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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 43d - The Evolution of Butch as a Lesbian Signifier

Saturday, February 22, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43d - The Evolution of Butch as a Lesbian Signifier - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/02/22 - listen here)

Special Note: A slide-show version of this podcast is available on our YouTube channel (see show notes below). The slide-show does not have the updated intro and includes obsolete references to the TLT podcast group.


In an iconic scene from the classic black and white movie Queen Christina, Greta Garbo stands at the prow of a ship wearing a doublet and feathered hat, sailing away from her crown and off to adventure. In Morocco, the fabulous Marlene Dietrich in a form-fitting tuxedo serenades and kisses a female nightclub patron. In the more recent period drama The Favourite, Rachael Weisz as the Duchess of Marlborough strides through the queen’s chambers wearing high black leather boots and breeches.

These scenes have two things in common: from a queer perspective, they are hot, hot hot! And one of the things that makes them hot, is the strategic use of male-coded clothing on an unambiguously female body. But when and how did these two features become joined together?

F/f historical fiction and visual media are full of women whose romantic and sexual interests are signaled to the consumer by the strategic use of male-coded garments. And 20th century lesbian culture (using “lesbian” in the broadest sense) has a fascination with butch stylings. To the audience, these signifiers can be read either as deliberately indicating the wearer’s own orientation, or as being inherently attractive to the woman-loving woman. To a contemporary viewer, this connection may seem so obvious that we don’t question whether it has always existed. So let’s explore the question of how and when it developed. For the author of f/f historical fiction, it can be very useful to know how your characters might have understood “mannish” clothing, and what forms it might have taken in the era being written about.

I’ve previously discussed how some past cultures considered that desire for the female body was an inherently masculine experience, and that therefore women who desired women were viewed as behaving like men. I’ve also previously discussed the use of gender disguise to enable two women to appropriate the forms of heterosexual marriage in order to have their relationship recognized--as well as the ambiguous territory between that and transmasculine lives. Today’s show inevitably touches on behavioral masculinity as well as masculinity in dress. Both themes contribute to the development of butch images, and both threads are part of the weave, but today’s show will revolve primarily around clothing.

Historic Attitudes Toward Clothing Gender

The historic relationship in popular imagination between female same-sex desire and masculine-coded presentation is complex. Clothing and behavior are inevitably assigned gendered meaning, but those meanings aren’t static and fixed. In ancient Greece and Rome, manly men railed against the wearing of trousers because it was an effeminate Persian practice. Real men wore tunics. So the issues around gendered clothing are rarely about objective features of the clothing itself, but about the meanings assigned to those garments.

Aside from the question of what counted as a masculine or feminine garment, there was the question of how society interpreted wearing garments associated with a different gender. This is part of a larger question of how society reacted to people wearing garments associated with any category they didn’t belong to. Pre-modern society didn’t necessarily see clothing as an arbitrary accessory to one’s identity; clothing was your identity, in some essential sense. Sumptuary laws weren’t only concerned about people overspending their clothing budgets but also that people might wear clothing that was above their station and thus lay claim to rank. (I’m waving hi to my girlfriend Lauri at this point, because this is a vast oversimplification of her academic field!)

Cross-dressing was a concern, not only because it might confuse or deceive the observer, but because it might directly affect the gender of the wearer. This fairly extreme understanding of the expression “clothes make the man” began to fade around the 16th century, but that only gave rise to a more complex anxiety about gender confusion in clothing.

When historic texts talk about women openly wearing male-coded garments, we are dealing with concerns that the women will either gain or claim male attributes, but we also need to look more closely at how people understood “male attributes”. So let’s look at that question a bit.

Gendered Clothing Confers Gender Characteristics

The most immediate aspect of male identity that a woman might claim would be the social freedom and status that men had in relation to women. If women could wear male garments, they might want legal equality, or the freedom to move through the world as beings with independence and agency. They might turn the entire social hierarchy upside down. They might want--as the saying goes--to wear the pants. In medieval and Renaissance iconography, the image of a man and woman fighting over a pair of pants--often in the form of male underpants--was used to signify the battle of the sexes and the specter of women claiming the upper hand over men. And when feminist movements began to gain traction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the hostility directed against feminists regularly brought up masculinity in clothing as both a symptom and cause of their political positions.

