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

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Throughout her childhood in suburban Ohio, Noelle struggled to gain love and affection from her distant father. In compensating for her father's brusqueness, Noelle idolized her nurturing tomboy mother and her conservative grandma who tried to turn her into "a little lady." At age 14, Noelle's mom let her buy a pair of Guess jeans that she had been coveting. Then, staring straight at the car windshield on the way home from the mall, her mom finally blurted out the family secret:...
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Throughout her childhood in suburban Ohio, Noelle struggled to gain love and affection from her distant father. In compensating for her father's brusqueness, Noelle idolized her nurturing tomboy mother and her conservative grandma who tried to turn her into "a little lady." At age 14, Noelle's mom let her buy a pair of Guess jeans that she had been coveting. Then, staring straight at the car windshield on the way home from the mall, her mom finally blurted out the family secret: "Dad likes to wear women's clothes."

As Noelle copes with a turbulent adolescence, further confused by the male and female role models she had as a girl, her father begins to metamorphose into the loving parent she had always longed for-only now outfitted with pedal pushers and pink lipstick. Could becoming a woman make her father a completely different person?

With edgy humor, courage, and remarkable sensitivity, Noelle Howey challenges all of our beliefs in what constitutes gender and a "normal" family.

Author Biography: Noelle Howey is the co-editor of Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Parents, winner of two 2000 Lambda Literary Awards. She has written for publications as varied as Ms., Jane, Mother Jones, Glamour, Self, Fortune Small Business, Teen People, Seventeen, and Bitch. A finalist for a GLAAD Media Award, she received a 2001 Nonfiction Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. An Ohio native, Noelle Howey lives in Minneapolis with her husband.

2002 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, Transgender.

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Editorial Reviews

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In this extraordinarily funny and tender memoir, Noelle Howey weaves together three unique yet thoroughly intertwined journeys toward self-realization: those of herself, her transgender father, and her tomboy mother.

Howey was still too young to drive when her mother spilled the beans about her emotionally distant, hard-drinking father's cross-dressing habit: "I suppose I was scripted to weep, to riddle my mother with questions. Tough. I was not going to be upset about this. I had decided not to care about my father years ago. With that resolution in mind, I immediately burst into tears."

Thus begins the often painful process of redefining family relationships that would allow three emotionally battered individuals to begin to heal. Through each new revelation -- her father's admission that he secretly wore women's clothing; his public coming-out as a cross-dresser; his physical transformation from Richard to Christine; and Christine's final disclosure of a sexual preference for other women -- Howey maintains a near-miraculous equilibrium. And as she finds her own way in life, she transcends mere acceptance of her parents' choices and comes to actually find joy in them.

