From Anne Lister’s Closet: Gentlemen’s Accessories as Lesbian Fashion

This is the second post about Anne Lister on Dressing Dykes. To find out more about her through the lens of her always-black clothing, as well as my argument for calling her a lesbian long before the term was in the popular vernacular, look at ‘From Anne Lister’s Closet: The LBD (Lesbian Black Dress).’ This post analyses the fashion of Anne Lister, the woman who inspired the popular BBC series Gentleman Jack, from another perspective: that of the gentlemen’s accessories that she wore and wrote about. Anne Lister kept incredibly detailed diaries for the majority of her life. Especially in the earlier volumes, she wrote extensively about her clothing, the clothing of the women around her, and her feelings towards these fashions and garments. The quotes that I mention in this post are all from Helena Whitbread’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, which covers the 1816 to 1824 diary entries (from when Anne was 25 until she was 33). 

I come to this post reflecting on how Anne Lister’s experience of gendered clothing was in many ways similar to lesbians over a century later, butches who had to dress in feminine fashions because of things like the “three-piece clothing law” that targeted gender-nonconforming individuals in post-war America. I have just read Alix Genter’s wonderful article, ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Butch-Femme Fashion and Queer Legibility in New York City, 1945-1969,’. In it, she explains how clothing was employed in creative means in order for lesbians to express themselves authentically, despite the overt homophobia of the time. She writes that “While New York City’s butches certainly employed the classic suit-and-tie and jeans-and-t-shirt looks, they also conveyed their identities through alternate means that included clandestine codes and plays on women’s fashions.”1 Anne Lister, to jump back in time a century or so, conveyed her identity through her own clandestine codes and plays on women’s (and men’s) fashion. This is what this post will discuss. 

Fig. 1: Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, c. 1830. Shibden Hall, Halifax. Calderdale Museums.

“She mentioned on the moor my taking off the leather strap put through the handle of my umbrella, which made it look like a gentleman’s.” – Anne Lister, 18th February 1819.2

Anne Lister was not able to dress entirely in men’s clothes, and she never wrote that she wanted to. When she is mistaken for a man (something she describes multiple times in her diaries, although we might assume that these “mistakes” were more likely to be reproaches at her less-than-ideal amount of femininity) it is not because she is wearing trousers or a top hat – at least, these aren’t items she ever wrote about, and with the level of detail she included, I’m sure that she would have mentioned them. Passing as a man intentionally was never on the agenda for Anne, although it was a position taken up by other lesbians historically, especially when it came to working-class lesbian marriages. In Anne’s life, as explained by Anna Clark, “passing as a man would have meant that Anne would give up her respectable position as an heiress, and with that, the possibility of an independent livelihood.”3 So even when, like on the 18th September 1818, “Some men & women declared I was a man,”4 it’s only some features of Anne’s dress and appearance that give this impression. One of these is the leather strap on her umbrella, featured in the quote above.

Interestingly, this quote shows not just Anne’s decision to add the leather strap to her umbrella, but how this nod to masculine style was perceived by the people around her. The “she” referenced is a Miss Brown- although not a largely significant player in Anne’s life, she’s referenced in relation to clothing multiple times – who as a fashionable woman herself, would have had knowledge of gentlemen’s accessories. She recognised the leather umbrella strap as being a gentleman’s, as alluding to the un-heterosexual femininity that Anne Lister possessed. She asks Anne to remove it, as if to make their private walk together more socially acceptable. If there are no references to masculinity, it is just two women walking, but add in the possibility that Anne possessed any “gentlemanly” qualities, and suddenly there is an impropriety in their solitude. 