Types of social activities that were considered to be the prerogative of men--such as active sports--were another area where masculine clothing featured. This wasn’t simply a matter of masculine styles being more suited to physical activity. For one thing, the association was applied to intellectual pursuits as well as physical ones. But also, the adoption by women of masculine garments for active pursuits didn’t necessarily enable mobility.

One area where we can trace this association is in the fashions of women’s horseback riding garments. In the early modern period, we see women adopting design features of male garments for riding habits--and being called Amazons for doing so--but without discarding skirts and the awkward riding postures that they called for. Wearing a riding habit even when not on horseback became a symbol both of an active lifestyle but also a rejection of more feminine fashion conventions. I’ll touch back on that topic a bit later.

If you want a modern example of a similar phenomenon, consider the design of women’s business suits, that lay claim to a place in the world of upscale employment in a way that more “feminine” dresses don’t, while still being clearly female garments.

Moving into the realm of sexuality, the most fundamental difference in pre-modern culture was that men were expected to be the active, controlling partner in sex, while women were expected to be receptive and acted on, rather than being sexual agents. Of course, medieval people recognized that women had sexual appetites--perhaps even stronger ones than men did--but the essential gendering was not in what type of partner one chose, but in what role one took in sex. This meant that women who wore male garments were viewed as being sexually aggressive, or simply sexually unruly, because that was the spin put on women who behaved sexually in ways that were considered normal and expected for men. They might claim male agency in the right to have partners outside of marriage, to disdain chastity, and have the right to say both yes and no to sex. Sexual interest in women was considered masculine, but it wasn’t the only aspect of sexuality that was assigned to men.

Another sexual strand in the weave is the way cross-gender theatrical performance created same-sex possibilities in the erotic imagination. Considerations of how to interpret 16th century English theater with its boy-actors playing women pretending to be men falling in love with women who were also boy-actors...well, it was complicated. But more directly relevant to today’s topic, once women were allowed on the English stage in the 17th century, they were soon followed by the phenomenon of women playing male roles in male clothing (while still being openly known to be female actors) attracting the dual possibilities of male desire for female anatomy that was being more clearly displayed than usual, and female desire that could be excused as being for the role and not for the person playing it--oh, no, not at all! Heaven forbid! For that matter, women openly wearing male clothing in the context of performance could also offer cover to men who were attracted to the appearance of masculinity while being able to claim the reality of heterosexual relations.

Not all of these contexts and interpretations are directly related to same-sex attraction and desire, but together they created a context in which that association developed. So let’s look at a timeline of examples of that development, with increasingly overt homoerotic associations.

Cross-gender Garments Signifying Sexual Unruliness

At the very heart of the matter, women wearing masculine items of clothing symbolized gender non-compliance. They were the mark of a rule-breaker, and especially a sexual rule breaker. Covert cross-dressing might be read in the same way, if discovered, but masculine cross-dressing when the body underneath was openly female was a direct challenge. For male spectators, sexual rule-breaking was assumed to mean a lack of chastity, a sexual wantonness. It primarily focused on heterosexual transgressions of expected female behavior.

In a 14th century English account of a group of women showing up at a tournament in male clothing, two things are clear in the author’s mind: that they were women despite the clothing, and that their purpose included to “wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity display their bodies.” That they had “slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint.” This was not a case of mere masculine stylings or individual male garments. They were dressed in complete male outfits. How the women themselves intended the event is not recorded, alas. And unlike similar scenes in chivalric literature, there’s no indication that any female spectators fell in love with the women. But our chronicler gave their performance a clearly sexual interpretation.

Intent is somewhat more in evidence in a number of records of women wearing masculine garments in a sexual context--or at least a sexualized one. In the 15th century, Joan White was arrested in London for being “wont to dance and make revels in her master’s house, sometimes in man’s clothing and sometimes naked.” There are even more London records in the next century of women, such as Helen Hudson, who are charged with prostitution being cited for wearing men’s clothing at the request of their clients. The descriptions don’t always make it clear how obvious the women’s actual sex was, but their partners at least can be presumed to be aware.

