Lesbians on Stage: Costumes and Cross-Dressing

Lesbians and other women-loving-women have for a long time had the ability to hide in plain sight by taking to the public stage. When women were expected to only dress in skirts, a trousered role was a break – if one oriented in fantasy and performance – from the norm of heterosexual femininity. Playing a man or a boy on stage also meant that a female actress could show desire towards or be desired by other women while keeping within the confines of acceptable male/female romance. After all, it was only an act. 

I come to this post with Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet in mind. Though, of course, a fictional story, it narrates the lesbian landscape of ‘mashers’ (male impersonators) in nineteenth century music halls. The main character in the novel, Nan, says that: “whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy.”1 Reflective of this, Allison Neal writes in her article ‘(Neo-)Victorian Impersonations: Vesta Tilley and Tipping the Velvet’ that “The stage, the theatre, and the realm of fantasy allow, if only for a brief time, the normative […] to be abandoned.”2

Fig. 1: Promotional image from Tipping the Velvet (TV Series, 2002). Keeley Hawes and Rachael Stirling. Dir. Geoffrey Sax. BBC.

“Breeches roles” became popular in the eighteenth century, with women playing men (or, more often, boys) in theatre or opera.3 Sometimes, the actress would be playing a woman in disguise as a man (think Viola in Twelfth Night), while other times she would build her career on repeated breeches roles, playing the part of male characters. One of the most popular of these early women who cross-dressed on stage was Margaret Woffington (1720-1760). She was described as being equally attractive to male and female audiences, though for different reasons. Part of a poem about her reads:

Each sex, were then, with different Passions mov’d,

The Men grew envious, and the Women loved.4

As breeches roles were reasonably common, it is unlikely that all cross-dressing actresses were lesbians, or attracted to women at all. I would argue, though, that a fair amount of them would have been. This is because the stage was a space where lesbians could exist freely, where they could dress in a non-normative way and express desire for women. They were protected by the heavy curtains of the theatre and the belief that it was just a role that they played. There is evidence, however, that later theatre and music-hall performers did indeed have relationships with women; Stormé Delarverie (1920-2014), whose way of dressing I have previously written a post about, worked as a drag king for over 10 years and was very openly a lesbian. Women from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century such as Eva Le Gallienne and Gwen Lally were also both performers and had lesbian relationships. This is a theme, rather than a coincidence. 

Part of the reason why lesbians got away with being so obviously lesbian on stage was because they remained, most of the time, respectably heterosexual (looking) off-stage. Those who may not have succeeded in this were able to hide in the shadows of those who did. Theatrical cross-dressing was clearly not inherently ‘deviant’ if respectable women could do it. A woman playing the male role in romantic plays, for example, was often more respectable than if a man were to act opposite a woman, because it removed the risk of desire between male and female actors. 

Take an infamous romantic hero such as Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy. The first known stage performance of Pride and Prejudice was played by an all-female cast in 1899. Devoney Looser, author of The Making of Jane Austen, has written that “If a surviving photo [from it] is an accurate indicator, each actor approached her romantic part with gusto, including hand holding, shoulder grazing and neck gazing” and that the drag aspect “suggests the potential for other kinds of desire.”5 This is lesbian desire, visible to those in the know – those who could read the code of what a woman in a man’s attire may suggest, or how two women acting out a romance together makes them feel. The photo that Looser describes is below:

Fig. 2: A scene from Pride and Prejudice performed at Wellesley College that appeared in a women’s magazine from 1900. Photograph by Boston Partridge. Via Devoney Looser, ‘Queering the Work of Jane Austen is Nothing New,’ The Atlantic, 21st July 2017. 

