Picture the scene: a greasy spoon café on a dark winter’s evening, crowded with people wrapped up against the cold. On a table for four a man sits alone, cradling a cold cup of coffee. He’s wearing a pink wig, an oversized pink dress and a slick of garish pink lipstick. No one around him seems to notice he’s there. The whole thing looks like a photograph straight out of a weekend colour supplement, part of an series of shots depicting the British being  “eccentric” and/or “tolerant”. I say as much to the man at the table. He tells me I should take the photo, then. But I can’t because one of our children has started climbing all over his lap and the moment for pictures has gone.

My partner does not usually wear dresses or make-up. He hasn’t worn them for years. This evening when he put them on it made him feel old and wistful:

Years ago if I did this I’d look androgynous and pretty. Now I don’t have the skin. I just look awful.

For my part, I found this a little harsh. Makeup doesn’t become him as much as it did in the odd photo I’ve seen from the days before I met him. But this time he was trying to look like an ugly sister for the local Christmas parade. If it’d been anything else, I’d have lent him my “proper” stuff, Urban Decay and the like. A dash of overpriced Tart Lip Gunk can work wonders.

The boys and I had arrived late, missing the parade itself. I was dressed as a witch, my youngest as the gruffalo and my eldest as Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk (or as an axe-wielding elf, with echoes of Don’t Look Now, depending on whether or not you’d asked him to explain his attire). In short, none of us were dressed in our usual clothes and, given the context, this would not have seemed strange. I was a grumpy witch because I missed my coat (I’d left it in the car, fearing that a yellow puffa jacket was insufficiently witchy). I envied my partner his false breasts because they looked warming, although not as warming as Youngest’s gruffalo costume. Next time we do anything like this, I’m being the gruffalo’s grandma, or whatever aging gruffalo relative’s available.

Following our meal, on the walk back to the car, the four of us – ugly sister, witch, gruffalo, murderous elf – passed a group of teenagers. Suddenly one of them called out loudly:

Look, there’s a tranny!

Some giggling and some whispering, before one of the girls told the others “not to say things like that because he’s got his children with him”. Her friends weren’t sure whether to believe her:

Can transvestites even have children?

At this point my partner considered stopping to deliver a short biology lesson. But it was cold and the elf and the gruffalo were getting tired, so we just walked on by. No one commented on my witch costume (a relief, really. I could see kids like that really going for trial by ordeal).

I don’t have issues with my partner dressing as he did. Or rather, I do, but they’re so jumbled I don’t know where to start with them. I wouldn’t want to call him “a man wearing women’s clothing” as this feels stupidly prescriptive – yet this is the prescriptive context we’re in. I feel mistrustful of pantomime dames – the misogyny, the ridicule, the ultimate reinforcement of “normality” – but would not know how to decide what is authentic and what is conservative parody (besides, I’ve dressed as a witch, which is hardly stereotype-busting behaviour). If my partner wore a dress every day, that would be his choice, but as a one-off it feels as though someone is being mocked – perhaps women, perhaps other men who wear dresses, perhaps anyone who doesn’t adhere to the gender binaries we claim to challenge yet follow all the time. At the same time, though, it is just a dress. What’s wrong with wearing a dress? Nothing. No one should own it. And yet this is an area in which I feel out of my depth, as though I need to read several books on performance and gender identity before I can allow myself to decide who is sending which message to whom.

I think those kids just wanted to say the word “tranny”, just on the off chance it would upset someone, and on the off chance it would make each of them look more “normal”. Perhaps they would be less likely to laugh at someone who was wearing “the wrong clothes” if it looked as thought it was something that person did habitually, but I don’t know. Perhaps they’d be worse. As someone who dresses “normally” – who dresses, mainly, to try to make herself look smaller – I don’t tend to give enough thought to the power of pieces of cloth to make other people feel threatened.

When we got home this evening my partner headed upstairs to remove his fake breasts. Glancing down at myself I thought – for a millisecond – “perhaps I should take mine off, too”. I’d forgotten they weren’t easily removable. But then of course, however much I claim to hate my figure, there’s an awful lot I don’t notice. Perhaps it’s down to a degree of comfort in my own skin and the cloth that covers it. For arbitrary reasons I meet with approval. It’s a privilege I don’t tend to appreciate enough.