Transvestism throughout History

Cross dressing has a long and varied history. In the past cross dressing was to source change and revolution. Individuals cross dressed for a multitude of reasons from pleasure to attaining new roles, to enabling them to do things they otherwise couldn’t. Sometimes these individuals were celebrated, sometimes scrutinised. The following is a breakdown of cross dressers throughout history, highlighting the fact this is not a new phenomenon and arguably that gender-bending is very much a part of being human.

The earliest descriptions of transvestism are characteristically linked with unique and identifiable individuals-the deviations of rulers and sovereigns are, for example, recorded to have gathered with their more public characteristics. In such cases their transvestism was considered a harmless weakness. The Roman Caesars are thought to have been fond of women’s clothing and Caligula often adopted female clothing. Heligabalus entered the gates of Rome in a silk and gold robe, blackened eyebrows, painted cheeks and a tiara, demanding to be called “empress” by the Romans.

Queen Christina of Sweden

Queen Christina of Sweden

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) when abdicated in 1654, she immediately adopted male attire and on her well-publicized journeys throughout Europe she wore men’s clothes or an uneasy amalgam culled from both sexes, the original androgyne. In fact many monarchs have taken on attributes belonging to the opposite gender. This is particularly evident within portraits of royals as children, as discussed in a previous post. Some examples include Prince William, later Duke of Gloucester (1743-1805) as a small boy or of The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, at the age of two. Both young princes looked increasingly feminine and wore dressed for their portraits, a common element within royal portraiture. Henry III of France is reported to have dressed as an Amazon and encouraged his courtiers to do the same. Another example is of Phillipe, the brother of Louis XIV who “loved to be with women and young girls, and attire them and dress their hair” writes Mademoiselle de Motteville. And Saint-Simon has left a sharp portrait, “He was a little pot-bellied man, mounted on such high heels that they were more like stilts, always dressed as a woman, covered with rings and bracelets.”


Phillipe, the brother of Louis XIV

Phillipe, the brother of Louis XIV


However, not all violations of gender are equivalent and this may be due to the fact that the world has almost always been patriarchal and male-dominated. Men have always been deemed the stronger sex. As a result, for women taking on a male appearance adds more fuel to the patriarchal fire. It seems that (for at least royals as stated previously) dressing in the opposite gender meant power. For men, it could be argued it reflected their courage and reinforced their masculinity as they felt comfortable enough and empowered by wearing make-up and dresses and the same could be said for women. In this sense it could be argued that for individuals to express or take on the opposite gender is a strong and empowering element to that individual as a human being. An idea I hope western culture will one day embrace.


Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc

However, cross dressing was and to some extent still is often connected to sexual deviancy and considered “taboo” or even wrong. When we look back through history it is clear that for some female cross dressers, homosexuality was the predominant motive for their cross dressing, but obviously not for all of them. A good example of this is of Joan of Arc (1412-1431). During the Hundred Years War, when large areas of France were occupied by the English, this young peasant girl heard heavenly voices commanding her to cut her hair, dress as a man, and go lead an army. Thus, male clothes possessed some symbolic importance. Joan convinced Charles VII, the French claimant to the throne, that she was genuine and was given an army and supplies. She led a series of military successes that ended with Charles being crowned King.

However, at this moment in history female transvestism was condoned and at the age of 19, Joan was subjected to an illegal trial. Marie Delcourt in “Hermaphrodite” asserts that it was Joan’s transvestism that was actually “the cause of her death”. It certainly formed a vital part in the evidence against her. And when Joan dressed as a man in prison, she was burnt at the stake. Later, the unjust decision was overturned in court and Joan is now considered a saint by the Catholic Church and heroine of France.

Of course cross-dressing isn’t only evident within royals or saints; there are many other cases. There have been many ordinary men and women throughout history that have abandoned the clothes of their own sex and “whose activities at the time seemed so bizarre that they burned their image in the minds of contemporaries” (p.72) Cross dressing covers a multitude of forms from gaining power, to being outrageous and exhibitionistic or more poignantly inverting social codes and challenging society’s expectations. The latter being the most intriguing.


Mary Frith aka Moll Cut Purse

Mary Frith aka Moll Cut Purse

One famous example is of Mary Frith, also known as “Moll Cutpurse”. Born in London in 1589 Frith always had a natural aversion to female clothing and was especially hostile to feminine behaviour. According to, “The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith” it became clear quite quickly that “she was not made for the pleasure or delight of Man” and she decided that “since she could not be honoured with him she would be honoured by him in that garb and manner of raiment he wore”. This evidences that Frith’s cross dressing was empowering and somewhat dangerous to her as a social person, as she chose to take on the male gender as opposed to being feminine and finding a husband. Her strength and pleasure came from dressing as a man, rather than being with one. It’s unclear whether Frith was fetishistic, a lesbian or transsexual; but it is known that she cross dressed and suffered as a result something which still permeates society today.

