Read the full analysis and the summary of the poem ‘Dressing Up’ by Jackie Kay; where the speaker is a teenager who feels trapped in a working-class Scottish family; he lives with a violent father and a mother who copes by drinking. They have opened up to their mother about being a transvestite, but received no support from her, as the mother considers it to be shameful.


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Dressing Up 

(for Toby)

My family`s all so squalid

I`m trying to put it behind

me – real typical working-class

Scottish: Da beats Ma drinks it off.

I couldn`t stomach it, banging

(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright restrictions)



  • Squalid – extremely dirty and unpleasant, often associated with poverty.
  • Da – Scottish dialect for “dad” or father.
  • Ma – Scottish dialect for “mom” or mother.
  • Stomach – to tolerate or endure something unpleasant.
  • Top blast – at the highest volume.
  • Rouge – a red-coloured cosmetic used to add colour to cheeks or lips.
  • Frills – decorative details added to clothing or accessories.
  • Quentin Crisp – a British writer and eccentric known for his flamboyant appearance and outspoken views on sexuality and gender.
  • Drab – dull, lacking in brightness or colour, and uninteresting in appearance.
  • Feather boa – a long, fluffy accessory made from feathers, it is worn around the neck or shoulders.
  • Transvite – a misspelling of “transvestite,” a term historically used to describe a person who dresses in clothing typically associated with the opposite gender.


My family is working-class Scottish, with a typical setup: my dad beats my mom, and she drinks to forget about it. I can’t stand it, so I blast my music and drown out the sound of my family life.

Years ago, I told my mom that I was transgender, but she was so shocked by this news that she said she’d rather I’d killed someone. She wasn’t joking.

However, my lifestyle doesn’t hurt anyone, and I am not trying to prove anything. I simply love putting on makeup, especially mascara and rouge. I enjoy wearing many layers, unlike my mum – who dresses plainly with no accessories.

Last Christmas, I dressed up in black stockings and a beautiful, bright red feather boa. I felt so alive and vibrant, especially when I compared my clothes with my mom’s boring outfit. Even Quentin Crisp, who’s known for his flamboyant style, would have looked dull next to me.

My mom barely touched her turkey that day. Eventually, she turned to me and said, “What did I do? I know they call you a “transvite.” You look horrible dressed like that.” At the time, she was wearing a navy dress and had a black eye (a bruise around her eye from where my father had hit her).


The speaker in the poem “Dressing Up” is a teenager who feels trapped in a working-class Scottish family; he lives with a violent father and a mother who copes by drinking. They have opened up to their mother about being a transvestite, but received no support from her, as the mother considers it to be shameful. Nevertheless, the speaker finds joy in putting on make-up and wearing colourful clothes with lots of accessories. Their style contrasts with their mother’s plain way of dressing. It is also a way of expressing their flamboyant, theatrical personality. While they are rebellious (which is typical for teenagers) and often hurt by their mother’s words, they also seem to recognise that their mother is struggling too, and extend compassion towards her.

Note: The poem is dedicated to a man named ‘Toby’, so the poem is likely spoken from his perspective, with the speaker being Toby himself, who tells the story of his difficult upbringing. However, the speaker could equally be interpreted more personally – representing the plight of many working-class transvestite, transgender or non-binary people who are misunderstood by their parents. 


