I’m standing in a shop in Leytonstone staring at a pair of fake breasts. However, the place is far from the fancy dress stag night vibe that you might associate with such a product; in fact, the environment I'm in feels more like a tea shop run by the Samaritans. Nestled between a Chicken Cottage and a cash 'n' carry on the Lea Bridge Road, Doreen Fashions has been selling women's clothing (and other accessories) for over half a century, and I’m taking a look at their latest stock.
Of course, women usually have their own breasts, so the fake pair's inclusion alongside a range of frocks, gowns and lingerie might seem a little peculiar at first. But, as owner Alan Freedman explains, "three quarters of our customers are men" – a sex not typically known to come equipped with a natural bosom.
Now in its 60th year, Doreen's is one of the longest-running suppliers of outfits for cross-dressing men in the UK. However, as with most cult phenomenons, this wasn’t the original intention. “It started off as a woman’s shop,” says Alan. “Then, in the 1960s, the transvestites started coming in. Mum had a good rapport with them, so they just kept on coming. They were often showbiz types – she liked showbiz.”
Alan’s showbiz-loving mum Betty opened the first branch of Doreen Fashions in 1953. Part-time secretarial work was giving her repetitive strain disorder, so she decided to pack it in and start her own business. At the shop's peak in the 1970s and 80s there were five branches – other locations including Trafalgar Square, City Road and Baker Street. Unfortunately the chain was hit hard by rent hikes and, more recently, the recession, so now the only branch left is the Leytonstone shop I'm currently standing in.
The fact that gay men were still being imprisoned for their sexuality might tell you that the 50s weren't the kindest decade to Britain's LGBT community. So it comes as little surprise that it was kind of difficult for a man to go into a high street shop and buy a dress, let alone have a chance to try one on for size. Doreen Fashions was the exception to the rule.
A few years before Betty's death, the Fetish Channel made a documentary about the shop – think lo-fi cut scenes of indistinct stock soundtracked by "Hey Big Spender" – where you can really see her action, helping the glamorous, broad-shouldered presenter pick an outfit for a party.
And not too much has changed – you can still expect an exceedingly high level of customer service these days. The store is staffed by long-term shop assistants Claire, Marcia, Jane and Lena. Between them they have clocked up over 35 years at Doreen's.
“I didn’t know they catered for men when I first started,” admits Claire, in a thick East End accent. “It was a surprise, but I didn’t mind. Cross-dressing – it’s not a fetish thing, it’s just something that keeps them going. They may have broken up from their wife or just worn their mum’s heels since they were kids. Betty simply taught me to treat everyone the same.”
She strums her fingers on the counter. “Here, it’s one-to-one – we help you from the moment you walk in. It’s like a personal service. We are reasonably priced and there are very friendly staff. If you go on Google and search “big shoes”, “large outfits” or “tranny dress”, Doreen’s comes out on the first page.”
The clothes rails inside are stuffed with plus-size dresses and glamorous party outfits. Fake lashes, padded bums and corsets hang on hooks, and it doesn’t take long to spot another shelf holding stacks of boxes containing Transform Super Perks, or artificial breasts. (I'm not a perv, I promise – they're just sort of mesmerising.)
It’s as if every constituent part of the female form has been exploded around the shop, before being neatly organised into stacks, placed on a shelf and labelled with a price. “Breastforms are bestsellers,” Alan tells me. But you’ve really got to want some; a pair will set you back anywhere between £95 to £305.
The store caters for a wide range of clientele, from drag performers to guys looking for a pair of stockings "for their girlfriends" (“They say that, but we know!” laughs Claire) and women looking for women’s clothes. While I’m there, an elderly Greek lady in a mink coat who appears to be on a shopping spree dumps a pile of a dresses on the counter before unsuccessfully haggling the price down. She doesn't look like the type of person who'd be phased if she bumped into a man wearing the same outfit as her.
The staff have a policy of discretion, so won’t spill the names of any celebrity clientele. But I spoke to artist and well known cross-dresser Grayson Perry about Doreen Fashions and, unsurprisingly, he has paid the store a visit – his first purchase being a sequinned top from the City Road branch at some point in the 80s.
“It seemed old fashioned even then,” he tells me. ”It’s never been what you’d call a ‘cutting edge’ shop – more budget glamour. But then that’s what a lot of trannies go for.”
He continued, “It was a very important gateway place for people who didn’t have the confidence to go to the high street. It seemed like a safe haven. It still is.”
Another key figure on London’s trans scene is Vicky Lee, author of The Tranny Guide, which – during the mid-90s – was the definitive resource for cross dressers. Vicky tells me how the increase of discreet, easy-access online shops has made it harder for shops like Doreen Fashions to stand out. Then there’s the fact that the high street has become far more tolerant of cross-dressing customers than they were in the past.
“Nowadays, you can pretty much go anywhere to shop,” Vicky says. “The shops train the assistants to value every customer, whether they’ve got one leg or are painted green.”
However, while that may be the case nowadays, in the 90s Doreen Fashions was one of only two women’s clothes shops in the capital that catered for men.
“Once you found it, it was like a one-stop shop,” says Vicky. “Before the internet, it was essential. It was the only place you could find out everything else about the scene. Inside, there were absolutely no questions asked. Betty just wanted people to feel good about themselves. They still treat each customer like they’re on the birthday card list.”
And what exactly is the treatment a man can expect when they walk into Doreen Fashions?
“Well – if you didn’t have one already, we’d give you a feminine name,” says Claire.
“You could be Wilma, to make it easy for you to remember. Then we’d fit your inner – you need a corset to get that hourglass shape before you can put on a dress. Then you’ll need a padded bum.”
When it comes to those dresses, their most popular designs often have long sleeves and crew necks, because – according to Claire – “Not everyone can shave their arms, you know? And we have everyone come in – road sweepers, teachers, coppers, you name it.”
There's something captivating about Doreen Fashions; from the outside, an unremarkable storefront selling women's clothing, but – on closer inspection – a radically progressive haven for a previously sidelined section of society, located in an area of London that's never been known for being particularly progressive or tolerant.
It's testament to the genuine sense of community that can spring up around local, independent businesses, and – while I can't quite afford to shell out £305 on the boobs as a sign of support – I'd hope that Doreen's carries on attracting trans women from all around the south east to keep it flourishing, rather than becoming the next institution of a local high street to face the blue and red rehaul of a Tesco takeover.
Follow Will on Twitter: @will_coldwell
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