouldn't have seemed all that special: a withdrawn and
angry father, a loving-but-miserable mother who tried desperately,
and vainly, to make her marriage work --- big deal! She needs to
get at the why of this sad impasse and she does it, as the subtitle
of the book suggests, by alternating her own story with
third-person reconstructions --- complete with dialogue and inner
musings, presumably based on diaries, letters, and interviews with
her parents --- of the early lives of her father Dick (later
Christine) and her mother Dinah.

This approach isn't an unqualified success. For one thing, it
doesn't ring quite true (it is scarcely credible that Dick and
Dinah would remember verbatim a conversation they had 20 years
ago!). For another, it doesn't lend itself to analysis; and while
on the whole I was happy to be spared the sort of pop psychology
and sociology that usually passes for critical thought these days,
I wouldn't have minded a little more depth. At times, too, I had
the sense that Howey is almost too smooth a writer --- concise,
punchy, super-accessible --- for such thorny material. She just
misses being glib, and she has a habit of turning off deeper
feelings with a joke. I wished that she'd allowed herself more
often to stop being so relentlessly entertaining and trusted that
her subject, and her story, would carry themselves.

However, the juxtaposition of the three protagonists' tales does
make for an awfully good read, frank and immediate. More
importantly, it points up the startling parallels between Dick
Howey's yearning to be female and the kind of gender-related
role-playing so-called normal people go in for; Dinah's
determination to be a good, supportive wife even if it meant almost
never having sex and going to cross-dressing parties; or Noelle's
staged seduction of her high-school boyfriend. One of the most
touching sections shows Dick attempting to "pass" as a regular guy
by cultivating the correct body language ("Masculine Movement 101")
and requisite insensitive manner; how different is this from
Noelle's attempts to make herself over à la Seventeen
magazine?

Dick became so skillful at disguising himself that he turned into
the very opposite of the "nice" husband and loving father he had
hoped to be. He criticized Dinah's body, blaming her for their
infrequent sexual encounters; he drank heavily; he either ignored
Noelle or put her down. "For someone having a hard time being a
guy," Dinah would say, "he was awfully damn good at it."

Happily, he turned out to be even better at being a woman.
Reversing his self-inflicted teen-age drills in "guy" behavior,
once Dick had decided to become female, he really applied himself:
He worked with a vocal coach, honed his makeup technique, traded
fashion tips via e-mail, practiced smiling. He won a local
cross-dressers' beauty competition and was crowned Miss Paradise
1989. On a deeper level, he felt comfortable with himself at last.
"Now that I'm a woman," Dick told Noelle, "I think I can finally be
a real dad...Boy, that sounds fucked-up, doesn't it?"

Not really. Not to Noelle, anyway, who, after essentially doing
without a father her whole life, is thrilled to have one. By the
time Dick is ready to go public under his new name, Christine, he
and Dinah are divorced, but she and Noelle throw him a "coming out"
party anyway --- and I defy anyone to read about it without a lump
in their throat.

DRESS CODES could have stopped there, in a burst of sitcom-style
happiness, and it would still have been a good book, but because it
continues into the more problematic years that followed, it is a
better one. It's not that Noelle ran into a lot of sexual
prejudice. In fact, as a freshman at ultraliberal Oberlin College,
her father's transformation actually gave her status. But she had
received even more mixed messages than your average young woman
about what it means to be female, and clearly it was her turn to
yell for help. She did it with a full-barreled crisis: lousy
relationship, grad school screw-up, severe depression. Her parents
rallied to rescue her, and they did it together. DRESS CODES
concludes with a quiet celebration of Noelle's 24th birthday, just
the three of them: Dinah, remarried; Christine, reborn; and their
daughter, recovered and learning to find her own way. It's a
poignant ending to a very brave book.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 21, 2011

Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods --- My Mother's, My Father's, and Mine
by Noelle Howey

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2003
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 332 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312422202
  • ISBN-13: 9780312422202