  • Dialect – “Da beats Ma drinks it off.” – By using a working-class Scottish dialect, the speaker paints a more vivid picture of their experiences and emotions, which helps create a stronger connection with the reader. It also helps to underline the contrast between the speaker’s desire for self-expression and their working-class roots.
  • Repetition – “I`m trying to put it behind”, “I couldnt stomach it, banging” – several lines and clauses in the poem start with the pronoun “I”, emphasising the speaker’s first person, subjective perspective while creating a sense of intimacy with the reader. The repetition of “I” also reinforces the theme of self-expression and self-discovery, which is central to the poem.
  • Irony – the speaker uses situational irony in the line “She’d rather I murdered somebody than that” to convey the extreme level of disapproval and rejection they face from their mother regarding their transgender identity. By using such an exaggerated statement, the speaker highlights the intensity of their mother’s negative reaction and the difficulty they face in being accepted for who they are. The irony in the statement also adds a touch of dark humour, which could be seen as a coping mechanism for the speaker to deal with the gravity of the situation.
  • Hyperbole – the use of hyperbole in the phraseeven Quentin Crisp would/ look drab beside my beautiful/ feather boa” serves to magnify the speaker’s sense of confidence and pride in their appearance. Quentin Crisp was a renowned English writer and storyteller known for his flamboyant and unconventional style. By suggesting that even Crisp would pale in comparison to their outfit, the speaker emphasises the uniqueness and daringness of their own fashion sense. They suggest that their own personal self-expression transcends even the most well-known and avant-garde fashion icons.
  • Metaphor – “even Quentin Crisp would/ look drab beside my beautiful/ feather boa – bright fucking red.” – the outfit is a metaphorical representation of the speaker’s vibrant personality and desire to stand out and be noticed.
  • Allusion – the mention of Quentin Crisp, a famous LGBTQ+ icon, adds popular cultural references that are related to gender identity and the challenges of self-expression.
  • Sibilance – “See at Christmas I had/ on black stockings Santa would kill/ for” – the repetition of the “s” sound in “See”, “Christmas”, “stockings”, and “Santa” draws the listener’s attention to these words, highlighting the speaker’s desire to be seen and admired. Additionally, the phrase “Santa would kill for” is a hyperbolic metaphor that compares the speaker’s stockings to something highly valuable or desirable, adding to the sense of glamour and allure that the sibilance helps to create.
  • Onomatopoeia – “banging doors”, “top blast” – the speaker’s use of onomatopoeia creates vivid auditory images of their behaviour when they can no longer tolerate their family’s violent and insensitive way of being. This type of rebellious behaviour is often specific to teenagers.
TASK: In what ways does the mother of the poem seem hypocritical? How do you feel towards her: do you feel sorry for her and view her as a victim, or rather see her as an active contributor to the speaker’s suffering?

Church Invisible by Jackie Kay – Analysis


  • Title – the poem’s title refers to the speaker’s habit of putting on makeup and wearing elaborate outfits as a way of expressing their individuality and asserting their identity. This is highlighted in the poem when the speaker describes their love of dressing theatrically in black stockings and a bright red feather boa. However, the phrasal verb “Dressing Up” can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the speaker’s attempt to “dress up” their working-class Scottish background and distance themselves from their family’s behaviour. This is suggested by the opening lines of the poem, where the speaker describes their family as “squalid”, yet tries to put it behind them.
  • Form – the poem is written in free verse, which means that it does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Instead, the lines are arranged in stanzas of varying lengths, with no fixed syllable count or rhyme scheme. This form allows the poet to use language more flexibly and expressively and to create a natural, conversational tone that feels spontaneous and authentic. The lack of a strict form also reflects the theme of the poem, which is centred around the speaker’s struggle to assert their individuality and break free from the constraints of their working-class Scottish background.
  • Punctuation – “I`m trying to put it behind/ me – real typical working-class/ Scottish: Da beats Ma drinks it off.” – the use of dashes serves to create pauses and shifts in the flow of the poem, creating stream of consciousness style of writing, which captures the speaker’s fragmented thoughts.
  • Capitalisation – the speaker uses capitalisation to emphasise certain words or phrases, such as “Da” and “Ma”. By capitalising these words, the speaker draws attention to their importance and highlights their significance in shaping their identity and worldview.
  • Non-standard spelling – the spellings of “Ma” and “Da” in the poem reflect the speaker’s background and add to the poem’s authenticity. On the other hand, the fact that the speaker’s mother uses “transvite” instead of “transvestite” suggests her lack of knowledge about the subject and her reluctance to learn more, even if her child needs her support in a world that is already prejudiced against them.


Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet, novelist, and memoirist who openly identifies as non-binary and advocates for LGBTQ+ rights. She has used her writing to delve into the complexities of gender and sexual identity and has been a vocal supporter of greater acceptance and inclusivity for LGBTQ+ people, speaking out against discrimination and violence towards them.

During her tenure as Scotland’s national poet from 2016 to 2021, Kay highlighted issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community and has written extensively about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in Scotland.

The poem “Dressing Up“, which was published in 1991 in the collection “Severe Gale 8“, is one of Kay’s notable works. The collection explores themes of race, identity, and family, and “Dressing Up” is a personal and introspective poem that reflects the speaker’s desire to break free from the limitations of their working-class Scottish family and express their individuality through dressing up. This poem reflects Kay’s interest in exploring the intersections of identity, gender, and class, which are recurring themes in her work.


Appearance can be a powerful means of expressing yourself – one key attitude in “Dressing Up” by Jackie Kay is the way in which it promotes the speaker’s unquenchable desire for self-expression and individuality. The speaker seeks to escape from the limitations of their working-class Scottish family and define themselves through dressing up in bright, flamboyant clothes and makeup. This attitude reflects the poet’s interest in exploring issues of identity, gender, and class and how these intersect and shape our lives.

Adolescence is a time of rebellion against societal norms and expectations – the speaker’s desire to dress up in bold, unconventional ways is a method of pushing back against the conservative and traditional values embodied by their family, particularly their mother, who is described as dressing in a way that is “boring” with “no frills.” This rebellious attitude is typical of teenagers who are trying to find their path in life.

Sometimes, family can be antagonistic instead of protective – the speaker describes their family as “squalid” and suggests that they are trying to put that part of their life behind them. The mother is depicted as being indifferent to the speaker’s desires and even hostile towards them, calling them a “transvite” and saying they look like a “bloody mess.” This attitude reflects Kay’s interest in exploring the complexities of family relationships and the tensions that can arise when individuals within a family have different values or aspirations.

TASK: Are you traditional, or experimental? Explore your own thoughts on the idea of clothing as a form of self-expression. You can discuss this topic with a partner, or write down your opinions.

Complete Analysis of Compound Fracture by Jackie Kay


TASK: Pick two of the themes below, make a mind map and add four separate quotations that relate to it. Make short notes of analysis, explaining how and why each one relates to your theme. What, in your opinion, is the poet’s final message or statement about each theme that you chose?

  • Rebellion
  • Gender identity
  • Self-expression
  • Nonconformity
  • Family relationships
  • Working-class experience
  • LGBTQ+ identity
  • Violence
  • Acceptance and inclusivity
  • Shame


  1. How does the speaker’s Scottish working-class background influence their sense of identity?
  2. Write a character sketch of the speaker based on the details revealed in the poem. What kind of person do you think the speaker is? What motivates them to dress up in unconventional ways?
  3. Find all of the references to violence in the poem. Why do you think these are used? 
  4. In the poem, how does the mother’s attitude towards the speaker’s dressing up reflect a larger societal attitude towards non-conformity? Use evidence in your answer.
  5. Read the poem ‘For Heidi with Blue Hair’ by Fleur Adcock. Compare and contrast the presentation of appearance and identity in these two poems. 
  6. The speaker’s mother appears to feel ashamed of her child’s gender identity. Explore how shame can cause families and communities to ostracise and harass the victim instead of providing support.


  1. Compare how the theme of violence is approached in “Dressing Up” and another poem in your collection.
  2. Discuss the role of gender and sexuality in the poem by exploring how the speaker’s desire to dress up challenges or reinforce traditional gender norms and expectations.
  3. In what ways does the poem explore the theme of family relationships? 


(a) In what ways and with what effects does Kay present familial relationships in her poems? In your answer, you should refer in detail to three poems in your selection. 

(b) Write a critical appreciation of the poem, considering in what ways it is characteristic of Kay’s poetic methods and concerns in your selection.

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