In the words of Anna Clark again, “Anne’s masculinity signaled to lovers that a woman could sexually desire other women, in a way both threatening and alluring.”5 We can see both of these ways in Miss Brown’s actions; she is nervous about what Anne Lister’s masculinity could mean for their relationship, hence asking for the umbrella strap to be removed, and yet she still meets with her. Anne’s allure is confirmed some years later in 1824, when Miss Brown has become Mrs Kelly. When talking with Anne, “She said people thought I should look better in a bonnet. She contended I should not, & said my whole style of dress suited myself & my manners & was consistent & becoming to me.”6 

Anne suited the ambiguous line between masculinity and femininity. She did not wish to dress as a man and yet felt uncomfortable in highly feminine outfits. She, to quote Jack Halberstam, dressed herself to fit “into the cracks.”7 Anne Lister, here, could be an example of butch lesbianism (although nameless at the time) in the 19th century, in the specific form of masculine womanhood that does not pass as male. Jewelle Gomez, in her essay ‘Femme Butch Feminist,’ writes about how a butch woman’s “presence speaks before she even opens her mouth to say “I don’t follow your ‘women rules,’” and “my life is my own.””8 Anne choosing gentlemen’s accessories to wear was a verification of her own identity when identity was strictly regulated. They were choices that she made to validate her self in a time when her self was unacceptable.

Fig. 2: Braces. 1840-1850. Embroidered canvas, silk lining, suede, leather and metal. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. V&A online collections.

The validation of the self does, however, not always have to be seen by others. Another example of Anne wearing obviously male accessories comes early on in her diaries, on the 8th April 1817, when she “Began this morning to sit, before breakfast, in my drawers put on with gentlemen’s braces I bought for 2/6 on 27th March 1809 & my old black waistcoat & dressing gown.”9 The reference to the “gentlemen’s braces,” which she had bought 8 years previously and is still wearing – or at least trying on – says a large amount about how Anne experimented with the line between masculine and feminine dress. A later, but similar pair of braces can be seen in the image above (though the pair Anne owned would have only had one button hole on each end, and in likelihood were less embroidered).10 They’re small and something that can be hidden under other items of clothing. They’re a hint at a gentlemanliness that can stay, literally, close to Anne’s chest. The braces pictured above are in the collection of the V&A museum, and their online summary quotes from The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, which says that “Braces form a necessary adjunct to a gentleman’s wardrobe.”11 That braces were such a necessary part of being a gentleman and yet still something Anne could attain acts almost as a defeat of the divide between gentlemanliness and Anne’s existence. Her claiming of masculinity in this subtle form of dress is similar to her romantic encounters with women who were already married to men; she appropriates what the man deems to be his own and liberates it from its patriarchal constraints. It is not about ownership. It is about how these actions signify the possibility of liberation.

Appropriation of respectable men’s dress by lesbians (firmly unrespectable, in their lesbianism if not in their social status) has continued in the two hundred or so years since these anecdotes from Anne’s diaries. Stormé Delarverie, for example, a Black, butch male impersonator and the “Stonewall lesbian”, wore smart suits around 1960s New York in a way that claimed polished, tailored masculinity as her own. However different the experiences of these people, and however much lesbian experiences may differ from them today, our bodies and their roles as vehicles for clothing remain. The way that we twist the clothing is what makes it ours. 

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1: Alix Genter, ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Butch-Femme Fashion and Queer Legibility in New York City, 1945-1969.’ Feminist Studies 42.3 (2016): 605.

2: Helena Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, (London: Virago, [1988] 2010) 94.

3: Anna Clark, “Anne Lister’s Construction of Lesbian Identity,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7.1 (1996): 45.

4: Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 76.

5: Clark, “Anne Lister’s Construction of Lesbian Identity,” 42.

6: Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 369.

7: Judith Halberstam (see also: Jack), Female Masculinity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 67-68.

8: Jewelle Gomez, ‘Femme Butch Feminist,’ Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, ed. Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman (Canada: Arsenal Pulp Press, [2011] 2017), 70.

9: Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 9.

10: Lucy Johnston, Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail (London: V&A Publications, [2005] 2009), 140.

11: The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1840) qted in “Braces (1840-1850),” Summary, V&A Online Collections, Victoria and Albert Museum, London [n.d.]. 

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