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The Price of Dressing Your Truth

Let’s talk about clothing laws.

Just 100 years ago, LGBTQIA+ people lived by a “three-piece law” - “three pieces of female attire” in order to avoid being arrested for cross-dressing.*

An arrest at a bar circa 940

Get this - the three-piece rule was never really a law that had been codified into the books. It was more of a guideline, utilized to strengthen other laws. What were these other laws you ask? Well, many of them were meant to criminalize and eradicate non-white cultural dress and traditionally indigenous ceremonial clothing. Police found a way through this systematically intentional legal system to target, sexually harass, assault, and fuel hate against both the queer and indigenous communities.

We cannot talk about the history of dressing freely without acknowledging the Ball Scene. In Harlem, New York, a celebration of black, trans, and queer excellence rose in defiance against the rest of society. Men dressed to the nines in elegant ball gowns, women donned their best investment banker suits, and everyone's identity was embraced and celebrated.

As the ball scene grew in popularity, so did the arrests.

Arrest outside a ball, circa 1960

Bars known to be friendly to queer folks were raided. Mass arrests became the norm. Street violence soared. It was an unsafe time for our community.

Then came The Stonewall uprising. The queer and trans individuals at that bar set the standard that we were not to be prosecuted anymore for our dress. Afterward, arrests for “cross-dressing” dried up almost immediately. Though they continued, it was much less widespread and less easier to prosecute through the farcical laws.

Now in 2023, the lasting impacts of these laws still touch us. In 2011, NYPD used the farcical “three-piece” law to arrest protestors who wore masks to obscure their identity in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Think about the outrage of Harry Styles wearing a dress. Sam Smith in lingerie. Doja Cat in a suit and mustache.

Though these laws target queer and trans people, the effect of their reach touches us all.

*This term is outdated in 2023, but relevant language to the laws of the time.


  • “Transgender History” by Susan Stryker

  • “Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet” by William N. Eskridge Jr.,

  • “A Dress Not Belonging to His or Her Sex” by Clare Sears

  • “Cross-Dressing and the Criminal” by I. Bennett Capers

  • ”The Cross-Dressing Case for Bathroom Equality” by Levi and Redman,

  • “Transgender History & Geography: Crossdressing in Context, Volume 3” by G.G. Bolich

  • The Transgender Law Center

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