Dress Codes is a remarkably lucid celebration of love, acceptance, and forgiveness, those required cornerstones of true family values that are often impossible to achieve, even under less demanding circumstances. Wise beyond her years, Noelle Howey has written a disarming depiction of a family finding itself, against all odds, as its members struggle with their individual identities. (Summer 2002 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
In this rich memoir, Howey details not one life, but three. It's a difficult juggling act, but it pays off beautifully, for the story of her father's coming out as a male-to-female transsexual is only part of a larger narrative of growing up female in America. Howey's writing is neither sensationalistic nor condescendingly cheery; this is a loving portrait of a girl's complicated relationship to her father's femininity and her own. The author, co-editor of Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Parents, nicely juxtaposes her childhood dress-up games and clandestine sexual experimentation (she wanted to be Madonna) with her father's secret penchant for soft scarves and pumps (he dreamed of becoming Annette Funicello). As a teenager, Howey was impatient with the attention that her father's adventures always garnered and told her parents, both of whom she enjoyed a healthy relationship with, about her sex life: "It was a power maneuver on my part....Dad kept raising the bar of what Mom and I could accept with equanimity, and I felt justified in doing the same." She is no less forthcoming about the odd celebrity status having a transsexual parent granted her at her ultra-liberal college, elevating her "above all the other upper-middle-class white chicks in thrift wear roaming the commons." Howey's candid, funny writing gives this memoir the cast of fiction, perhaps not surprising in a book honest enough to admit "we all reconstruct our lives in reverse, altering our own anecdotes and stories year after year in order to make them more congruent with our present-day selves." Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When we think of a typical American family, we do not often think of a family that comprises a transgendered father, a tomboy mother, and their daughter. However, this is the very dynamic of this touching autobiographical account of Howey's growing up under anything but ordinary circumstances. Dress Codes is a candid and compelling look back at how teenager Howey and her mother struggled with her father's transformation from a bad-tempered dad to a loving transgendered woman. Readers will both laugh and wince at the numerous issues Howey and her family have to come to terms with as they learn to grow both individually and as a family. Howey (coeditor, Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Parents), who has written for various publications, including Glamour, Jane, and Self, details her own evolution along with her family's with honesty, grace, and wit. Highly recommended for all public libraries. Sheila Devaney Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-At first glance, this memoir seems to be the stuff of certain afternoon talk shows: macho, brooding Daddy wants to be an extroverted girl; Mommy is practically a nun; and the daughter, Noelle, has sadomasochistic tendencies. However, the book has incredible depth and a believable honesty that transport the topics of gender dysphoria and sexual coming-of-age beyond sensationalism. All three family members seem to have a decent grip on their inner selves, yet they go through agony trying to harmonize what they know is real with how they actually live and relate to others. Noelle has the angst, cynicism, stupid dramas, wise moments, and mood swings that can be expected from an adolescent. Her bitterness at her father is palpable, as is her tender frustration with her mother. These emotions subside in fits and starts when Dad comes out as Christine, the woman she always has been inside. Freeing herself from trying to play the role society expected, Dad finds herself free to be a real father to Noelle. His coming out ultimately results in divorce, but ironically the family becomes closer and is happier than ever. With her sharp humor and sensitivity, Howey manages to entertain, console, and enlighten readers. The book is impossible to ignore, and impossible to put down.-Sheila Shoup, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A startlingly candid account of growing up with a father who changed from an undemonstrative, unhappy male to a warm, affectionate lesbian. Here, the co-editor of Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Parents weaves together her own and her parents' sexual hopes, fears, and fantasies. When she interviewed her parents for this memoir, Dick Howey was, apparently, as open about his sexuality as Noelle is about hers. The result often reads like a breezy novel deepened by poignant and even painful passages. It was in 1986 that Dinah Howey told their daughter, who was then 14, about her father's penchant for cross-dressing, swearing her to secrecy. Six months later, Dick moved out and gradually began a transformation that involved gender dysphoria counseling, estrogen injections, and learning to speak, write, and smile like a woman. While dealing with her father's transgenderism, the author struggled with the task of developing her own identity. Fortunately, as Dick became more feminine, he also became more loving and open, radically altering a distant (verging on nonexistent) father-daughter relationship. By 1990, when Noelle was a college freshman, her amicably divorced parents jointly threw a coming-out party announcing to friends and colleagues that Dick was now Christine, and when Christine flew to Belgium for sex-change surgery in 1994, Noelle accompanied her. ("Dad" has now become "Da" in the text, and "he" and "him" are now "she" and "her.") By book's end, the author has become "best friends" with both her mother and her father. Christine, who briefly dated men, recognizes that she is a lesbian; Dinah is happily married to a testosterone-laden alpha male; Noelle has worked her way through some wrong boyfriends and recovered from a bout of clinical depression. Mom never quite comes into focus, but this moving portrait of a nontraditional family both educates and entertains.
From the Publisher
“Truth, as it turns out, really is stranger than fiction.Funnier, too. And sadder. Messier, as well—and just generally richer and more interesting. At least, such is the case in Noelle Howey’s wise and entertaining memoir Dress Codes. This book may not be what everyone has in mind when they extol ‘family values,’ but rarely has the true value of family been so movingly and lovingly evoked.” —John Colapinto, author of As Nature Made Him:The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