Lesbianism and cross-dressed women could exist as non-deviant on the stage. Sometimes, however, this ‘deviance’ was still present – when the lines between fantasy and reality became blurred. On the theme of Jane Austen, an example of this is in Eva Le Gallienne, who acted opposite her lesbian lovers on multiple occasions, while simultaneously having relationships with them off-stage. She played the role of Jane Austen in a 1932 dramatisation of Austen’s life by Eleanor Holmes Hinkley, Dear Jane. On the stage with Le Gallienne was her then-girlfriend Josephine Hutchinson in the role of Austen’s sister, Cassandra. Though the two wore dresses in these roles, it was the implied incestuous lesbianism between the characters played by real-life lovers that blurred the boundaries of respectability.6

The two also acted alongside each other in a 1928 adaptation of Peter Pan as Peter and Wendy. Here, Le Gallienne did cross-dress in order to play the part of Peter Pan, the male lead in the story. This performance necessitated an on-stage romance between Le Gallienne and Hutchinson, and yet the off-stage form was not completely unknown; the pair had been incriminated by Hutchinson’s ex-husband in their divorce proceedings in 1927, and for a time Hutchinson was known as Le Gallienne’s “shadow” – a term meaning lesbian. However, their careers continued to flourish. 

Fig. 3: Publicity photo of Josephine Hutchinson and Eva Le Gallienne for Peter Pan, 1928. Via Devoney Looser, http://www.makingjaneausten.com. 

Eva Le Gallienne, with her 1920s breeches roles and famous actress girlfriend, blurred the lines between the stage/real-life divide when it came to expressions of lesbianism. The above photo is wonderful – she looks defiant, rather than deviant. She wears the fantastical, boy’s costume as a real woman, with a real lover at her side. Now, I want to analyse some other cross-dressed female performers and the extent to which they blurred the divide between their on- and off-stage selves. 

One of the most famous male impersonators of all time is Vesta Tilley. Tilley, however, presented a very clear line between her character and her ‘real’ self. When she cross-dressed, she was always in character. The rest of the time, she dressed in the feminine fashions that were expected of her, and for publicity photos that showed her as herself rather than her characters she wore dresses and bonnets. Elaine Aston, in ‘Male Impersonation in the Music Hall: The Case of Vesta Tilley,’ explains how “Off-stage, Vesta Tilley kept to her ‘true sex’ and even chose female dress for some of her publicity posters or illustrated song sheets.”7 Aston was writing in 1988, and I do take issue with some of her interpretations. Later in her article, she discusses the lesbian interpretation of male impersonation, saying that “In 1980s western society, women in masculinized dress signify feminist-lesbian subcultures. On stage in the 1890s, Tilley’s image was the vision of Adonis.”8 By this, she means that Tilley’s presentation and clothing on stage signified only the perfect man, not a subversive woman. 

My issue with Aston’s interpretation is that it is true, with such a clear divide between the male fantasy and her female reality, Vesta Tilley herself may not have been signifying her own lesbianism. The women in the audience, who sent her letters and flowers, who bought images of her and visited her every show, cannot have their queerness brushed away so easily. Tilley may have been representing a figure of a man, and yet she remained a woman – a woman who sang songs about loving other women, who walked and danced around with confidence in a suit, shirt and tie. As Nan describes in Tipping the Velvet, “I never saw a girl like her before. I never knew there were girls like her…”9 

Fig. 4: Vesta Tilley, c. 1900. Published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd. Donated to the NPG by Patrick O’Connor. National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Others existed in the space between Tilley and Le Gallienne’s contrasting approaches to their on- and off-stage divide. Some cross-dressing performers kept their private lives on the down-low, while continuing to wear masculine clothing in their everyday lives and live a generally lesbian, or sapphic, existence. Florence Hines, though little is recorded about her, was “Hailed as the Vesta Tilley of Black male impersonators.”10 Though her time as a male impersonator ended in 1906, and there is evidence that she had a daughter, Nunnie Williams, who wrote an obituary for her in 1926, she had a burning 15 year career.11 It is interesting to me that out of the few historical records of her, one hints at a possible lesbian relationship between her and a singer who she worked with called Marie Roberts. Hugh Ryan, author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, describes this in a piece for Them

