Cross-dressing 1910: London Idols, Fascinating Widows, and the Bid for Freedom
We live in an age when gender is an ongoing question, not a comforting binary: boy or girl. My neighbor who lives a few houses down the street, Judith Butler, introduced the concept of gender as performance, or “doing” rather than “being,” in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
“We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman…we act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or simply something that is true about us. Actually, it is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time.” (Applications of gender performance, Social constructions of gender, Wikipedia)
Butler argues that gender performance is generally out of the individual’s control, but in some settings, a person may attempt to control gender performance quite consciously, as Butler acknowledges, most obviously in drag performance.
In my research for my novel, I came upon fascinating examples of gender as performance due to the popularity of cross-gender impersonation on the stage in the early twentieth century. This openly recognized “performance” entranced audiences who lived in a time when gender roles were already being challenged by mass media, the suffrage movement, and new technology. Let me add that behavior outside of society’s strict gender expectations most definitely did not elicit the same delight off stage, in particular male homosexuality and “fairy” boys. But in a strictly controlled fantasy environment, “men” acting as “women,” and “women” acting as “men” brought the house down.
In my novel, our charming, yet darkly mysterious love interest will take our plucky heroine to a vaudeville show, a form of entertainment specifically designed to be respectable enough for your sister or sweetheart—in contrast to the bawdy entertainment for men only that predominated during the nineteenth century.
In spite of its family-friendly aspirations, vaudeville was always pushing the limits of propriety, aiming to titillate just enough to keep the audience humming.
After much study of New York vaudeville, I’m certain that the playbill for the show our couple attends will feature one cross-dressing act, because this form of entertainment reached the height of popularity in the 1910s.
For a taste of what a cross-dressing act in 1910 might offer, you’ll find interesting information and even better photographs as seen here in Anthony Slide’s Great Pretenders: A History of Female and Male Impersonation in the Performing Arts.
Perhaps our couple will enjoy the talents of a male impersonator in the tradition of the premier such artist on both sides of the Atlantic, Vesta Tilley, known as “The London Idol.”
Tilley hailed from Worcester, England, and was born in 1864 as Matilda Alice Powles. She had an easy entree onto the stage because her father worked as the master of ceremonies at St. George’s Music Hall. Tilley first appeared in male dress on stage in 1869 at the age of five. In her 1934 autobiography, she explained humorously: “I concluded that female costume was rather a drag. I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.” (Slide, 62)
Actually, as someone who gets rashes from makeup, is allergic to metal jewelry and is crippled by high heels, I can relate.
While Tilley could sing a fine song, such as “Following in Father’s Footsteps” or “Jolly Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier,” her true genius was her jaunty carriage.
Will M. Cressy described her magic in The Green Book Magazine (March 1916): “If Vesta Tilley could not sing a note nor speak a word, she could walk her songs successfully. There has never been a player who could paint a character more clearly by word or note than she can by her walk.” (Slide, 61)
Tilley toured the US in 1906 and 1909, but turned down a 1912 offer because she didn’t want to work on Sundays. She retired from the stage in 1920 when her husband decided he wanted to be an MP, and it wouldn’t do to have a wife on the stage. For a better sense of Tilley’s performance, check out this homage, or get a sense of a male impersonator’s act in this clip of Julie Andrews from Star! (1968).
Or perhaps our New York-savvy hero will take his lady friend to see the greatest female impersonator of the day, Julian Eltinge, in his turn in the musical comedy, The Fascinating Widow, which was playing in Manhattan the fall of 1911. In a plot that prefigures Some Like It Hot, Eltinge begins the play as Hal Blake, but is forced to pose as the widow Mrs. Monte—I haven’t yet found a full plot summary, but one source described it as similar to Charley’s Aunt.
Eltinge reportedly took two hours to put on female makeup and costume, including shaving his fingers. When he performed vaudeville, he would remove his wig at the end of his act to reveal the trick to the audience, many of whom were taken by complete surprise.
Great Pretenders was published in 1986, and while I learned a lot from it, I do have a gripe about the author’s full support of the common wisdom that men can impersonate women more effectively than women can impersonate men.
“There is, of course, a basic problem, and that is that women simply cannot adequately disguise themselves as men. There are not only the obvious physical problems with the hips and the breasts, but, more importantly, a woman’s face does not lend itself to makeup as a man. Even the greatest male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley and Kitty Doner could not fool anyone away from the spotlights of the stage.” (Slide, 67)
Slide follows in the tradition of Japanese kabuki critics who maintain that the female impersonator elevates femininity to a higher level than any mere biological female could manage.
But how many drag queens can survive close scrutiny out of the spotlight?
Slide doesn’t seem to have met the decent number of biological females with boyish or muscled figures, deep voices and Vesta Tilley’s confident carriage. Besides, if you view this clip from later in Julian Eltinge’s career, I can’t say I’m fooled.
I do agree with Slide when he notes that a man dressed up as a woman is “always good for a laugh” because he is seen to be losing status, which is arguably the foundation of comedy. However, when a woman plays a man, she is “reaching above her station in life,” especially in 1910.
I agree even more with Carolyn Heilbrun writing in The New York Times (January 16, 1983), “Men playing women, if they don’t camp it, can be very moving, whereas women playing men is always a bid for freedom.” (Slide, 67)
Vesta Tilley and other popular male impersonators were among the few women of their time who could achieve both self-expression and popular acclaim while wearing male clothes. Women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were fettered by layers of underwear and corsets, petticoats and long skirts. In trousers and solid shoes a body can swagger, run, and take possession of the space around it without the same fear of exposure and danger as in a corset, skirt, and heels. No wonder a woman would enjoy such a show—to see one of her own move through the world with power and ease.
Perhaps our heroine will see in the male impersonator her own vision of freedom—not too many years before women would be able to wear trousers in public, at least the daring ones in casual settings.
For women in 1910, the road to freedom stretched from the vaudeville stage into the future. What a journey it has turned out to be for us all.