“With disarming honesty and startling lucidity Noelle Howey beautifully weaves together the stories of three people coming into themselves. Like life, Howey’s frank, probing book is sexy and difficult, and painful and joyous.” —This be Nissen, author of The Good People of New York

“Tremendously gratifying, Dress Codes is both funny and entertaining, and purveys a vital social message: that there is not much more important than being at home in your body and mind.” —Amy Wilensky, author of Passing for Normal:A Memoir of Compulsion

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641744495
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/21/2002
  • Edition description: GOOD MORNING AMERICA BOOK CLUB
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Noelle Howey is the co-editor of Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Parents, winner of two 2000 Lambda Literary Awards. She has also written for Ms., Jane, Mother Jones, Teen People, Bitch, Mademoiselle, and Self. A finalist for a GLAAD Media Award, she received a 2001 Nonfiction Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. An Ohio native, Noelle Howey lives in Minneapolis with her husband.

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First Chapter


Foundation Garments


Coming Out, 1986

My mother's hatchback was parked in Section B, Aisle 12, between a small pile of beer cans and a battered Plymouth that looked as though it belonged on cement blocks. We were quiet.

I don't remember whether we left the house in the late morning or the early afternoon; I don't know if it was a Saturday or a Sunday. I can't say what we discussed in the car on the way to the mall, or whether we simply drove in silence. I didn't ask why we were going shopping all of a sudden, though I assumed we were trying to get out of my father's way. He looked pretty tired.

I watched the raindrops meander, forging crooked, loosely braided paths up the windshield. I had always been mesmerized and perplexed by the way rain crawls up car windows.

"Honey, are you listening? Do you understand what I'm saying?" my mother asked.

It was cold, even for late autumn, even for Cleveland.

"Yes, of course," I scoffed, buttoning my jacket.

My mother twisted in her bucket seat to face me as head-on as possible. That couldn't have been comfortable.

"I think you're not quite taking this in," she said.

Today, out of nowhere, right after our usual bowls of cornflakes, my mother decided that I needed socks, underwear, scrunchies--immediately. She hustled me into the car. "We're going to Penney's over at Randall," she said. "I'm not spending ten dollars so you can tell Debbie that you have socks from the Gap."

Randall Park was a strip mall behemoth with mud-streaked red carpeting, dry fountains, and third-tier retail establishments: Spencer Gifts instead of Papyrus, Frederick's of Hollywood instead of Victoria's Secret. I usually went elsewhere; thanks to purported gang activity, kids under sixteen weren't supposed to loiter in Randall without a chaperone. Anyway, I preferred the mall in Beachwood, or Bitchwood, as everyone called it, which had gleaming tile floors, perfectly squeegied skylights, a food court teeming with exotic boys from neighboring high schools.

We bought a whole armload of socks, and a plastic tube stuffed with panties in various pastel shades--a distant second choice after my mother rejected the thongs. She seemed anxious, fiddling with her keys, clucking her tongue.

While the clerk wrapped my panties in tissue paper, she asked my mother, "Honey, how's the weather out there? You know I hate not being able to see the outside from this place. It could be snowing for all I'd know!" My mother normally would've chuckled, "Oh boy, I just love windows, too. Well, it's raining right now..." And three minutes later, she and the cashier--named Wanda, apparently, originally from Kentucky--would be laughing and patting each other's hands like long-lost childhood friends. My mother, the former speech therapist, would have instinctively started mimicking Wanda's phrases, her pauses, the places where her sentences would drift off. But today the clerk got no response. My mom simply smiled, weakly, and handed over her credit card.

Before we left the store, I ran over to the Misses section to ogle a pair of size zero side-zipper Guess jeans. My mother lingered in the aisle watching me, warily. "Well, we bought cheap so-ocks," I pleaded, elongating my syllables preciously. This poor-me-buy-me-expensive-clothes bit never worked, but I always gave it a shot.

My mother didn't even blink. "Okay, okay," she sighed. "Get whatever you want."