[Hines’] time in the Creole Show provides one of the few insights into her life off the stage: While in Ohio in 1892, Hines got into a fight with one of her co-stars, a singer named Marie Roberts. The Cincinnati Enquirer covered the incident with a healthy dose of implication that Hines and Roberts were lovers.12

If the implied relationship between Florence and Marie was real, then Florence Hines’ subversive existence was threefold: in what she wore, in who she loved, and in her positive impersonations of Black men, who she represented in her performances as “modern metropolitans.”13 

Fig. 5: Florence Hines, c. 1890-1906. Via www.dragkinghistory.com 

Another figure who carried her cross-dressed public life into her personal life was Gwen Lally, an actress as well as a pageant master – meaning that she led pageants that dramatised various historical events, a phenomenon that was popular in early twentieth century England.14 Lally only played male roles, and once the role of a trouser-wearing woman. Her dedicated profile on the English Heritage website describes how “she appears to have carefully constructed her image, exaggerating her tall, slim figure and androgynous, aquiline-nosed face by cutting her hair short and wearing masculine clothes.”15 It seems as though during her life, Lally was merely seen as eccentric by most, but it has been suggested that she was in a romantic relationship with another actress, Mabel Gibson. The two lived together for forty years, until Lally’s death. 

Publicity photographs of Lally like the one below show her in full male attire, top hat, tails and all. That she took elements of this look into her day-to-day wardrobe distinguishes her from other male impersonators like Vesta Tilley because she did not distance her true self from the characters she played. Where in life her relationship was hidden, on stage she walked with pride. This was the magic of the cross-dressed role for the lesbian performer: it had the power to create a small pocket of freedom. It allowed for a lesbian to at once deny her difference and let that difference shine. 

Gwen Lally, 1913. National Portrait Gallery, London. Accessed via www.english-heritage.org.uk  

Sometimes, a costume can be more reflective of our real selves than normative clothing could ever be. Sometimes, for lesbians and for queer and trans people, it is the normative that is the costume. I look back at these women who chose a path in life that allowed them to be themself, if only for a short time, and I am proud. A pair of trousers or breeches is, of course, not the only thing that makes a lesbian. The wearing of them does, however, represent a subversion of heterosexist standards of femininity. For that, the actions of cross-dressing actresses and male impersonators can be deemed – I think – just a little bit revolutionary.

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter, or leave a tip on Ko-fi.

Endnotes

1: Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet, (London: Virago, [1998] 2018) 123.

2: Allison Neal, ‘(Neo-)Victorian Impersonations: Vesta Tilley and Tipping the Velvet’ Neo-Victorian Studies 4.1 (2011), 60.

3: Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500, (Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007) 22.

4: Quoted in Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain, 22. 

5: Devoney Looser, ‘Queering the Work of Jane Austen is Nothing New,’ The Atlantic, 21st July 2017. www.theatlantic.com 

6: Looser, ‘Queering the Work of Jane Austen is Nothing New.’

7: Elaine Aston, ‘Male Impersonation in the Music Hall: The Case of Vesta Tilley,’ New Theatre Quarterly 4.15 (1988), 248.

8: Aston, ‘Male Impersonation in the Music Hall,’ 255.

9: Waters, Tipping the Velvet, 20.

10: Drag King History, ‘1890-1906 Florence Hines,’ [n.d], www.dragkinghistory.com 

11: Hugh Ryan, ‘themstory: This Black Drag King Was Once Known As the Greatest Male Impersonator of All Time,’ them. 1st June 2018. www.them.us 

12: Ryan, ‘themstory.’ 

13: Drag King History, ‘1890-1906 Florence Hines.’ 

14: English Heritage, ‘Gwen Lally,’ [n.d.]. www.english-heritage.org.uk 

15: English Heritage, ‘Gwen Lally.’

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