9 June 2022

Cross-dressing in popular entertainment

The Alexamine Troupe
Above image of the Alexamine Troupe, the woman in the centre appears as a man on the image below far right

Post written by Lydia Thomas, Master in History, during a 100-hour work placement at the National Fairground and Circus Archive at The University Library.

Cross-dressing has been a key feature in British entertainment since the Shakespearian stage of the sixteenth century. Throughout its extensive history, the purpose, practice and meanings underlying cross-dressing have changed, reflecting prevailing social attitudes and anxieties relating to gender and sexuality. The earliest instances of cross-dressing in entertainment were purely for practicality, when male actors played female roles in Shakespearian plays, although this faded out upon women’s permitted entrance into the acting profession in 1660. However, cross-dressing made a come back in the nineteenth century, for predominantly comedic purposes. 

Early cross-dressing – Male and female impersonators

The nineteenth-century saw a flourishing of male impersonators on the stage, including in operas, burlesque and pantomime performances. From the 1860s, their popularity grew and they soon became a key feature of music-hall entertainment. Music halls were often attended by the working classes, and became a centre for mass entertainment. During this time, male impersonators such as Hetty King and Ella Shields, and most notably Vesta Tilley became very popular and were met with great success, touring both England and the United States. In their performances, these women often impersonated stereotypical versions of men in society at the time, including counterfeit gentlemen, but also soldiers during wartime as a means of supporting the war effort. Similarly, also during this time, female impersonators began appearing in music hall and pantomime line-ups. These male performers also took inspiration from society, and impersonated the archetypal women of the time, including the suffragettes and working-class widows. 

However, the turn of the century saw a decline in such forms of entertainment. Many music halls were being converted into cinemas and in society there was growing concern regarding the increasingly blurred lines between gender and sexuality, resulting in cross-dressing and gender impersonations being viewed with increasing suspicion and as less respectable. This increasing anxiety regarding women’s roles in society occurred alongside women’s growing role in public and the workforce, especially during wartime, which for many signalled a breakdown and instability of the social order and gender norms. This attitude was made strikingly clear with Queen Mary’s response to Vesta Tilley’s entrance on the stage in the 1912 Royal Variety Show, in which the Queen hid her face. 

Vesta Tilley in costume c1920

Cross-dressing in pantomime 

However, certain traditions of cross-dressing lived on in the world of pantomime, in which such transgressions took place in a purely wholesome and comedic context. In fact, the roles in which actors cross-dressed for their roles were often one of the main characters, and their cross-dressing a key selling-point of the performance. For example, in the poster for a 1955 production of Robinson Crusoe, the main male character is played by an attractive young woman, who makes no real attempt to disguise as a man to the audience. This character is known as the principal boy.

Robinson Crusoe pantomime poster, 1966.

As can be seen in the poster, principal boys often wore figure-hugging costumes and feminine hair and makeup, contributing to the sexualisation of women’s roles in theatre. Similarly, the dames of pantomime, typically a man cross-dressing as a woman, make no real attempt to create an illusion of womanhood to the audience, and her relationship with the audience is ‘clearly that of a man in a dress’ (Millie Taylor, 2007). Moreover, the dame typically performs a stereotype of women in society, similarly to her predecessor of female impersonators in music hall. For example, most often the dame is a middle-aged, working-class woman, often a widow, struggling to make ends meet — such as Widow Twankey in Aladdin. The portrayal of such a figure further solidifies the dame’s non-threatening character, while also evoking sympathy and identification from the audience. The inclusion of cross-dressing in this context is less provocative of those already prevalent anxieties in society regarding cross-dressing and deceit in relation to gender and sexuality.

However, the role of the principal boy being played by a woman did spark fears regarding homosexuality when she was seen performing as the love interest of female characters, which may have contributed to its decline in later years. Moreover, as Tracey Davis (1991) and Laurence Senelick (2000) have recognised, a female body in the Victorian theatre was hardly ever sexless, and automatically eroticised. The eroticisation of the principal boy being no longer politically correct may have also contributed to the decline in its inclusion in contemporary pantomimes. 

Cross-dressing in the circus 

The Ohmy Sisters with Claude in the middle

The continuation of cross-dressing in early twentieth-century entertainment was not always performed for purely comic effect, however. In the circus arena, cross-dressing was often performed as part of an illusion, and often undergirded by sexist assumptions about the female and male body. For example, a number of male aerialists at this time cross-dressed as women as a means of adding an extra element of wonder to their performance and impressing the audience even more as it was shocking to see a ‘woman’ be able to perform such acts. Moreover, female aerialists were often paid more highly than men, and so in disguising as women, male performers often ensured both their hire over other male performers and higher pay.

Examples of such performers include the Ohmy Sisters, a group of acrobatic equestriennes who included two sisters and their brother, Claude, who cross-dressed to look like his sisters. Similarly, in the Alexime Troupe, one of the performers was a man who cross-dressed as a woman. In both of these instances, the practice of cross-dressing appears to be part of an effort to add to the amazement of the performance, with no hints given that the performer was really a man. However, for some performers, this practice and the illusion of gender became a more central part of the performance.

For example, in his performances as Barbette, aerialist Vander Clyde cross-dressed as a woman only to reveal he was really a man towards the end of the performance. Barbette was acclaimed for the effect of the act on the audience, and the skill he displayed in his cross-dressing, rather than his skilled aerial action. Similarly, Samuel Wasgate, son of the Great Farini, incorporated cross-dressing in his aerial performances as ‘The Beautiful Lulu,’ impersonating a female. Some audience members realised Lulu was really a boy but still continued to watch in amazement, regarding the impersonation as part of the skill of the act. Thus, in this way, cross-dressing was incorporated as a key element of circus performances, and added to the impress and amazement of the acts being performed, whether the audience was aware of it or not. 

The practice did not go without criticism. Concerns regarding the potential homosexuality of performers, in particular Barbette, led to much backlash, especially in the French post-war context. They were characterised by fears surrounding instability and degeneration of the male body. Cross-dressing has an extensive history in entertainment and popular culture. The legacy of the above performers continues today, with the continued tradition of panto dames, and increasing popularity of shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race. In this new context, cross-dressing has evolved into a form of art no longer viewed with suspicion, or performed as a means of deception, but as a means of personal expression, creativity and a celebrated element of LGBTQ+ culture.

Barbette at Mills Circus Olympia c1928-1930

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