There are a couple of points to make with respect to these women. Any woman at that time who had extramarital sex could be considered a prostitute. An economic transaction wasn’t required, only illicit sex. The sexual associations of cross-gender garments suggest the interpretation that they may have been charged with prostitution because of the gender play, rather than engaging in gender play because they were prostitutes. But secondly, their sexual unruliness is either in the context of a heterosexual relationship or perhaps in a mock-enactment of a male-male relationship. The suggestion of female homoeroticism isn’t much mentioned in this context.

The anxieties of gender-blurring that began appearing in England in the 16th century and on into the next were both a crisis of category--OMG dogs and cats living together!--but specifically a crisis over women leaving the category of domestic modesty for that of sexual agency. The polemical tract Hic Mulier describes such clothing as: “exchanging ... the modest upper parts of a concealing straight gown, to the loose, lascivious civil embracement  of a French doublet, being all unbuttoned to entice ... and extreme short waisted to give a most easy way to every luxurious action.” Those unfamiliar with late 16th century clothing may need help envisioning the subtleties. The “modest upper parts of a concealing straight gown” can be imagined as a long, loose one-piece dress. Whereas much ado is made over the half-unbuttoned doublet--a sort of jacket--noted as being short to the waist. Both the unbuttoning and the short length are framed as being for the purpose of easy access to what lay beneath: the woman’s bosom. A woman choosing this outfit would be wearing it with a skirt, not trying to be read as a man. It was only the styling and tailoring of the garment that carried the suggestion of wantonness, partly in its physical design, partly in the wearer’s obvious lack of fucks. Well, or perhaps not a lack after all.

In one specific case, an early 17th century woman wearing this sort of hybrid-gender outfit is accused, at least obliquely, of being sexually wanton without regard to the gender of her partner. Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse (about whom I did an entire podcast) was notorious for wearing a mix of male and female garments, typically a man’s doublet over a skirt. When her contemporary immortalized her as a stage character in The Roaring Girl, one character in the play suggests that Moll “might first cuckold the husband, and then make him do as much for the wife.” That is, that she might seduce both members of a couple in turn. I won’t claim that this is the first instance where we can find the intersection of female same-sex desire and the open wearing of male-coded garments, but it’s probably as solid an example as you’re going to get in that era, due to the sexual ribaldry of the play.

Theatrical Contexts Interpreted as Sexually Desirable to Men but Also to Women

I want to pause for a moment to touch on some of the complications of interpreting gender-coding on stage or by people who were professional performers. When the fictional version of Moll Cutpurse is depicted on stage as having bisexual desires, alongside wearing a mix of male and female-coded garments, the implication is that both are features of her personality, not necessarily that wearing a male doublet made her more attractive to women. At that time, the intersection of cross-gendered clothing and female homoeroticism on stage largely invoked motifs of disguise and misperception rather than deliberate communication.

In one sense, cross-dressed actresses fit into today’s theme in that they are a case of someone known to be a woman wearing male garments. But the question is whether their choice to play such roles was an indication--or was read by others as an indication--of an interest in same-sex relations.

One might think that late-17th century French opera singer and swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny would be a perfect example in my timeline of this connection, but in many ways she’s an anomaly. She wore male clothing openly in a performance context (where the performance was demonstration sword fights) but also as an everyday practice. She took an assertive role in courting women with evident success. People responded to her as a rulebreaker, but to some extent she was so over-the-top that looking for subtle sartorial signaling is beside the point.

Another potential theatrical example was Charlotte Cibber Charke, who wrote a fictionalized autobiography about her adventures on stage and off in 1755. Charke was famous for playing “breeches parts” on stage but describes how she was attracted to masculine clothing and activities from an early age, with mixed reactions from her parents. Off stage, she frequently traveled and socialized as “Mr. Brown”, attracting the interest of women who variously were and were not aware of the disguise, though she seems to have always been scrupulous about laying out the facts before going further than flirtation. She had one very long-term female partner and they sometimes presented themselves as a male-female married couple. As with d’Aubigny, Charke presented a juxtaposition of sometimes being read as male--both on stage and off--with a romantic life that involved both female and male partners, but there are only traces of evidence that she may have used a masculine presentation to advertise her romantic and sexual interests. In contrast to Moll Cutpurse and Julie d’Aubigny who may have been attracted to the theater for the opportunity to experiment with presentation and identity, Charke was born to the trade. Her father, Colley Cibber, was a prominent actor, theater manager, and playwright. In addition, there is a plausible case to be made for reading Charke more as transgender than as simply playing with cross-gender presentation, which adds complications to the interpretation.

