AS THE FIRST TV show to feature a transgender protagonist, Transparent revolves around the concept of transition. It would be reductive, however, to say that the series is only about Mort’s transition into becoming Maura; rather, Transparent follows the personal and social consequences of her coming into the world again as a trans woman. As the title of the series suggests, the motor of the action is honesty, a quality that Maura and her family lack for the most part. Her coming out, then, sets into motion a process of self-reflection, dialogue and exchange for the Pfeffermans, who find themselves in the situation of having to reconsider and rebuild their relationships with themselves, with each other and with the rest of the world. Their wardrobes reflect these drastic changes in an organic way: sartorial transitions correspond to the characters’ life transitions.
Transparent begins with Maura’s failed attempt to come out to her children as a transgender woman. Disguised as her old self Mort in an oversized men’s shirt and shorts, her hair gathered in a small, perfunctory bun, Maura is unable to be honest with Sarah, Ali and Josh because she’s overwhelmed by their self-centeredness and selfishness. The viewer, much like Maura’s children, is still unaware of what is really happening. It isn’t until the end of the first episode that we see Maura as herself rather than as Mort. After the unsuccessful coming-out dinner is over, Maura’s real self is revealed with her hair worn loose and a flowing, 1970s-inspired kaftan. These two elements will develop as a mainstay in her signature style throughout the series. As costume designer Marie Schley stated, kaftans convey a certain gender ambiguity and eccentricity, while also evoking broad cultural references:
‘Jeffrey [Tambor] and I discussed which women Maura would be looking to and feel a kinship to. We talked about Joni Mitchell and Mama Cass. Also, Maura’s not just a transgender person. She has many other elements to her life. She comes from a liberal, intellectual background. She’s a professor. We always thought she’d be well travelled, and she probably went on sabbatical and gathered items from around the world.’1
In the first half of the first season, Maura’s style blossoms and becomes more elaborate as she eases into the feelings of liberation, discovery and regeneration following her coming out. For the first time in her life, as she resolves to her daughter Sarah, she is no longer ‘dressing up as a man.’ A key moment is Maura’s sartorial transition is the friendship with Davina, a trans woman who works at the LGBT Centre in L.A. Davina introduces Maura to hair extensions, gives her makeup tips and baptises her style as ‘California earth mama,’ which perfectly captures Maura’s love of kaftans and hippie culture, which she had only partially experienced as Mort before.
But Maura’s look wasn’t always inspired by the likes of Joni Mitchell. The episodes feature flashbacks to the late 1980s and early 1990s that reveal Mort’s friendship with another trans woman, Marcy, who becomes a companion along his process of experimentation and self-discovery. When Mort and Marcy bravely decide to meet in a hotel and introduce themselves as their female selves for the first time, Mort is wearing a mid-length, blond wig, a sequinned top and officially introduces herself to Marcy as ‘Daphne Sparkles.’ The name and the exaggerated femininity of the clothing are symbolic of Mort’s anticipation to wear women’s clothes, but the effect is borderline parodic: Daphne Sparkles looks more like a drag queen than a transgender woman. In fact, Marcy tells Mort that he needs a less ‘stripper-y’ name for her feminine self and baptises her as Maura. It is only in later flashbacks that we see Maura’s style evolving from sparkling, over-the-top 1980s references, towards flowing silhouettes and natural fabrics. One of the most successful looks created by Schley is the outfit worn by Maura to a Shabbat dinner, the first time we see Maura in the role of the family ‘matriarch.’ For the occasion she wears a rainbow kaftan made in Israel and a necklace of mah-jongg tiles. The clothing references Maura’s identity as a Jewish woman, while the tiles, according to the costume designer, evoke a traditional scene of old ladies playing mah-jongg together.2 The entire ensemble conveys much more than just her gender identity; rather, it embraces her as a complex, multifaceted person, and her dress is an extension of this inner identity.
The flashbacks also show the stark contrast between Maura’s earthy, hippie-inflected style and that of Shelly’s, Mort’s ex-wife. The difference is rooted in their personality and ambiguous gender roles in the family. Shelly sums up her dissatisfaction with the role swap during a family emergency with the line ‘I want you to be a man. Save the goddamn day.’ Shelly’s paired-down, masculine style is symbolic of the fact that she was forced to wear the trousers in the family as Mort unconsciously took on more of a motherly role. Later on in season two, when they attend Sarah’s wedding, the contrast could not be more evident: Maura is wearing a summery, breezy dress while Shelly is in a trouser suit. As season two progresses, however, and Shelly finds a new partner, her clothing becomes more colourful, the silhouettes less angular.
While Shelly’s clothes become more relaxed as the series goes on, the style of Josh, her and Maura’s son, becomes more serious and curated. At the beginning of Transparent we meet Josh as a musical producer who is going through a mid-life crisis, however, during season two we see him try to take responsibility for his life choices. This transition is manifested through a slow move from unbuttoned shirts and a casual style to a more muted colour palette and button-ups, which don him a more corporate, controlled look.
Similarly, Josh’s sister Ali, the younger of the Pfeffermans, goes through a radical sartorial transformation during the two seasons, perhaps the most significant one after Maura’s. What the two share is a sense of discomfort with their own body as well as struggles with their gender identity. While Maura’s is mostly shown through the flashbacks, Ali’s is explored in the present. The two of them strongly resemble one another; in fact, in the pilot Maura tells Ali: ‘you know, out of all my children you’re the one. You can see me most clearly.’ Ali’s issues with her body and gender identity parallel Maura’s in the series. Since episode one she is depicted as a typical tomboy who struggles with her femininity and has body image issues. After Maura’s coming out she becomes more keen to explore gender and decides to enroll in a women’s and gender studies program. There she meets Dale, a transgender man, whom she is deeply attracted to. During their first conversation he mentions his love of hyper-feminine women, or ‘high femme’ in his words, and observes that Ali on the other hand ‘gives off a dyke vibe.’ This prompts her to attempt to achieve a femme look that matches Dale’s cowboy getup: a leather fringe jacket, a dress that would not look out of place in a saloon, heeled boots and bright, red lipstick.
While the high femme look is short-lived, it offers Ali room to experiment with gender via clothing choices. The two extremes are reconciled in her appearance at the end of season two, where Ali seems to have come to terms with her homosexuality. Her clothes are genderless but more fitted and colourful in comparison to her earlier casual garb, her makeup becomes subtle and her hairstyle more disciplined. Her newly found confidence is thus accompanied by the creation of a stylised tomboy look. In this sense, Ali’s sartorial transition is as significant as Maura’s in terms of gender expression, in that it explores the hyper-masculine, the hyper-feminine and settles somewhere in the spectrum between the two.
By exploring a variety of ‘transitional’ wardrobes, Transparent succeeds in bringing to the fore not only a nuanced depiction of different gender identities and expressions, but also the temporary, sometimes playful experiments that remain often overlooked in our struggle to create a stable identity, to find the red thread, if you will, that brings together our fragmented selves.
Alessandro Esculapio is a writer and PhD student at the University of Brighton, UK.