Cross-Dressing Dykes, an Eighteenth Century Spectacle

A confession: This article was never meant to be about cross-dressing dykes as an eighteenth century spectacle at all. In fact, it started out as an analysis of the fashion of one cross-dressing dyke of the eighteenth century, Mademoiselle de Raucourt (1756-1815). I will be writing about Raucourt, in all her theatrical, French, lesbian glory, but as I researched I realised that there was nowhere near enough description of her clothing to warrant a blog post all about her. It’s hard, sometimes, being a historian of lesbian fashion – the specific clothes that people wore were often seen as not worthy of preserving in detail, whether through paintings, illustrations, or written accounts. Often, all we know is that “she would wear men’s clothes.” 

While researching Mademoiselle de Raucourt, I thought more and more about other cross-dressing dykes who were in the public eye at the same time. I realised that it was very much a trend, or even a public obsession. The rags and their readers ate up stories about cross-dressing women, and all too often these cross-dressers’ stories were wound up with attraction to or relationships with other women. In this article, I want to connect some of the threads of how cross-dressing women-loving-women were presented in the public eye of the eighteenth century, particularly in the descriptions of the clothes they wore. 

Books, newspapers, pamphlets and magazines are staples within fashion historical research, but not always entirely accurate sources. In the words of fashion historian Lou Taylor, “Period comment is all too easily prone to distortion, prejudice, exaggeration, social resentment and even jealousy.”1 However, the purpose of this article is less life-like accuracy and more about how the fashionable image of the cross-dressed lesbian came to life. This happened through the press. 

Fig. 1: Hannah Snell, ‘The Female Soldier’. Illustrator Unknown. C. 1750. National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Before I start looking at some individuals and their supposed self-fashioning in detail, I want to make a small note. I am, as always, looking at this history through the lens of lesbian fashion – but this doesn’t mean that no other lens could be looked through. I am not trying to put a terminological box around historical people or contexts, but trying to understand them by linking their lesbian possibilities to our lesbian present and future, all through clothing. Jack Halberstam, in Female Masculinities, argues that using the term “lesbian” in historical contexts “erases the specificity of tribadism, hermaphrodism, and transvestism.”2 This is not my intention. I want a thousand readings of these eighteenth century cross-dressers in the world, and this is but one. For more, I would recommend Female Masculinities itself, and a much-anticipated book in my to-read list is Female Husbands: A Trans History by Jen Manion. 

One of the most famous cross-dressing dykes of the eighteenth century was Mademoiselle de Raucourt, the person with whom this article began. Raucourt was not famous because of her cross-dressing, but it was part of her noteriety. She was an actress, appearing on the Parisian stage for the first time in 1772. She was immediately admired, praised for her talent as well as her beauty – Mary D. Sheriff in Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France writes that “contemporary descriptions suggest she was a powerful woman with force and energy, of an antique beauty rather than a feminine grace and charm.”3 It wasn’t just her unconventional beauty that drew admiration, though. One of her most fascinating qualities was the way that she, unlike other famous actresses, refused payment from aristocratic men in return for access to her body. However, her public purity soon faded, in conjunction with her rising reputation as the “young priestess of Lesbos.”4 

Fig. 2: Mademoiselle de Raucourt by Sigmund Freudenberger, 1772. Musée Carnavalet.

Raucourt’s story is long and complex, irrevocably intertwined with the French Revolution. She appears in pamphlet after pamphlet between 1789 and 1799 as a figurehead of Parisian lesbians – a community scorned by many revolutionaries as counter-revolutionary. Revolutionaries  “associated sex between men and sex between women” explains Jeffrey Merrick in Homosexuality in Modern France, “with aristocratic privilege or turpitude.”5 Cross-dressing is part of how these pamplets illustrated Raucourt’s character and that of others like her. In Correspondance secrète, politique, et littéraire, which was essentially a French gossip publication, it was discussed that Raucourt’s cross-dressing was connected to her sexual exploits. Another publication, Chronique arétine, reported in 1789 that she was seen leaving the home of a female lover “disguised as a man, after having attempted to fulfill that role with her loving mistress.”6 This meant that when Raucourt cross-dressed on stage for the role of a countess disguised as a soldier in her self-written play Henriette she was met with heavily critical reviews. She was flaunting her lifestyle too loudly.