Many individuals with alternative gender identities and those who simply cross dress often feel vulnerable and isolated from regular society and this has been the case for centuries. Challenging and moving against social and gender “norms” is difficult and often damaging to the individual, hence the importance of raising awareness of alternative gender identities and practices to ensure these individuals are seen as equal and accepted within modern society.

Eventually, Frith decided to “live by the quick” and became a thief. This may have aroused or been influenced by her already isolated feelings from society. She felt she was on the cusp of society anyway so why not embrace it with full force by becoming a criminal too. She stated, “I beheld myself more Obnoxious to my Fate, and to have greater quarrel with that, than the world can have against me”. Such a statement reminds me of conversations I’ve had with my subjects. They’d rather suffer and be true to themselves than to care what society or the public expect from them. It’s harrowing.

Frith was hounded during the Puritan Commonwealth since “in her dress and behaviour she denied all the observances of a repressive society” (p.72) Frith quickly became known as the “Queen of Misrule” and her cross-dressing is closely related to the conventional folk-image of the “unruly woman”. This reflects social ideas which still evident today of cross dressing are being unruly and “taboo”, especially within females. Male to female transsexual, drag kings and female cross dressers are still not as predominant or represented as their male counterparts, something which is evident in the life of Mary Frith; labelled the “Queen of Misrule”, left isolated, finding solace in becoming a thief and living on the cusps of society all for wearing trousers! Peter Ackroyd in “Dressing Up” sums up Frith’s cross dressing and social attitudes towards the practice perfectly highlighting the inequality within female transvestism:

“The ambiguity which existed in her (Mary Frith’s) own character, at once both assertive and anxious, is one which also existed in social attitudes towards female cross dressing. In one sense the female transvestite is both threatening and dangerous-the “woman out of place” is an emblem of brutal oppression and disorder-but in another sense she adopts the festive role of female unruliness; as Natalie Davies puts it in her remarkable essay “The Reversible World, ‘The Woman on Top’” it is ‘to defend the community’s interests and standards, and to tell the truth about unjust rule’”. (p.72)

And so Frith was both threatening to social thinking but as a result isolated and suffered. It was a life of perplexity and sometimes misery for herself. It was a source of indignation or humour to others. Mary Frith’s cross dressing or “gender bending” is harrowing and reflects many of the realities of individuals with alternative gender identities today. On her grave is inscribed:

Dust to perplex a Sadducee

Whether it rise a HE or SHE

Or two in one, a simple pair

Nature’s sport and now her care.

This inscription is poignant: summarising the complexity of the gender spectrum and ideas surrounding gender identity perfectly.

Social attitudes towards female cross dressing eased by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and during this period there are many recordings of women who not only dressed like men but “passed” as men. Often such transvestism was seen as natural and ambitious. It was seen as a justified attempt for women to overcome the conditions of their “inferior” sex. Many female transvestites travelled and appeared on stage becoming public but what’s more accepted figures I feel this “acceptance” is only due to patriarchal nature of society though. However, I have come across some more romanticised examples.


Hannah Snell

Hannah Snell

Miss Christina Davies was born in 1667 and was happily married with two sons. But on her husband’s sudden disappearance from home, Davies went in search of him dressed in his clothes. This cross dressing must have brought some sense of pleasure or relief as she stayed in male garments for many years and even enlisted in the army under the name “Christopher Welsh”. A similar example is of Hannah Snell born in 1723. Snell dressed as a man in order to enlist as a sailor, although she had first adopted male attire in order to search for her missing husband. In both cases, the cross-dressing recorded shows that both Davies and Snell took on a dominant male role as an outcome of their husband’s disappearances and then took full advantage of their unusual circumstances and in a sense passed as their own husbands. It could have been a grieving process or the women realised the powers, prestige and acceptance they could achieve by passing as men. And many other female cross dressers realised this.


One example is of Mary Read and Ann Bonny who were early eighteenth centuries “female pirates”. Despite being noted for their courage, solidarity and aggressiveness which earned them the status of pioneers of “Women’s Liberation” their transvestism might be more accurately be an outcome of the male-dominated and sexist world they inhabited.

Raised as a boy by her mother in England, Read joined the British military at a young age. On a trip to the West Indies, the ship she was traveling on was captured by pirates, and Read as an outcome joined them. When she later joined a new crew, a female pirate by the name of Anne Bonny took a liking to her. Bonny attempted to seduce Read, only to discover that she, too, was a female pirate. The two became lifelong companions. By Read and Bonny dressing in male attire meant they could live the pirate life and live express their sexuality comfortably. This reinforces the idea of female transvestism being simply an oppourtunity to cease all rights and powers which were normally only exclusive to men. After being captured in 1720, Read and Bonny became the only two women to ever be convicted of piracy. A pretty cool thing don’t you think?

