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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #36 – Cressy 1996 “Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England”

Full citation: 

Cressy, David. 1996. “Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England” in Journal of British Studies 35/4: 438-465.

When we move from the medieval into the early modern era, detailed information about real-life crossdressing women becomes more plentiful. This article traces both openly transgressive crossdressing, such as the appropriation of masculine garments for fashionable purposes, and more practical covert uses, such as passing as male to enter restricted professions such as the military.

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Cressy looks at the social context of both “acceptable” and unacceptable forms of cross-dressing by both men and women in his study period. While the contexts for the two groups were very different, both raised similar concerns about the violation of appropriate gender roles and the use of cross-dressing as an excuse (or context) for other social transgressions. While much of the public discourse on crossdressing women focused on the blurring of lines between the genders (including the appropriate of male clothing styles such as doublets and hats in the name of fashion), the anecdotal evidence (from life and literature) speaks of more practical concerns (as summarized in Woodbridge 1984): “to plead at law, regain a fortune, or practice a profession barred to women; to advance a stratagem, win back lovers, or fight a duel; to travel alone, avoid rape or molestation, and to have adventures.”

Polemical tracts such as Stubbes’ “Anatomy of Abuses” provide specifics of the accusations of transgression: women cropped their hair, put on broad-brimmed hats and doublets, wore boots and carried swords. The worst offenders were said to be found in theaters and brothels, and the specific example of Moll Cutpurse gives an example of what they were complaining about.

Several of Shakespeare’s comedies involve cross-dressing female characters (Viola and Rosalind as prime examples) though it must be remembered that the layers of gender identity involved male actors playing women who disguised themselves as men. Most in-play theatrical masquerades, though, were cross-dressing men, either for comic effect or as a means of penetrating women’s spaces.

Carnivals were evidently a popular time for crossdressing by both sexes. Another common context for crossdressing women was the military (which will be explored in greater detail in Dekker and van de Pol 1989 and in Dugaw 1996). Evidence from legal records is relatively rare, perhaps because laws against crossdressing were rarely enforced. There were occasional citations of prostitutes who wore male clothing as a sort of advertisement. In 1569 a woman named Joanna Goodman was punished for taking on men’s clothing to follow her husband to war. Susan Bastwick of Stondon was the subject of a complaint in 1578 for crossdressing as part of a prank. A servant was reported in 1585 for wearing men’s clothing on the job. In 1596 three sisters were cited for “going disguised a-mumming” in men’s clothing and their father was cited for permitting it. Women who came to church in men’s clothing, perhaps as a carnival prank, were given penance.

The aforementioned Moll Cutpurse (Mary Frith) was an interesting case. She pushed crossdressing from transgression into performance art. A play “The Roaring Girl” was written about a fictionalized version of her life. She clearly crossdressed to transgress and not to pass, often in a theatrical context either as audience or on occasion on stage. (More on her in Todd & Spearing 1994.)

Time period: 

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