Though Raucourt was condemned and satirised in the public eye doesn’t mean that she wasn’t also a public obsession. This is illustrated most clearly when the clergy of her parish refused to bury her body after her death in 1815, and in response, a crowd broke down the doors to the church. A riot sprung up in defence of her name. Her body ended up buried at Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris (and now, the most visited in the world).7 

If this seems like an overwhelming reaction, what if there had been a public outcry for canonisation? That is, a public demand that a cross-dressing dyke should be given the title of Saint? Well, that’s what happened after the death of Giovanni Bordoni (1718-1743), born and posthumously known as Catterina Vizzani. Here’s the rundown: Giovanni was born in Rome, and at age fourteen fell in love with a girl – Margaret – who was teaching her embroidery. She began wearing male clothing in order to court Margaret. Once their relationship was discovered, she fled, assuming the name Giovanni Bordoni. Giovanni (and I switch now to he/him pronouns, as he would have in life) began working as a vicar’s servant in Perugia, where he was supposedly “the best seducer of women in that part of the country.”8

Fig. 3: Men’s coat, waistcoat and breeches in dark brown wool. French, c. 1780. In the ‘Anglomania’ style popular in France at the time, based on English middle-class attire. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. V&A Online Collection. This outfit may be similar to those worn by cross-dressing dykes.

Some years later, and in another city, Giovanni fell in love with another girl. The pair planned to elope. They were discovered while travelling, and Giovanni was shot in the leg, despite being in the midst of surrender. His wound turned gangrenous, and Giovanni spent the end of his life in hospital, having to remove the “leather contrivance” that he had worn fastened below his abdomen because of the pain.9 In Rebecca Jenning’s A Lesbian History of Britain, she describes how 

On her deathbed, [Giovanni] told Maria de Colombo, purveyor to the nuns of the order of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin at Sienna, that ‘she was not only a female but a virgin, conjuring her, at the same time, to let no person know it until her death, and then to declare it publicly, that she might be buried in a woman’s habit, and with the garland on her head, an honorary ceremony observed among us in the burial of virgins.’10

It was after Giovanni’s death that another Giovanni – Giovanni Bianchi, a surgeon and professor of anatomy – conducted an autopsy on the body and published The True History and Adventures of Catherine Vizzani (English translation). Giovanni/Catterina had well and truly become a celebrity, and a lesbian one at that. The website Vizzani Bordoni argues that histories of Giovanni should describe him as a man, asserting that “It is impossible to determine the precise way Bordoni identified, as he never gave a personal account of his gender, but there are several instances where the text portrays Bordoni as identifying as a man.”11 While I agree with this sentiment, the perspective of this article is the public obsession with cross-dressing dykes, and this is in line with how Giovanni’s story was received

In the English introduction of The True History and Adventures of Catherine Vizzani, translator John Cleland writes that Giovanni was “so far from being inferior to Sappho, or any of the Lesbian nymphs, in an attachment for those of her own Sex”.12 Let me translate the translation: “she was a lesbian.” This lesbian image went hand-in-hand with cross-dressing, as Giovanni’s passion for women was always linked with male clothing. This is mentioned most pointedly the beginning of the story and the wooing of Margaret, when “Scarce a Night passes, but she appeared in Man’s Cloaths, under her Charmer’s Window.”13

Another eighteenth century cross-dressing dyke, whose fame is intertwined with a largely-fictionalised biography, is Mary/Charles Hamilton. Little is known about the realities of Hamilton’s life, other than place of birth (Somerset, England), faked profession (doctor), and events following the marriage of Hamilton and Mary Price in 1746. When Mary realised Hamilton’s deception – though it’s possible that she knew all along, and only revealed it when the marriage turned sour – Hamilton was arrested and sentenced to public whippings and six months in jail.14 

Fig. 4: ‘Mary Hamilton,’ from Henry Fielding, The Surprising Adventures of a Female Husband, 1816. Frontispiece by George Cruikshank. NYPL. [I chose to include this image after much internal debate because it’s the only contemporary depiction of Hamilton, and it shows breeches and military boots, both of which are staples of men’s eighteenth century fashion and appear in descriptions of female cross-dressers. However, I don’t want to sensationalise the violence that people like Hamilton faced.]

Hamilton’s story comes to life – and enters the public eye – in its retellings. The actual, material details of Hamilton’s cross-dressing (and relationships with women) are integral here. For one example, see The Bath Journal, which describes Hamilton’s male clothing as stylish and admirable: “very gay, with Perriwig, Ruffles, and Breeches.”15 The most well-known account of Hamilton’s story, however, is The Female Husband, written by Henry Fielding. The Female Husband sensationalises Hamilton’s story, weaving a narrative that fits into the history of cross-dressing dykes. In this story, Mary Hamilton falls in love and has a sexual relationship with a friend of her youth, Anne Johnson, before ever cross-dressing at all. After Anne marries a man, Mary runs away, assuming the name George Hamilton and marrying a total of three women. After discovery by the first wife, Fielding describes the clothes flung on by Hamilton when escaping:

The poor Female Bridegroom, whipt on her breeches, in the pockets of which, she had stowed all the money she could, and slipping on her shoes, with her coat, waiste-coat and stockings in her hands, had made the best of her way into the street, leaving almost one half of her shirt behind, which the enraged Wife had tore from her back.16

At this moment of discovery, the narrative of the cross-dresser appears most strongly. Hamilton was vulnerable while undressed, but assumes the “disguise” – the heroic persona – in haste, by dressing in male garments, such as the “waiste-coat” and breeches. Gender expression, and in this case sexuality, are tied up innately with clothes. It’s a narrative that was eaten up by Fielding’s readers. 