Mom walked slowly back to the car in the rain. I practically skipped ahead, clutching my bag of jeans to my heart like found treasure. Debbie will die, I thought gleefully.

"Come on," I yelled. "You're getting wet."

She tossed the remaining bags in the hatchback between the lawn fertilizer and her golf clubs. We got back in the car, and I flipped on the radio. "...easy lover, she'll take your heart but you won't feel it."

"Um, can I change it?" I asked tentatively, realizing that having been gifted with designer loot, I should probably tread lightly with my requests.

"Actually, can you turn it off?" Mom said.

She stared straight out the windshield, tapping her fingers against the steering wheel. Uh. It's work. She's been fired. Suddenly my heart lifted. It's Dad. Maybe he's dying! No, that's terrible. I take it back. I'm sorry, God. Or whoever. I take it back. Make him just sick. Maybe they're getting divorced. Or he's moving. Far, far away.

"It's Dad. There's something I need to tell you."

My mother said one of the following things:

a) "Your dad likes to wear women's clothes."

b) "Noelle, your dad is different from other dads in that he likes to wear girls' clothes, and he wants to do it all the time."

c) "You know how you like fuzzy sweaters? Your dad likes them, too. Girl sweaters, I mean."

My mom doesn't know what she said either.

In truth, it doesn't matter. I remember exactly what I thought: You have got to be kidding me. There's no news like hearing irrefutable proof that you're not the sole cause of your parents' woes, your father's drinking, your unshakable feeling that you're not put together quite right and finding out the problem all along was your father's unrequited yearning for angora.

My mother was looking at me very intently and quizzically. "You understand, Dad has been doing this for many, many years. And he doesn't want to have to hide it from you anymore."

"It's a big secret that he likes to wear girls' sweaters?" I retorted, trying to keep my voice steady and fierce.

"Well"--my mother sighed--"yes. And we wanted you to know." I supposed I was scripted to weep, to riddle my mother with questions. Tough. I was not going to be upset about this. I had decided not to care about my father years ago. With that resolution firmly in mind, I immediately burst into tears.

"So, it's not my fault? That he's so...like the way he is? He doesn't hate me?" I sobbed. "It's not my fault?" My mother says I repeated that same sentence twenty times. Despite my resolve not to crack, not to betray the fact that I actually, maybe, loved my father, once I started crying I couldn't stop. Nor could I stop feeling an overpowering sense of relief engulf my entire body, causing an almost anesthetizing effect. I blew my nose and wiped my face with my mother's sleeve.

"We're trusting you with this really important information, okay? You need to not tell anyone about this. You can talk about it with me, or your dad, or the therapist we've been seeing, if you want. She's really nice. But don't tell anyone about your dad. That means Debbie, too, okay? Dad could lose his job, we could lose the house, you could get teased at school. We need you to be an adult here, and keep this a secret."

My mother forced a grim smile. Her eyes were shot, her freckled face sunken and pallid, almost the color of jellyfish. For the first time, I realized my father wasn't coming out to me himself. My mother--kisser of paper cuts, attendee of parent-teacher functions, purchaser of produce--was on cleanup duty again. Of all the tasks not to push off on your wife, one might imagine coming out would be right up there.

"Sweetie," my mother said, registering surprise, "I told you your dad loved you. I always told you that."

"I know," I said, still exhaling. "You told me."

Had my mother or father told me the truth when I was sixteen, or twenty-five, I might have been beyond tears, and even beyond caring whether I was to blame for his obvious unhappiness. My father came out just in time.

Copyright © 2002 by Noelle Howey

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2006

    True Form for True Life...

    This was a wonderfull book, tackling the difficulties facing more and more families in this century. For those who don't understand the open honesty of the author...I'm sorry they missed they missed the entire point of this book...to make sure others in these types of situations in life do not feel they are alone. It only takes one brave person to lay themselves open to give poise and power to others in similar situations all over the world. Kudos to this author for approaching such a difficult topic and using it effectively to empower and not simply entertain readers.

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