This week we welcome guest writer Lauren Wells, Post-Graduate Researcher at the University of Leeds, who explores the history and meaning(s) of cross-dressing in Yorkshire…
My research examines men who cross-dressed in Yorkshire from the end of the nineteenth century until the eve of the Second World War. When I first conceptualised this project, I imagined I would be reading a great deal about different sexualities and gender identities, but this has not been the case. Instead I have found that cross-dressing was not necessarily considered a queer act and men could participate in cross-dressing whilst still leading seemingly heteronormative lives. Cross-dressing was deeply ingrained in popular entertainment culture and was not only accepted by a large number of Yorkshire men and women, but celebrated and enjoyed. As Historian Lisa Sigel noted, ‘[t]he visual evidence of female impersonation shows it as commonplace and pervasive, notable for its ubiquity and ordinariness as much as its erotic potential.’ A lot has been written on theatrical cross-dressing and cross-dressing in queer spaces, however, it is only recently that historians have started to explore the endurance of the acts’ popularity and acceptance outside of these spaces. The lasting popularity of cross-dressing as part of popular entertainment culture raises questions about how we conceptualise queerness in the past and how we define an act as queer.
Historians working on cross-dressing away from theatre have primarily focused on its condemnation in the courts, its relationship to sexual ‘deviance’ and its sometimes contested position in liminal spaces. The focus on crime and cross-dressings’ relationship to non-hegemonic sexual and gendered behaviours has presented a narrative in which cross-dressing in public spaces, with the exception of the theatre, was condemned and repressed. However, I have found several spaces in which men could cross-dress without condemnation beyond the professional stage: amateur theatre, student rags, war, and carnival. When analysing cross-dressing in these spaces, a different narrative begins to emerge. We see how an act that we now consider queer was at one point a key part of mainstream entertainment culture. However, when performed in the wrong spaces, the same act which provoked joy and laughter at local carnival competitions, could lead to arrest. This emphasises the fluidity of acceptable gendered behaviour as well as the centrality of space to defining acts as queer.
Female impersonators were a common feature on both the amateur and the professional stage in Yorkshire from the end of the nineteenth century, and their popularity and visibility steadily increased until the 1930s. The Leeds Libraries Playbill Archive contains an array of playbills for pantomime and variety theatre which include female impersonators.
There were two key types of female impersonation on the professional stage at the time; the pantomime dame and the glamour drag artist. The pantomime dame usually represented a de-sexualised woman, post-menopausal, nagging, and clumsy, with the ‘joke’ existing in the tension between the feminine clothes and the masculine body, the broad shoulders and sometimes obvious facial hair. In contrast, glamour drag artists were praised for their ability to portray incredibly convincing women. Max Waldon, one of Yorkshire’s favorite glamour drag artists, was praised for the femininity of his voice, make-up, dress, and dancing, which, according to the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, set him apart as ‘Europe’s’ most polished female impersonator’.
Local newspapers reveal a large number of female impersonators who performed at small charity events, in Temperance Halls, Working Men’s Clubs, Police Balls and in School rooms. Newspaper reports also reveal a large number of men dressed as women in fund-raising fancy-dress competitions and parades, with prizes for ‘best female impersonator’ being awarded at numerous local carnivals, fetes and galas. The popularity of female impersonation in variety theatre and music hall is likely to have been responsible for the growth in popularity of female impersonation at local events. Music hall and variety reached the height of its popularity in the interwar period with female impersonators frequently heading the bill. This was the same period in which newspapers report the highest number of female impersonators in local events.
The lack of comment on female impersonation in these spaces is notable as it highlights the ordinariness of cross-dressing in this context. Newspaper reports on such events often featured a list of prize winners and covered every category from best turned out horse to best female impersonator. Other fancy-dress categories frequently included ‘best comic costume’ and ‘best children’s costume’, though unfortunately, newspapers rarely give us more information about the prize winners aside from their name and the prize they won. However, the British Film Institute holds a wide array of film footage of Yorkshire carnivals, many of which involved fancy dress competitions including female impersonators. One of these films documents the Skipton Carnival and Hospital Gala in 1934. After the parade of children’s fancy dress competitors, we see two men dressed in unconvincing wigs and short dresses jogging along in the procession, shortly followed by a man elaborately dressed as Elizabeth I. Films also portray the Armley and Wortley Carnival in 1904, the Skipton Hospital Procession in 1902, and the Normanton Gala in 1922, all of which included men dressed in very unconvincing drag. Although the earlier events included more obvious dame style drag, the films from the 1920s onwards present a third style which I have not yet found elsewhere. It is a style of cross-dressing which we often see in the present day at stag parties, sports society socials, and other outings of usually ‘manly’ men who have decided to put a cheap wig and a skimpy dress on their most stereotypically masculine friend, for comedic effect. This type of cross-dressing requires further interpretation but is had led me to ask a number of questions. Can we view all types of cross-dressing in all spaces as a queer act? How do we define what constitutes a queer act? And how could an act be represented as a light-hearted joke in some contexts, yet a cause for concern in others?
The ability of the female impersonators to move into spaces away from the stage demonstrates not only the popularity of female impersonators as entertainers, but also highlights space, once again as an important factor for thinking about how we understand gender and sexuality in the past. The height of female impersonators popularity in professional and amateur entertainments in Britain was the interwar period, the same period in which links were increasingly forged between cross-dressing, gender variance, and same-sex desire or ‘deviant’ sexualities – as historians such as Matt Houlbrook and Emma Vickers have demonstrated. It seems that amongst numerous factors, space was the most important in defining the acceptability of gendered acts. Historian Helen Smith found that there was a general attitude of acceptance towards same-sex desire among men in the industrial north in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly amongst the working classes. It is entirely possible that this acceptance fed into sustaining the popularity of gender variance in entertainment culture in the north. As long as cross-dressing remained within the realms of entertainment culture, it posed no threat.
By analysing the spaces in which cross-dressing was unopposed, the narrative of acceptance begins to overrule the narrative of repression. The spaces of the stage and the carnival gave men the freedom to challenge normative ideals of gender, without threatening their own ‘normative’ masculine identity. Other public spaces did not offer this protection. When men were found to be cross-dressed in public places, frequently in the street, they were presented by regional newspapers as trying to trick people into believing they really were a woman, intending to commit a crime, or as suffering from mental distress. Exploring a variety of different spaces demonstrates how one act can have a variety of different meanings at any given time. It can be accepted or rejected, deemed normative or transgressive. This points to fluidity of acceptable gendered behaviour in the past. This research finds spaces in the past in which men could take part in a queer act without fear of rejection or reprisal.
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 Some female impersonators from the variety stage gained local and national celebrity. Particular favourites of the northern stage were Bert Errol, Harry Tracey, Max Waldon and Quinton Gibson.