A better theatrical example is another Charlotte: 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman. (I did an entire podcast on her, too.) Like Charke, she became known for playing breeches parts--though she was also famous for strong and quirky renderings of non-romantic female characters. In Cushman’s case, there is ample documentation that female spectators responded to her as a romantic and erotic icon, swooning over her Romeo and Hamlet, with the plausible deniability that their feelings were purely a matter of sensibility when directed to a female object. But Cushman blurred the lines between performance and life. She used her roles as a context for flirtations with women, including some flirtations that developed into serious relationships. Cushman also wore “mannish” styles off stage, including a period of look-alike fashion with her romantic partner radical author and feminist Matilda Hays. It was something of a fashion among the feminist set in the mid-19th century to wear masculine-style tailored jackets and shirts, as well as masculine hats, a topic I’ll come back to later.

But by Cushman’s time, the relationship between mannish clothing and same-sex romantic interests was solidly established. So let’s go back in time a bit to see more of the development phase.

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Male-coded Garments in Gender Play Combined with Same-Sex Erotics

Early examples of openly wearing masculine garments while also openly engaging in same-sex erotics evolve in the context of gender play, often within a fictional all-female society where the cross-dressing offers an illusion of the gender binary.

Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, written in 1668, is set among an all-female retreat. Among the amusements the women enjoy is for some of them to dress in masculine clothing and “act lovers-parts”, engaging in courtship, though it is passed off as being a game.

A similar fictional women-only social group “The New Cabal” is depicted in detail in Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, published in 1709. (And, once again, I’ve done a podcast on the topic.) Here the erotic relationships between the women are covered with the flimsiest of performative disbelief. While the majority of the ladies of Manley’s Cabal are presented as being feminine in appearance and being attracted to each other’s femininity, one couple is described as adopting masculine dress to go off and have sexual adventures with prostitutes, in this passage.

The witty Marchioness of Sandomire...used to mask her Diversions in the Habit of the other Sex, and with her Female Favourite, Ianthe, wander through the Gallant Quarter of Atalantis in search of Adventures. ... the little Liberties she took with her own Sex... These Creatures of Hire, failed not to find their Account, in obliging the Marchioness's and Ianthe's peculiar Taste...”

This is still a matter of taking on a complete gender disguise, though one that was known to her female partner--and evidently to the sex workers they visited. We haven’t yet entirely integrated that “peculiar taste” in sexual partners with the practice of only partially and openly wearing male garments on a female body.

A similar intersection appears in the 1744 novel The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, in which the title character and another woman travel around Europe together in male disguise, flirting with women and having romantic adventures, while at the same time expressing (though evidently not consummating) romantic and erotic feelings for each other. Once more, this isn’t a case of someone who is read by those around her as female but using masculine garments. Other than the two women’s knowledge of each other’s sex, the male clothing functions as a disguise. The characters overtly use gender disguise as cover for expressing same-sex desire, even between themselves.

And yet in all of these cases, the reader is privy to the knowledge of the women’s sex and therefore is invited to make a connection between their sexual desires and their clothing choices.

Women with Same-Sex Interests Depicted as Behaving Mannishly

These are the roots of the intersection of cross-dressing and same-sex desire: the expression of that desire via play-acting heterosexual roles, and the interpretation of sexual agency as an inherently masculine characteristic. But by the time Mademoiselle de Richelieu was published, another trope has begun to emerge: the behaviorally “mannish” woman where the behavior is correlated with sexual interest in women. The earliest examples follow something of an “essentialist” position, focusing on physical appearance and behavioral mannerisms as reflecting innate erotic desires, rather than focusing on deliberate choices in presentation.

In the fictionalized biography, Memoirs of the Life of Count Grammont by Anthony Hamilton, published in 1713, male characters compete for the attention of a series of young women with Mary Hobart, who has charge of the maids of honor in the Duchess of York’s household. Mistress Hobart is presented in derisory terms as behaving in an aggressively masculine way toward the women she desires--and that desire is presented in clearly sexual terms--but her clothing choices aren’t mentioned. In fact, following a motif popular in earlier centuries, Hobart’s erotic desire for women is hinted as being evidence that she is actually physiologically male, even to the point of having impregnated her maidservant.

