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Cross-dressing: a secret history

Cross-dressing: a secret history

An unusual archive reminds us of a time when wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex was as radical as it was risky

An unusual archive reminds us of a time when wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex was as radical as it was risky

Amandas Ong | March 20th 2018

Nowadays, most of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a woman wearing a man’s suit. But as liberal views about gender and sexuality become more mainstream in many countries, it’s easy to forget how transgressive cross-dressing used to be. An exhibition of photographs from the archive of Sébastien Lifshitz, a French director and screenwriter, reminds us of a period in time when wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex was not only radical but risky.

Lifshitz has scoured flea markets, junk shops, garage sales and eBay to find images of cross-dressing in Europe and America from the 1880s onwards. It would have been good to have some examples of cross-dressing outside these two continents, but then again, this is a very personal collection.

What makes these photographs especially interesting is the lack of specific information about their subject matter: most of them are anonymous. We know nothing about the lives of these people, whether they identified as heterosexual or gay or lesbian or something in between. Studying their pensive half-smiles or impassive stares, you wonder at the dreams and desires that lie behind the pictures. You leave the exhibition uplifted, in a celebratory mood and full of gratitude for the people who refused to do what society expected of them.

 

Man in make-up wearing ring, America (c.1920)

The exact provenance of this photograph is unclear, but we know it dates from around the beginning of the “Pansy Craze”, when gay and bisexual people began to perform as drag kings and queens in New York and other cities in America. At one point, Gene Malin, known for his impersonations of Mae West, was the highest-paid entertainer in New York’s nightclubs. Scores of people – mostly hetrosexual – would queue up to watch the drag king Gladys “Fatso” Bentley play the piano and parody popular show tunes with her own titillating lyrics.

The “Pansy Craze” was shortlived. By the mid 1930s, moral panic about homosexuality forced many gay-friendly clubs to go underground.

 

Woman in tuxedo, England (c.1890)

Unlike male homosexuality, lesbianism has never been a crime in Britain – Queen Victoria notoriously said she did not believe lesbians existed. In Victorian Britain, women arrested for cross-dressing were prosecuted for fraud rather than indecency, the standard punishment for their male counterparts.

Not all cross-dressing women in Victorian Britain were exploring their sexuality. Some women wore men’s clothes so they could do certain jobs, including joining the army. Some were proto-feminists, rebelling against the uncomfortable corsets that were fashionable at the time.

 

Five performers on a platform, Hungary (c.1900)

In 1881 Le Chat Noir cabaret club was founded in Paris. Soon, similar institutions were springing up across Europe. They were a place where people with unconventional lifestyles could mingle away from the prying eyes of wider society. Guests were treated to peformances of dance, poetry, acrobatics and Chinese shadow shows.

Immigration and economic growth energised Hungary’s cultural scene at the turn of the century. By 1910, Budapest was the eighth-largest and second-fastest growing city in Europe. We can only imagine what kind of show these five men were performing, but we can be sure it was quite risqué for the times.

 

Mock wedding, United States (c.1900)

Mock weddings were popular in women’s colleges in America in the early 1900s, with students all roles, including those of the groom and priest. At the time, women's education was still geared towards the expectation that they would become wives and mothers, and the most popular fields of study were nursing, home economics and teaching. Mock weddings were often a fun and mischievous way for female students to bond with one another and relieve themselves from the tedium of academic life. The governing body of Wellesley College in Massachusetts eventually banned mock weddings, because it was worried that they could lead to radical feminism.

 

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany (c.1960)

Germany’s thriving postwar economy attracted workers from Greece, Italy, Turkey and Yugoslavia. Mannheim was the first city they settled in. It’s sobering to remember that Nazi legislation against homosexuals, which led to the persecution and deaths of thousands of people, was repealed only 10 years before this photograph was taken.

 

British prisoners of war, Frankfurt, Germany (c.1915)

In his film “La Grande Illusion” (1937), Jean Renoir showed how traditional ideas about masculinity could be subverted by the unnatural conditions of war. There is a scene where a group of French allied officers preparing to perform for their fellow prisoners at a German camp are stunned into admiring silence at the sight of their friend dressed as a woman.

It was based on reality. During the first world war, all the main prisoner-of-war camps in France and Germany had at least one theatre group. Prisoners, like these English soldiers here, regularly put on theatrical performances and some happily played female roles. Watching and performing in plays was a way to cope with the boredom, and helped alleviate some of the psychological trauma of warfare.

Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until June 3rd