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18th Century Legs on Stage

Saturday, April 24, 2021 - 12:00

I was a bit worried that Klein's book was going to be more on the naval-gazing lit-crit side of things, but I ended up enjoying it a lot (even though I did quite a bit of skimming). While Klein does spend a lot of focus on issues of literary genre (even when discussing historic individuals), I think that -- like the way I frame the focus of the LHMP -- it can help in navigating between questions of historic context and personal identity. This book is examining the way historic texts present and discuss "women dressing/disguised as men" because that's how those texts and their authors (for the most part) viewed their subject. When we're examining how Henry Fielding depicted Mary Hamilton in his fictionalized account The Female Husband, we aren't dealing with a man who had a nuanced modern concept of transgender identity that could be explored and interrogated. Nor--at that remove--are we dealing with how the historic Mary Hamilton may have experienced and understood their own gender and sexuality. (Even Fielding wasn't particularly interested in that question.)

For an entirely different approach to some of the same historic content, stay tuned for the next publication in my current gender-crossing mini-series.

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Full citation: 

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4

Chapter 4: Putting on Gender One Leg at a Time

Legs, as a feature of cross-dressing, are legible primarily in the context of actresses playing male roles. The clothing of the day meant that women’s legs were normally concealed. That meant that, on stage, women’s exposed legs both represented masculinity and were potentially a powerful erotic stimulus. The dramatic fiction that cross-dressing actresses were “men” in their roles gave license for women to find them desirable, as well as for others to deny the same-sex aspect of that desire.

Even more than other contexts, cross-gender roles on the stage emphasized the performative nature of gender. The boundary-crossing of actresses like Charlotte Charke (who took cross-dressing off stage to a greater degree than many others) was used as an excuse for condemning the profession, even as it was a major draw for viewers.

If the visible legs of actresses were framed by contemporaries and historians as primarily being intended for consumption by the male gaze, the actresses’ male performance was also available as a way to solicit or signal (or engender) same-sex desires in other women, whether indirectly in the audience or via general public awareness.

When those actresses in their male roles courted or seduced women on the stage it became difficult to ignore the sapphic erotic possibilities for women off stage. Furthermore, the social and physical freedom the trouser-clad legs represented created an association between that freedom and independence and sapphic desires.

This chapter lays out those dynamics by reviewing 18th century discourse around gender fluidity, mobility, and sexuality, especially through biographical writings on actresses Charlotte Charke and Margaret Woffington. Then it covers the themes of how legs function both as markers of femaleness and as representing female desire and independence in the novels Belinda and A Simple Story.

In the 18th century, a well-shaped leg was the provenance of men as a sex symbol. Not only did breeches acknowledge the existence of legs, but the close-fitting stockings featured below the knee-length breeches of the era drew attention to a well-defined calf muscle, further enhanced by tall heeled shoes, even as we see in women’s fashions today.

Respectable women might have license in a carnival atmosphere to wear men’s clothes (as men did women’s) and cross-dressing actresses were accepted, but under ordinary circumstances it was scandalous for a woman to reveal even a portion of her lower legs to a man’s gaze. Gowns were long and voluminous and came with multiple layers of skirts, normally keeping even the feet hidden. “Skirts” or “petticoats” became metonymic for the state of being female, and for female genitalia specifically.

With the rise of women on the stage in England in the late 17th century. [Note: Actresses were common in earlier eras elsewhere, but England had some odd notions around the topic, hence the phenomenon of boys playing all the female roles in Elizabethan theater.]  No sooner had the profession opened to women in England than turnabout created the “breeches part,” with women playing male roles. One function of “breeches roles” in Restoration theater was to put female bodies on display by some means other than being undressed, but women wearing breeches were not simply passive objects of the male gaze.

Trousers allowed greater physical mobility in many situations, and some working class women had always worn trousers for practical reasons. [Note: There are some flaws in this argument. Most working-class women doing heavy manual labor still wore skirts. And not all skirts were voluminous, encumbering court costumes. Just as with some modern misguided attitudes toward stays and corsets, we need to beware of reflexively viewing all female-coded garments as essentially disabling.]

Overt trouser wearing by women was associated with deprecated professions: stage performers, manual labor, and sex work. [Note: Though Klein doesn’t touch on it, there seems to be a significant association of cross dressing being assumed to signal sex work in the 16th and 17th century England. See e.g., Bennett and McSheffrey 2014 [ Whether this was true or simply attributed needs further study.] In any event, cross-dressing and especially trouser-wearing was associated with loose sexual morals, regardless of the women’s motivations or circumstances. But even as a sex object, the woman in breeches is an object of desire for both men and women: men, because her genitals are foregrounded by metonymy; women, because the masculine performance gives them license to feel desire.

Female mobility, both physical and social, undermines patriarchal control, whether we consider control of the woman herself or control of the narrative about her. When women experience desire for a cross-dressed actress, they escape gendered control over their desires via a public fiction—the stage role. But within fictional cross-dressing narratives, when a woman experiences desire for a covertly cross-dressing woman, it is the reader who is licensed to understand that desire as sapphic.

The association of masculinity with mobility and independence also intersects with disability and the ways in which it was not simply the visible male leg that was a sex symbol, but the shapely well-muscled athletic leg in particular. The erotic qualities of the female leg lay in how the legs framed and stood in for the genitals. Women’s legs were stereotyped at the time as thick and less shapely than men’s (as we see in satirical drawings). Thus the erotic visibility of cross-dressing actresses’ legs—in being praised for their shapeliness—are viewed in terms of masculine attractiveness, as well as being a symbol of sexual independence, even as their visibility as female legs signalled wantonness and sexual availability.

The mutability of gender in stage roles had been present in the early modern period not only via boys playing female roles, but in how female characters, in turn, took on cross-dressing male roles (as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). As female actors became accepted on the English stage in the second half of the 17th century, this turned around, with nearly one-third of all plays performed including roles in which actresses wore male clothes. This meant that the sight and idea of women in men’s clothing was established in the popular imagination, even if taboo off stage.

Breeches roles did attract criticism from moralists, but it wasn’t until the end of the 18th century when that criticism began to be heeded. [Note: See discussion of the “sex panic” around 1800 that affected British sexual and gender culture in complex ways.]

The remainder of the chapter takes a detailed look at two famously cross dressing actresses: Charlotte Charke and Margaret Woffington. Charke left a somewhat fictionalized autobiography, which also addresses her cross-dressing and gender-passing off stage. Woffington is known only from secondhand sources. Both were known for attracting and accepting the erotic desire of both men and women (though the latter is less certain in the case of Woffington).

There is also a discussion of the symbolism of legs in the novels Belinda and A Simple Story, in which the cross-dressing characters are depicted as unfeminine and are punished for the transgression, and yet underneath the moralizing, each includes themes of sapphic eroticism and female bonds motivated by attraction.

I’m going to skip over the detailed discussion, though it’s quite interesting.


In summing up some of the themes of the book, Klein surveys various intersections of race and nationality with gender symbolism.

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