 “Miss Hobart's character was at that time as uncommon in England, as her person was singular, in a country where, to be young, and not to be in some degree handsome, is a reproach; she had a good shape, rather a bold air, and a great deal of wit, which was well cultivated, without having much discretion. She was likewise possessed of a great deal of vivacity, with an irregular fancy there was a great deal of fire in her eyes, which, however, produced no effect upon the beholders: and she had a tender heart, whose sensibility some pretended was alone in favor of the fair sex.

This becomes, unfortunately, an established trope in 18th century novels: a masculine-acting, predatory woman with same-sex interests. Samuel Richardson features such a character in two of his novels, which are among books frequently cited as helping to establish the modern novel as a genre. Pamela, published in 1740, is the story of a virtuous young woman in service who is steadfastly trying to resist the advances of her employer. In the following scene, her employer’s housekeeper, Mrs. Jewkes, shows her own amorous interest in Pamela.

“The naughty woman came up to me with an air of confidence and kissed me: See, sister, said she, here’s a charming creature! Would she not tempt the best lord in the land to run away with her? ... Every now and then she would be staring in my face, in the chariot, and squeezing my hand, and saying, Why you are very pretty, my silent dear! And once she offered to kiss me. [The protagonist describes Mrs. Jewkes, emphasizing the ugliness of her features.] “She has a hoarse, man-like voice and is as thick as she is long; and yet looks so deadly strong, that I am afraid she would dash me at her foot in an instant, if I was to vex her.”

Richardson’s other mannish stereotype appears in the novel Sir Charles Grandison, published in 1753. Here, the heroine is describing the people she meets at a party, most of whom are pursuing her for her fortune. Miss Barnevelt isn’t explicitly in that category, but does flirt with her.

“...Miss Barnevelt, a lady of masculine features, and whose mind bely’d not those features; for she has the character of being loud, bold, free, even fierce when opposed; and affects at all times such airs of contempt of her own sex, that one almost wonders at her condescending to wear petticoats. ... Nobody, it seems, thinks of an husband for Miss Barnevelt. She is sneeringly spoken of rather as a young fellow, than as a woman; and who will one day look out for a wife for herself. ... Miss Barnevelt said, she had from the moment I first enter’d beheld me with the eye of a Lover. And freely taking my hand, squeezed it. --Charming creature! said she, as if addressing a country innocent, and perhaps expecting me to be cover’d with blushes and confusion.”

Although Miss Barnevelt’s masculine appearance and behavior are described, the only mention of clothing indicates that what she wears is still within the feminine norm.

Not so in the case of Harriet Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (published in 1801). Freke is set up as antagonist and rival with Belinda for the bosom friendship of Lady Delacour. Delacour describes to Belinda her first impressions of Harriet Freke:

She was just then coming into fashion; she struck me, the first time I met her, as being downright ugly; but there was a wild oddity in her countenance which made one stare at her, and she was delighted to be stared at, especially by me; so we were mutually agreeable to each other – I as starer, and she as staree. Harriot Freke had, without comparison, more assurance than any man or woman I ever saw; she was downright brass, but of the finest kind – Corinthian brass. She was one of the first who brought what I call harum scarum manners into fashion. I told you that she had assurance – impudence I should have called it, for no other word is strong enough. Such things as I have heard Harriot Freke say! – You will not believe it”

But more to the point, on several occasions we’re given extended descriptions of Harriot’s cross-dressing, balancing right at the edge of disguise and delighted when she can reveal to people how she fooled them. Harriot performs a masculine stereotype of boisterous, assertive cheer and loudly voiced opinions. She is an abolitionist, a revolutionary, a feminist--and all these things are meant to be absurd and a sign of her folly, putting her beyond the pale in terms of conventional relationships. Her clothing falls between that of complete disguise, for her identity is generally known, and that of the masculine-flavored female garments that come next under consideration. While there are other examples of the motif at this era, she may be the most explicit depiction. But was Harriot Freke purely a literary invention or did she reflect a type of woman familiar to readers of the time?

The Sartorial Stylings of Amazons and Bluestockings

The relationship of masculinity to the clothing of women pursuing an active sporting life or an active intellectual life went in both directions. To the extent that extremely feminine styles were considered impractical for those interests either on a physical or philosophical basis, women “dressed for the job” as it were. But to the extent that women with sporting and intellectual interests were considered masculine in personality, any clothing styles associated with them were also interpreted as masculine.

