Cross Dressing as Performance: History and Today

It appears that cross dressing is still only acceptable or viewable within the confines of performance, entertainment or theatre. But if all gender identities are “performative” anyway, why can’t we consider society as our stage? What is it about the nature of human society that nurtures and encourages cross-dressing on stage? It is clearly not just a comic device-although in modern drama it has more or less become so, we all remember Travolta in Hairspray right? Cross dressing on stage is rather deeply implicated in the nature of illusion and spectacle and is evident throughout history and even in modern day.

In Athenian drama, which was originally performed during festivals in honour of Dionysos, all of the female roles were played by men. In Greek tragedy the men wore female masks, richly decorated clothes and high buskins, a feminine camouflage deemed authentic and natural. Feminine movements and speech were artfully stylized, designed to be emblematice as opposed to mimetic. Whilst this was for purely performace pourposes Judith Butler’s theory of gender “performatively” helplessly echoes in my mind. This proves that gender really is a series of stylized acts!

Whilst in modern society the act of cross dressing as performance is often a vulgar or comical affair, when we look at earlier examples of it on the stage there was a great deal of impressive acting and impersonation involved. The boys that had to play the women during the earliest of civilisations had to be serious and graceful performers in order to sustain their roles. Since no actresses were permitted on stage at this time, techniques of acting were developed to encourage skilful and natural deployment of feminine characteristics. The boys had to learn the specific gestures and expressions of femininity instead of relying on masks and costume, thus proving that gender is not just clothing but the body and gesture themselves as well as attesting to the talent of these young actors. In fact the Boys Companies dominated the English theatre until about 1580.

Of course, transvestic acting had its vociferous critics; it was seen by some to be unnatural and subversive, pre-conceptions which still permeate our culture today. William Pryne in 1632 put these fears in a primarily sexual context, “…this putting on of women’s array (especially to act as a lascivious, amorous, love sick play upon the stage) must needs to be sinful, yea abominable; because it not only excites many adulterous filthy lusts, both in actors and spectators…but likewise instigates them to self-pollution and to that unnatural Sadomitical sin of uncleanness”. And slowly the repressive conscience triumphed. This marked the beginning of process which would erase transvestitic performances from the serious stage when the Puritans closed down the theatres in 1642 and by doing so entirely change cross dressing as a theatrical illusion.

When cross-dressing was given space within the theatre once more, it was simple given to provide comic diversion. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century the comic effects of cross dressing were most extensively employed by pantomime. Originally adapted from the commedia dell’arte, in which the girl was sometimes disguised as a boy and a man adopted the role of the grotesque female, the English pantomime derived much of its spirit from native traditions of absurdity and satire. Naturally, The Ugly Sisters from Cinderella as a result of this became stock characters on the English stage for transvestitic performance. And it was during the nineteenth century that female impersonation took on its most grotesque yet acceptable face; that of the ‘dame’. In fact, burlesqued transvestism was a regular part of the comic business of the nineteenth century stage and is still one of the most popular and extensive forms of cross dressing even in modern day.

Dan Leno

Dan Leno

There have been many famous dames, George Robey, Wilkie Bard, Malcolm Scott-but arguably the greatest of them was Dan Leno. Mx Beebohm’s evocation of his stage presence is remarkable, “…the air of wild determination, squirming in every limb with some deep grievance that must be outpoured…that poor little battered personage, so put upon and yet so plucky, with his squeaking voice and sweeping gestures; bent but not broken; faint but pursuing”. Leno as a grotesque female impersonator has a dramatic presence. The idea of a male mind and body underneath a female costume evokes memories and fears to which laughter is perhaps the best reaction. It makes us wonder, are they enjoying being dressed as women? Is this empowering men and objectifying women further? Why should we laugh at a man in a dress?

Cyril Fletcher, a contemporary dame, described the phenomenon as, “creating a world of complete fantasy, a world of very subtle sexual balances, quite as unsettling and provoking as anything in As You Like It”. The dame attests to Judith Butler’s notion that gender is “performative” as well as images produced by photographer Bettina Rheims in her series, “Gender Studies” whereby gender is blurred. The dame is ambiguous. The dame is never effeminate; she is never merely a drag performer, since she always retains her male identity. The performer is always clearly a man dressed as an absurd and over the top woman and much of the comedy is derived from that. Here is a man dressed as an ugly woman who is burlesquing himself as a male actor. I feel I should maybe consider photographing aggressive drag performers, who are clearly male but have everything else added on them be hyper feminine. I feel by perhaps creating images of such elaborate extravagance could attest to my motifs of showing that gender is “performative” a series of acts and artificial parts in a more aggressive way. It could be interesting, although adding a comic edge may be risky but what’s more-it might not be.

By making my own images funny by photographing over the top female impersonators and drag artists in all their grandeur could take the edge off such a difficult subject matter. It could potential make my images more inviting and show a different side to the gender bending spectrum. Whilst I like the idea of my images and subjects gender and sex being ambiguous, the gender signs subtle and light, it’s tempting to go all out, making a laugh at gender “norms” as well as gender as a performance. Cross dressing in performance as I’ve already shared with you has long been open to public view and laughter which could work in my favour. Gender, sexuality and identity are tricky subjects so inviting people to laugh at them could ease their reluctance to view these convention breaking images. Such subjects are happy to be giggled at as they are already mocking gender themselves anyway and for a few these is their chosen profession. And so thus cycle of laughing at someone who is laughing at gender themselves could achieve some quirky sense of equality. Make sense? Well it does in my head. Let me explain further using some ‘dame’ examples.

In the 1960’s, the Ugly Sisters engaged in continual sexual banter, “It may be vanity but I can sit in front of the mirror for hours looking at my beautiful face.” “That’s not vanity, that’s imagination, dear!” Such acts are characteristically harmless ways of breaking certain sexual taboos. The dame acts evoke fears of feminine aggression and overt sexuality at the same time as they play upon anxieties of male homosexuality; all of these fears subtly represented and then denoted. Thus transvestism can be a way of releasing sexual anxieties through laughter. Another example would be contemporary English performer Danny La Rue.

Danny La Rue

Danny La Rue

Female impersonator Danny La Rue evidences how cross dressing can be an important destabilizing element that, in performance, “questions the limits of representation” states Oscar Montero in “Lipstick Vogue: The Politics of Drag”. Montero goes onto say, “The imperfection of her imitation is what makes her appealing, what makes her eminently readable. Foolproof imitations of women by men, or men by women are curious, but not interesting. There has to be some tell-tale, not the gross five o’clock shadow or the limp wrist of the amateur, but something readable, a foot that is too big, a subtle gesture or the peculiar grain of the voice”.

His act is designedly comic and the comedy is derived from the fact that there is no doubt that he is a man dressed up as a woman as Montero states. The illusion of femininity is carefully maintained-Danny La Rue’s act is admired by other performers for its meticulous consistency and attention to detail-but he willingly and overtly breaks the spell at the end of his performance. In “Dressing Up” Peter Ackroyd states the reason Danny La Rue is so successful and looked upon with comical glee, “The man re-emerge, and so the cross dressing seems neither aberrant nor threatening; it is all done ‘just for fun’”. (p.107)

Therefore, my idea to photograph drag artists and female impersonators that take on the appearance of an extravagant dame or are aggressively flamboyant could break taboos surrounding gender identities which are outside the “norm” in an aggressive and comical way so no one is offended. However, ambiguity has been the driving forces behind my image making, so the “dame” or over the top drag appearance may be one I need to stay away from. Although, it could reveal gender as “performative”, a series of gestures, styles and parts just as well (these decisions I’ll make later when it comes to cutting down to my top 10 images for the exhibition). So what other images could I refer to, other than that of the “dame” or pantomime cross dressing. Drag artists are often highly skilled, ambiguity being their middle name. Such is the case of French entertainer Coccinelle.

Coccinelle, alias Jacques Dufrensoy

Coccinelle, alias Jacques Dufrensoy

Coccinelle, alias Jacques Dufrensoy, is potent to mention as his female act is more studied then comical, paving way for such beauties that grace RuPaul’s Drag Race. Coccinelle female persona is a meticulous illusion and gives very little away. Tis provides evidence and attests to Butler’s theory that the act of drag shows how gender really is a series of acts which can be perfected and stylized so far they appear natural. This is very much applicable to the astonishingly feminine and beautiful appearance of Coccinelle who carefully constructed his female super ego. He stated, “I extended my repertoire and changed my appearance each year trying to base myself on a different type of woman…I thoroughly enjoyed admiring myself. I felt at ease, enraptured…there was no doubt at all that, as a travesty, I was free from all complexes”. This reveals many things that had my brain run into overdrive.

As a society we seem to be more accepting and willing to look at those within the Trans community when they are convincing in the gender and sex they publicly display. If there are obvious signs that the individual is “putting on” a gender which isn’t naturally their own: we panic. We as a society are not comfortable with ambiguity and that’s exactly what Tran’s individuals are, ambiguous, especially when viewing them. So what’s my point? Coccinelle felt comfortable, at ease, when viewing him because he was completely convincing as a woman, almost fool proof. This is perhaps the reason so many people adored and admired his appearance, he truly was the epitome of femininity and because he was so convincing the fact he had a penis beneath the masquerade really didn’t matter.

However, Coccinelle was a female impersonator who went further than the other comedy ‘dame’ types. Coccinelle took hormone pills, so his feminine illusion had definitely become more internalized and is closer linked to a latent transexualism. Coccinelle has made me re-think how I would want to photograph those who do want to be convincing as the opposite gender. It will make my subject and audience more at ease it appears if they are convincing in the identity they feel they truly are. Having such images displayed with elaborate drag queens could show the variety within gender identities, which I think would be really interesting. Anyway, let’s escape this tangent and look at other cross dressers throughout history, whose styles and images I could use as reference when constructing my own images.

Julian Eltinge

Julian Eltinge

We’ve covered Europe but what about America? Perhaps the greatest female impersonator of this century was Julian Eltinge. He was born as William Dalton in 1882 and appears to have been dressed up to always play the heroine. Originally billed as ‘Miss Simplicity’ he toured in vaudeville and made his Broadway debut in 1903. Although his shows and subsequent films were highly comical, his own impersonations seem to have been highly stylized and meticulous. He was renowned for specializing in “extraordinary transformations” and perhaps became the first and last internationally famous transvestism performer. I began building a catalogue of images of Eltinge to use as reference on photo shoots. I may emulate some of his costumes, gestures and female characters when photographing my drag performers to add some cultural and historical context to my images. But was Eltinge really the last international transvestite?

I want to argue, no. Many performers in modern day have cross dressed. (Please refer to my previous posts on Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe where I argue they too were rampant cross dressers). The long history of cross dressing has made performers realise the power of cross dressing and how it can be an instrument for change. Ackroyd summarises it perfectly, “By inverting or destroying the conventional sexual and public roles, while neither gratifying nor titillating the spectators with familiar humour, and transvestic performers can revolutionize the nature of the dramatic illusion. They cease to be female impersonators, and become an image of artistic freedom”. (p.118)

Urs Luthi, a “performance artist” attests to the idea of cross dressing being a statement of artistic freedom. He turns his own image into a public spectacle, perpetually rearranging himself in male and female guises. I particularly like his image which features him topless hand on hip whilst holding a printed image to his chest of a female standing in the same pose. Thought-provoking, they appear, despite being opposite genders, highly similar, thus Luthi’s sexual and gender identity is called into question. In doing so all other social and aesthetic images take on a curiously hallucinatory quality.

This is one of the reasons cross dressing or ‘gender-bending’ has become a pervasive presence in rock culture as well as the glam era (something I will go into deeper detail later). Cross dressing for rock n rollers is an emblem of joyful disorder. Alice Cooper, Mick Jagger (check out the poster for Nicholas Roeg’s film Performance) and David Bowie’s “gender-fuck-dressing” as part of their act. Ackroyd states, “It suggests a defiance of the established sexual order oen a theatrically convincing scale, but can also represent those infantile and fetishistic longings which have become a noticeable part of contemporary culture. Auto-eroticism, narcissism and the ‘acting out’ of private fantasies play a large part in rock culture as they do in certain kinds of male transvestism; and if as one observer has put it, rock music tried ‘to make a revolution out of sheer pleasure’, we are getting close to Dr Robert Stoller’s description of transvestism as ‘sheerly pleasurable’”(p.122) Thus, the act of cross-dressing or dressing up can be seen as merely a performance and act to be enjoyed, both as participant and viewer. The existence of cross dressing in rock n roll shows how cross dressing is increasingly reverting back to its earlier role as a joyful force.

Overall, I hope to have proved that transvestism has played and will continue to play a major element in dramatic entertainment of all kinds as well as attesting to the notion which is driving my own project that gender is fluid, “performative” and we are all capable of taking on a different gender through gesture, act and items. Transvestism as performance proves that society has long been obsessed, repulsed and enticed by the appearance of gender benders and will continue to permeate civilisation.


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

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