Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton


At eighteenth-century masquerades, women and men often disguised themselves as the opposite sex. In that period, was it easier for a woman to be mistaken as a man; did people perceive the sexes differently than we do today. I doubt that there is anywhere near enough evidence to suggest that today we "see" sex and gender differently than people did in the past. When unisex clothing was popular in the 1960s, plenty of people claimed that males and females were too easily mistaken for one another. And professional drag performers, female as well as male, in modern times have been able to "fool" people, especially in situations where one is not expecting to see someone in drag. The "mistakes" will be made most consistently when the male already has feminine features or the female already has boyish or masculine features, and this I think was true in the eighteenth century also. Horace Walpole, as is well known, passed for an old woman at a masquerade; but it seems to me that Walpole could easily be mistaken for an old woman even if he were not at a masquerade!

Stories about women who pretended to be men and joined the army or navy often have a little anecdote about how they were perceived to be rather effeminate young boys. Such biographies also occasionally suggest that the women in question were tomboys when they were young, i.e. in some ways they were mistaken for boys even before they took on the role and clothes of males. There are also instances when some women took very great care to appear to be men in all things, for example some of them used a leather-encased funnel device that allowed them to pee against a wall while standing up. If out of the corner of your eye you see your mate apparently peeing against the wall, you aren't likely to question his sex.

Male cross-dressing seems to have occurred mostly in connection with sexual solicitation and prostitution, which of course happened also at masquerades. Such men at a masquerade would not just be dressing up "as a woman", but almost like a whore/courtesan, which is really something rather different than a woman. For example, they would be very highly painted and extravagantly coiffeured, and therefore mask-like even before donning a mask, or perhaps dressed in a callimanco gown and mob cap that hid more than they revealed. Also, of course, the dark avenues of the pleasure gardens would not have made close inspection possible.

John Cooper, who regularly crossed-dressed during the late 1720s/early 1730s and who was known to all his acquaintance as Princess Seraphina, was usually successful in picking up men at Vauxhall while dressed as a woman. Mary Poplet, who kept the Two Sugar Loaves public house in Drury Lane and was a friend of Princess Seraphina, said "I have seen her several times in Women's Cloaths, she commonly us'd to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl'd all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman." I don't think there's any indication here that Mary Poplet "saw" sex/gender much differently than we do today, or was more easily fooled than we would be today. It's just that the skills of cross-dressers were often well practiced, and sometimes, perhaps, even "innate" rather than socially constructed.

William Beckford kept a scrapbook of cuttings about cross-dressers that he cut from newspapers during 1790–1840, mainly the Morning Chronicle. It's surprising how often such phenomena are reported in the newspapers – even much earlier, from the 1690s.

Today when we hear the term "transvestite", we will probably think of a man in drag. But it's interesting that during the 18th and 19th centuries, persons who passed as members of the opposite sex over long periods of time were mostly women. Princess Seraphina is about the only long-term male cross-dresser I know of before about the 1780s. All the other reports about men in drag indicate that it was done for temporary pleasure, e.g. at small private masquerade parties, or for prostitution. Or for expediency, such as escaping from prison or from the country. (Incidentally, I believe Prince Charles Edward Stuart was good looking enough to successfully pull off a disguise of this sort.)

In contrast, there are many, many accounts of female long-term cross-dressers during this period: not only women soldiers, but also women pickpockets who dress as boys or sailors, women who dress as boys and serve at public houses, even women who keep public houses as men. There may have been many female cross-dressers in the itinerant or street culture. Mary Chapman the street ballad singer lived as a man for at least ten years during the 1820s/30s, and lived with another woman as man and wife during this period. The German cross-dresser (and lesbian) Catharina Margaretha Linck was part of an vagabond religious culture in 1710–20.

Emma Donoghue covers the subject of female cross-dressing very thoroughly in her book Passions Between Women: British lesbian culture 1668–1801 (London: Scarlet Press, 1993). Donoghue gives a good typology of motivations. Her view is that a substantial number of female cross dressers donned men's clothes in order to escape undetected in a lesbian marriage, even to the extent that the one who donned the male clothes could be chosen by the flip of a coin. But I think it is rather hard to prove that this was ever true extensively, and is countered by the many documented cross- dressing women who went from one lesbian marriage to another, i.e. they were always the "husband" and their successive partners were always the "wives". I don't think that a reversal of role in subsequent relationships is widely documented. Tomboys are usually noticeable from very early ages (as are pansies who dress like Salome at age five), and they often preserve that status throughout life. In other words, I favour the essentialist common-sense view that most cross dressers don the clothes of the "other" sex in order to match an inner desire rather than a social expectation.

An interesting difference between men and women is that, as far as we can judge from available documents, male cross-dressers fraternized with one another and formed a community, whereas female cross-dressers remained private individuals and did not network amongst themselves. The discovery of female cross-dressers was regularly reported in newspapers up through the 1930s/1940s. I would be tempted to say that there are fewer and fewer women who lead this secret existence, but who knows? Billy Tipton, the Big Band musician who married and adopted sons, was not discovered to be a woman until her death in 1989.

On the subject of masquerades and similar occasions, there are accepted conventions about not being able to recognize people, but I don't think these have changed a great deal over the past few centuries or that "we can see things more clearly now" than our forbears! Part of the social utility of a public masquerade was that you could speak to someone without being "introduced" to them and without having to subsequently exchange calling cards etc., which would have entailed awkward or impossible consequences if the persons were of different classes. The "disguise" was serious enough, but not literal. When I see references to people travelling incognito, I think in many cases this just means that the traveller and those who meet him or her have quietly agreed that they won't have to go through the social conventions arising from an acknowledgement of who they really are. When Queen Victoria went on holiday to France she travelled as the Countess of Windsor: everyone knew perfectly well she was the Queen, but by not acknowledging it, she was allowed to enjoy a normal holiday without having to attend State receptions etc. This accepted failure of perception forms one of my rules for living, though unfortunately I have forgotten my source: "A Lady never hears that which she ought not to hear. Having unmistakeably heard, she fails to understand."

Copyright © 2002, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in October–December 2002.

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