Thus, certain features of a riding habit were practical for sporting pursuits, but some simply borrowed from masculine fashions--especially military ones--for the psychological associations. And once it was established in the popular imagination that women who enjoyed horseback riding were, in some fundamental way, masculine, then a riding habit could stand in for feminine masculinity in general. And a woman who took on masculine traits like wearing riding habits could be suspected (or accused) of having a “masculine” romantic preference for her own sex. Such women might be nicknamed “Amazons” for their active pursuits, but the nickname carried the reminder of an entire tribe of women who had little use for men.

The idea of women wearing a special type of outfit for horseback riding appears by the mid 17th century in England. The prolific diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1666 “Walking in the galleries at White Hall, I find the Ladies of Honour dressed in their riding garbs, with coats and doublets with deep skirts, just, for all the world, like mine; and buttoned their doublets up to the breast, with periwigs under their hats; so that, only for a long petticoat dragging under their men's coats, nobody could take them for women in any point whatever; which was an odde sight, and a sight did not please me.”

Masculine-style tailoring of the upper part of the garment--though always adapted for female figures--remained a key feature of the riding habit across the centuries, as evidenced by the fact that women often went to men’s tailors to order them, rather than to their dressmakers. Decorations and details borrowed from men’s military uniforms were especially popular, with braid, epaulettes, frogged closures, and a masculine hat on top of it all. Riding habits might borrow features from popular women’s clothing of the day, such as sleeve shapes, but they were always in conversation with men’s styles. When 19th century men’s fashions turned away from bright silks and lace to more severe and monotone styles, so did riding habits, settling eventually on dull colors and little decoration other than braid across the front.

(I should probably note at this point that I have a serious Thing for riding habits. I could write entire books revolving around excuses to get women into and out of them.)

In parallel with the Amazons in riding habits, we also see stereotypes that associate unfashionable dress with female intellectuals, embodied in the nickname of “bluestocking” named after the less fashionable blue woolen stockings of the 18th century contrasted with high-fashion black silk stockings. While the nickname originally could apply to either sex, it became solidly attached to women via the Blue Stockings Society, a mid-18th century salon presided over by Elizabeth Montagu. By the end of that century, the word had acquired the sense of a learned, pedantic woman. Bluestocking culture arose within a somewhat puritanical vein of middle-class English culture, and the tendency of many of its members to value study and writing over fashion and frivolity cemented the stereotype in the popular imagination of the over-educated, plain-dressing old maid. Not that Bluestockings were necessarily unmarried, but they tended to form their strongest and most supportive relationships with each other, finding men to be a disruptive force in their pursuits. Thus, the Bluestocking, too, picked up a suspicion of sexual irregularity, or at the very least a suspicious aversion to marriage.

The time was ripe for the stereotypes of Amazons and Bluestockings to become merged with the images of the masculine-acting lover of women.

Lesbians in Riding Habits

The stereotype is laid out most clearly in fiction, as we’ll see in a bit, but we have clear glimpses of its roots in everyday fashions. As I discussed in the podcast about late 18th century sculptor Anne Damer, her whispered reputation as “a lady much suspected for liking her own sex in a criminal way” was accompanied by--though not necessarily tied directly to--comments on the masculine elements in her chosen dress. A contemporary wrote: “The singularities of Mrs Damer are remarkable — She wears a Mans Hat, and Shoes, — and a Jacket also like a mans — thus she walks about the fields with a hooking stick.”

In the same era, the famous Ladies of Llangollen were known, among other eccentricities, for preferring to wear riding habits as everyday dress. Despite the deliberate similarity of the couple’s clothing, when their appearance was remarked on in a newspaper article in the 1780s that described their elopement and their life together, this garment was specifically assigned to Eleanor in the following passage.

“Miss Butler is tall and masculine, she wears always a riding habit, hangs her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats which she still retains. Miss Ponsonby, on the contrary, is polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful.”

These descriptions were designed to match a popular stereotype, not to reflect reality, for Eleanor was short and at the age of 51 rather plump, rather than resembling a “tall young man.” Additional descriptions in the article made clear innuendo about their relationship to each other--sufficiently clear that Eleanor consulted a friend about the advisability of suing the newspaper for defamation.

