Ray Davies & the Search for Sartorial Bliss
By WUMB Blog contributor, Mike Mellor
Happy birthday to Sir Ray Davies, who turns 75 on Friday, 6/21/2019. Albert O. will feature Davies's music this week on Highway 61 Revisited, Saturdays 8 AM to noon (and re-broadcast Sundays at 8 PM). Listen at wumb.org.
Has anybody here seen a chick called Dick?
He looks real burly but he's really hip
So is this song about him, written by Ray Davies 42 years ago.
Before we go any further, let's make a few things clear. There are many motivations for people who dress differently from how their assigned gender and cultural Identities dictate. Cross-dressing is a distinct self-expression that is often separate from gender identity and sexual preference. Cross-dressers are not necessarily gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, though they may also be any of those. Though it is sometimes an introductory behavior on the way to identifying as L, G, B or T, many cross-dressers are in fact cisgender heterosexuals (if not exactly "heteronormative").
This is where we find Dick, the protagonist of Davies's song. He's a married, assumed heterosexual man who discovered that he just feels restricted in conventional clothes. Now what's a fellow to do about that?
I can't answer that, but it's clear that the appropriate thing for a human to do is experiment with what makes them feel healthy and happy. Dick did that and, lo and behold, when he puts on that dress, he feels like a princess.
Davies wasn't a newcomer to writing about gender benders or clothing fetishists. In 1966 he wrote "Dedicated Follower of Fashion", a send up of the mod dandies of Carnaby Street. And of course there's "Lola", the 1970 tongue-in-cheek tale from a London cross-dressing bar.
"Out of the Wardrobe" is different from those songs, though, in its sensitivity and positivity. Even if the ‘66 underground knew that The Kinks had an affinity for deviance (just look at their band name), “Fashion” still has a sneering overtone that hasn’t aged well. “Lola” does a little better with its frenetic ambivalence and open ending, but neither come close to the tenderness of “Wardrobe”.*
Dick's wife, Betty Lou, is the difference maker. Her reaction to her husband's reveal can be summed up in the four lines:
Betty Lou didn't know what to do at first
But she's learning how to cope at last
She's got the best of both worlds
And she's really in a state of elation
After a period of readjustment it appears the couple found a situation that suits them both. She wears the trousers and smokes the pipe / And he washes up and she helps him wipe.
A happy ending if I've ever heard one! Ray finally got it right.
* One can argue that there are offensive words in the song--unrepeatable here--that shouldn’t be there. That's a fair critique, but I think it's important not to throw the inclusive baby out with the slur bathwater. 1977 England was a different time and place, and Davies often uses crudeness as a satirical tool to get his points across.
Mike Mellor is a librarian and music lover. He was editor for the Boston Blues Society in 2009-2010 and ran The Killing Floor blog from 2009 to 2013.
Mike is interested in U.S. history through the lens of its music, both as primary source and revisionist narrative. He believes the musical artifacts left to us tell stories that were largely untold by other media and offer a uniquely diverse look into American life.