Charles d'Eon

Charles d’Eon

In summary, it appears that so far for women to cross dress the individuals are seen as unruly, socially defying, wanting to be as good as a man and/or a lesbian. Some were killed, suffered or imprisoned. But there is an example of a male cross dresser that far outreaches all of these examples of female transvestism. His life story is surprising and perhaps the most controversial account of male transvestism in history, that of Charles D’Eon, who I believe was in fact transsexual, making him all the more relevant to my project. Transsexuals in the 1700’s…yes I’m going there!

Chevalier D’Eon was born in France in 1728. A French soldier, spy and diplomat, D’Eon was sent to Russia in 1755 to re-establish diplomatic relations between the countries: he achieved this by dressing as a woman and becoming a maid of honour to the Russian Empress. Edna Nixon in her biographical study “Royal Spy”, describes a portrait of D’Eon completed about this time, “It shows a pretty young woman wearing a dainty lace cap, drop pearl earrings, a black velvet ribbon round her neck, and a low lacy décolletage revealing a full breast.” The Russian mission was a success and this early venture of cross-dressing was to affect the rest of D’Eon’s life.

Later, D’Eon worked as an ambassador in London. This period of D’Eon’s life is drenched with paranoia and controversy. From the beginning D’Eon’s extravagant and impetuous behaviour “gave great umbrage to the Ambassador”. D’Eon was notoriously aggressive, excessive and insecure, perhaps deriving from his ambiguous reputation concerning his sexuality. At one point there was so much speculation on whether he was male or female that people actually placed bets on the London Stock Exchange.

Outraged and displeased D’Eon demanded that he be recognized as a woman, claiming that he had in fact been born female and raised as a boy because of an inheritance dispute. The French King agreed, providing that he wear ‘appropriate’ women’s clothing. D’Eon was not ready to return to France, however, speculation and ambiguity still ensued. It seemed that D’Eon was not fully comfortable with his new permanent transvestism, despite craving to be recognized by the public as female.

The year of most ambiguity was in 1777. Within two months, D’Eon had appeared in the uniform of the French cavalry and also “dressed in an elegant sack, her headdress adorned with diamonds and bedecked in all the other elegant paraphernalia of her sex”. There is a certain grand insanity about D’Eon during this period, both courting and disliking public attention whilst also exploiting his ambiguous gender. This evidences the public fascination with individuals with ambiguous genders such as current supermodel Andrej Pejic.

D’Eon’s time in France was not a happy one, despite being seen and taken as a female. As a result, in 1785 D’Eon returned to England and became an eccentric figure in London society. However, D’Eon had financial problems and so took up a career as a female fencer, performing all over the country. Despite this small solace, D’Eon’s final years were that of melancholy and despair. Whilst he was now taken and recognised as female and referring to himself as a woman, D’Eon was lonely and spent much of his time indoors. Despite convincing the public that he was in fact female and presenting himself as such, posthumously, medical examinations revealed D’Eon to be anatomically male.

So what was D’Eon? He enjoyed dressing as a female and the attention he gained. He then convinced others he was in fact female and was eventually recognised as such. Suddenly, he rejected the attention he craved, unsure himself of his true gender. The mystery of D’Eon’s sex could not be maintained forever and so the final revelation of D’Eon’s sex has certain poignancy when we remember his response to the controversy he himself had created, “Man or woman? I am none the better nor the worse”. D’Eon’s cross dressing was mysterious, exhibitionistic and outlandish. His life was complex and gender identity confused; states which many individuals with alternative identities feel and experience.

Perhaps the most famous case of transvestism in the nineteenth century is that of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, who belonged to the more garish, often unconvincing homosexual collection of transvestites. Here we leave behind the somewhat neurotic and disturbed world of cross dressing such was the case for D’Eon and enter the more fun side. Known as “Stella” and “Franny” both Boulton and Park were arrested on 28th April 1870 outside the Strand Theatre for ‘conspiracy to commit a felony’ in full blown drag. Both were notorious for their more drag-like cross dressing. Both were over the top and clearly men dressed as women and in this sense were seen as less harmful or strange, rather flamboyant. Their cross-dressing was cast as more dramatic than sexually deviant and both Boulton and Park were eventually acquitted.

Overall, cross-dressers throughout history cover a multitude of forms from exhibitionistic to disturbed; from empowering to sinful. The men and women discussed were sensational and socially defying yet are members of generally silent and suffering minority. Even though those like Mary Frith or Chevalier D’Eon gained public acceptance for their dual identities, they were still invaded with anxieties and doubts from both themselves and society. I feel it’s vital that individuals with alternative gender identities like the ones throughout history are given the exposure and acceptance they deserve like any other social minority. My images and project aim to do just that by highlighting their beauty, strength and dignity.


Ackroyd, P (1979) Dressing Up, Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession. Simon and Schuster.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s