While Eleanor Butler’s diaries don’t seem to touch on their rationale for their distinctive style of dress, we get a bit more interior commentary on the subject from the diaries of Anne Lister, another contemporary of theirs. The recent tv series based on Lister’s life presents her as adopting a very masculine style of dress, but in the diaries we see her edging into that presentation gradually, first deciding to wear black, and later recording references to cravats and other masculine-style items. Her internal motivations suggest a relation to gender identity. She is uncomfortable with high-fashion feminine styles, but there also seems to be a contributing streak of frugality and just plain can’t-be-bothered-ness in her dress.

Perhaps even more clearly demonstrating the association in people’s minds between riding habits and same-sex romance are Lister’s comments on the clothing of her acquaintance Miss Pickford. Both Pickford’s preference for riding habits and her intellectual pursuits lead Lister to cautiously sound her out about her romantic interests--while considering whether she herself might be the object of that interest.

Lister’s diary records, “She cares nothing about dress; never notices it. ... She supposes me like herself. How she is mistaken! She loves her habit and hat. She is better informed than some ladies and a godsend of a companion in my present scarcity, but I am not an admirer of learned ladies.” Later, she critiques Miss Pickford for the same indifference to clothing that she herself has, saying “I wish she would care a little more about dress. At least not wear such an old-fashioned, short-waisted, fright of a brown habit with yellow metal buttons as she had on this morning.” And then, on another meeting, notes that Pickford was wearing a mourning gown and bonnet and that “she looked better, more feminine than in her habit.” When Miss Pickford takes up with a Miss Threlfall, she and Lister carefully negotiate a common understanding of their romantic interests. Taken as a whole, the observations show that Anne Lister considered Miss Pickford’s dress as correlating both to intellectual pursuits and to a romantic interest in women--but also specifically as carrying a masculine air. Lister might find her a stimulating friend, but was put off romantically by someone who mirrored her own masculine-flavored gender performance.

This stereotypical romantic pairing of the “butch” Amazon with the “femme” Bluestocking is perfectly encapsulated in Charlotte Lennox’s 1790 novel Euphemia. In fact, the descriptions of Lady Cornelia and Miss Sandford illustrate the stereotype so well that they are worth an extended quotation. You may notice that there isn’t an explicit claim that the two are a romantic couple--although we’re solidly in the middle of the Romantic Friendship era and it may be taken for granted--but there’s a clear indication that they aren’t considered desirable by men. Particularly worth noting are the regular comparisons of Miss Sandford to the goddess Diana.

 “I have rare news for you, Sir John; who do you think is come to breakfast with you? even the learned and scientific Lady Cornelia Classick, with the Diana of our forests, the fearless huntress Miss Sandford, who, at the age of forty-five, declares her fixed resolution never to marry, though an Endymion were to court her; and boasts of her wonderful art in keeping the men at a distance.”

[The female narrator contrives to keep to her room during the visit and only peers out the window to see the visitors as they leave.]

There is my uncle leading Lady Cornelia with the most gallant air imaginable. By the motion of her hand and head it would seem that she is discussing some deep question in politics, theology, or the belles lettres; and my uncle, by his asenting nods, is fully convinced I observe.

But here comes the virgin huntress, with Mr. Greville on one side of her, and Mr. Harley on the other. I protest she does not accompany Lady Cornelia in the carriage, but mounts her steed with most masculine agility, to escort her female friend. Her military riding habit, the fierce cock of her hat, the intrepid air of her countenance, make her have the appearance of a very respectable guard, Ah! what a pity she has petticoats!

[The narrator then joins the men to listen to them mocking their erstwhile visitors.]

“Lady Cornelia,” said Mr. Greville, “does not mix in company to converse, but to make orations. She will stun her female visitants of sixteen with learned gibberish; gives rules for epic and dramatic poetry, and cannot endure a comedy that is not within the law of four-and-twenty hours.”


“A man makes a silly figure,” said Mr. Harley, in company with so learned a Lady, and her Amazonian friend. Talents so masculine, and so ostentatiously displayed, place them above those attentions and assiduities to which the charming sex have so just a claim, and which we delight to pay. Women should always be women; the virtues of our sex are not the virtues of theirs. When Lady Cornelia declaims in Greek, and Miss Sandford vaults into her saddle like another Hotspur, I forget I am in company with women: the dogmatic critic awes me into silence, and the hardy rider makes my assistance unnecessary.”