These are but a few examples of the image of the cross-dressing dyke in the eighteenth century public imagination. There are more stories like the ones discussed here, such as The Life and Adventures of Mrs Christian Davies (1741) and The Female Soldier (1750). Cross-dressing dykes weren’t just a written phenomenon, either. All sorts of identity-play were popular in the eighteenth century, played out in life most publicly with masquerades. 

Fig. 5: Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Dressing for a Masquerade,’ 1790. Hand-coloured etching and stipple. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The MET Museum.

Masquerades were, essentially, costume parties. One of the earliest was hosted by entrepreneur John James Heidegger in 1717, and they became “an instant success as well as a scandal.”17 The satirical illustration above is meant to represent a group of young women getting ready for a masquerade in 1790, putting on a variety of costumes. On the right, one woman is half-dressed in a man’s shirt and breeches, rolling stockings up her legs. This was far from an uncommon outfit – many masquerade-goers cross-dressed, but there was a particular concern about women in men’s clothes. Heidegger wrote a pubic letter to the Bishop of London (who disapproved of masquerades) in 1724, which included the lines

And if I understand your Speeches,
No City Dame should wear the Breeches.18

It’s been argued that most cross-dressers at masquerades didn’t have any homosexual motives in mind, but that “the cross dressing of the balls was” simultaneously “equated by some with homosexuality.”19 I think, personally, that a trend is a trend. All those stories of female cross-dressers seducing women, and I’m expected to believe that not one breeches-wearing masquerader used it as an opportunity to go home with a girl? As if

Neither cross-dressing or lesbianism was socially accepted (other than, maybe, within the confines of the masquerade) in the eighteenth century. It was, however, a spectacle. The public devoured stories about women-dressed-as-men, especially if those stories included a female love interest or three. Because of this, the cross-dressing dyke became a character and a caricature. Characters became “lesbian” when their inspirations might have only ever seen themselves as men, transformed socially by their clothes. Alternatively, proud lesbians or tribades were seen to be fulfilling the role of men, as with Mademoiselle de Raucourt’s representation in Parisian gossip journals. Either way, their histories are woven together. The tapestry of cross-dressing dykes is many-coloured, each thread different and its own; when seen together, though, the effect is entrancing.

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter or support me on Patreon

Endnotes

1: Lou Taylor, The Study of Dress History, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002) 95.

2: Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinities, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, [1998] 2018) 51.

3: Mary D. Sheriff, Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 197.

4: Quoted in Leila J. Rupp, Sapphistries, (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009) 119.

5: Jeffrey Merrick, ‘The Marquis de Villette and Mademoiselle de Raucourt: Representations of Male and Female Sexual Deviance in Late Eighteenth-Century France,’ in Homosexuality in Modern Frace, eds. Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant To. Ragan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 45.

6: Quoted in Merrick, ‘The Marquis de Villette and Mademoiselle de Raucourt,’ 43.

7: Hugh Chisholm, ‘Raucourt, Mlle’, Encyclopaedia Britannica 22, 11th Edition (Cambridge University Press, 1911).

8: Ria Brodell, Butch Heroes, (London and Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018) 18.

9: Brodell, Butch Heroes, 18.

10: Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500, (Oxford and Westport: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007) 29.

11: ‘The Case of Catterina Vizzani (1751): Transgender Life in the Eighteenth Century,’ vizzanibordoni.omeka.net.

12: Giovanni Bianchi, The True History and Adventures of Catherine Vizzani, (London: W. Reeve, Fleet Street, 1755) accessed via Rictor Norton, ‘The Case of Catherine Vizzani, 1755,’ Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 1st Dec. 2005. rictornorton.co.uk

13: Bianchi, The True History and Adventures of Catherine Vizzani, rictornorton.co.uk.

14: Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain, 32-33.

15: Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain, 33.

16: Henry Fielding, The Female Husband: Or, the Surprising History of Mrs. Mary, Alias Mr. George Hamilton, Who was Convicted of Having Married a Young Woman of Wells and Lived with Her and Her Husband, 1746. Published by the University of Adelaide Library, South Australia, 2015.

17: Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) 125.

18: John James Heidegger, Heydegger’s letter to the Bishop of London,’ (London: Printed for N. Cox in Story’s passage, going out of St. James’-Park, 1724. Gale Primary Sources) 4.

19: Bullough and Bullough, Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, 126.

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