In a similar vein is a brief episode in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas in 1844 in which the rebellious and intellectual Eugénie Danglars, who is described as seeming “to belong a little to another sex” flees an unwanted marriage with her “inseparable companion” in male disguise. “She took a man's complete costume, from the boots to the coat, and ... with a promptitude which indicated that this was not the first time she had amused herself by adopting the garb of the opposite sex, Eugenie drew on the boots and pantaloons, tied her cravat, buttoned her waistcoat up to the throat, and put on a coat which admirably fitted her beautiful figure. "Oh, that is very good—indeed, it is very good!" said Louise, looking at her with admiration.” It is not the temporary disguise that aligns her with our theme, but the prior description of her as being masculine in personality and behavior, combined with the romantic elopement with a woman--and that woman’s open admiration of how she appears in male garb. She is a transitional character: the masculine behavior is overt, the cross-dressing covert, except to her lover.

“Mannish” Clothing and the Decadent Movement

But over the course of the 19th century, the stereotype of the “mannish,” sexually suspect woman moves from mockery to accusation, for which we must turn our attention to France. The rise of French novels about sexual love between women came hard on the heels of the rise of a feminist movement in early 19th century France and is often interpreted as rooted in male anxieties about women’s social freedom and power. Feminism often went hand in hand with a rejection of extremes of feminine dress, if not an outright embracing of masculine styles. And the close supportive relationships among women in feminist movements--whether also romantic or not--were often read by their contemporaries as challenging heterosexual norms.

But although French literature in the 1830s and later followed the war-cry “épater le bourgeois” (roughly: shock middle-class sensibilities), they were antagonists, not allies, to the feminist cause. The decadent movement was a major force in creating the stereotype of the “mannish,” predatory, sexually ambiguous or overtly lesbian character, such as Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (in 1835) or Émile Zola’s novel Nana in 1880.

This isn’t to say that there were no actual women who fit the type--including some who were decadent writers themselves. There were rumors as early as the 1830s about author George Sand’s relationships with women (although her famous lovers were men), and she depicted desire between women in her novel Lélia.

With later examples it can be hard to distinguish between women who inspired the stereotype and those who were inspired to adopt it for their own purposes. Women in theatrical professions might flaunt cross-gender outfits on stage and in everyday life as well, deliberately using them to attract female fans. But non-theatrical women also used male clothing in the context of courting female lovers: including Natalie Clifford Barney, the Marquise de Belbeur who partnered the famous writer Colette, the painter Rosa Bonheur.

By the end of the 19th century, French illustrated magazines and scandal rags had fixed the image of a lesbian set: peopled with women wearing masculine vests, jackets, and hats (with their skirts--or sometimes, more daringly, with pants) entertaining their more traditionally feminine companions--or sometimes similarly butch lovers--in cafés, taverns, or clubs, especially in the bohemian Montmartre district. Even more than descriptions in literature, the sketches and paintings of the time make clear the place of clothing in identifying these “young women following in Sappho’s footsteps” as author Rodolphe Darzens described them in 1889.

But I think I’ll leave the story here. By the time we’ve arrived at the 20th century, the association in people’s minds of a deliberate choice of masculine-coded garments with a sexual inclination toward women had become solidly established. It was no longer merely an accusation made against women who were considered to transgress gender norms in other ways, nor was it always an expression of a male gender identity trying to find expression in the context of allowable variations in style. Butch clothing was also being used as a playful signal, a means of participating in a community of practice, and of communicating desires that--though they were beginning to have more explicit labels--were not always wise to speak in words.

I’ll be posting a summary timeline of the content of this podcast on my Patreon, aimed at authors and artists who want to represent proto-butch characters in a historically based fashion. It’s part of an irregular series of practical reference materials provided as bonus content that I’m just beginning to create. Become a patron and check it out!

Show Notes

An investigation across time of how the use of “masculine” clothing developed into a deliberate signal of women’s same-sex interests.

A slideshow version of this show is available on our YouTube channel. (This version does not have the re-mastered intro and references to TLT are obsolete.)

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: