Skip to content Skip to navigation

cross-dressing

Any context where an individual wears clothing that is socially designated for a different gender than the one they are assigned. The tag includes instances where clothing is used as an overt symbol rather than an overall presentation.

LHMP entry

A 15th century account of a young woman attending Krakow university in male disguise. After successfully passing as a man for two years and nearly attaining her degree, she was unmasked due to the suspicions of a soldier who won a bet with his friends by forcibly undressing her and revealing her sex. She was taken before a judge but no one could find any complaint against her except the cross-dressing. After that she chose (from among unknown other options) to go into a convent where she became Abbess.

In 1857, a woman arrested for cross-dressing successfully challenged the charge on the basis that there was no law against what she had done. Six years later, that legal absence was altered. The anti-cross-dressing law was the result of three stages of logic: that cross-dressing, prostitution, and a variety of other activities constituted indecency; that indecency was a social problem that needed to be addressed; and that local laws were an appropriate solution to that problem.

This chapter surveys specific examples of prosecutions for cross-dressing from the archival record. The examples show that although there were a wide variety of contexts in which the law could have been enforced, from those living transgender lives to feminist dress reformers to young people of both sexes cross-dressing for a night on the town, in fact arrests tended to be used tactically, following their underlying purposes. Two different categorical distinctions emerge that the law was trying to address: men versus women, and typical versus atypical gender identity.

Transgender individuals were the group most seriously affected by both the anti-cross-dressing laws and the intense scrutiny required to enforce them. Enforcement of something as subtle as whether the clothing being worn matched an approved body wearing it required both the police and those supporting their efforts to look closely at suspects and interpret a variety of clues. The crime, after all, was “public visibility”--if a viewer couldn’t detect the transgression, in theory it didn’t exist.

In the second half of the 19th century, a number of U.S. cities instituted laws against cross-dressing. Past studies have tended to investigate this topic from a context of gender transgression or sexuality, seeking to claim that piece of history variously for gays and lesbians or for transgender people, or simply for gender non-conformists in general.

This chapter lays out the historic and cultural background of cross-gender behavior in mid-19th century California, and in San Francisco in particular. The demographic effects of the Gold Rush, with its sudden and overwhelming immigration of miners (primarily male) is the most obvious, but this came hard on the heels of the forcible transfer of California from Mexico to the United States, with resulting upheavals in the balance of power between various racial, economic, and religious groups.

In the chansons de geste, women might don male garb for a variety of reasons, especially for safety, but also to be able to participate in masculine activities or join male groups. There is a repeating motif of the woman who disguises herself as a knight and succeeds in winning great renown in that guise. A common twist then has her dealing with the amorous or matrimonial desires of another woman, as in the story of Yde and Olive.

This article looks at the Middleton and Dekker play (1608) The Roaring Girl based on the life of Moll Frith. One of Frith's several claims to fame was her habit of going about London openly wearing male clothing. That is, she made no effort to pass as a man or to use the clothing as disguise, but rather adopted it as a form of personal expression. The theatrical depiction of her similarly challenges gender expectations and anxieties, but obviously in a more self-conscious way.

Chapter 1 (Introduction)

A discussion of terminology, some of the cross-cultural problems of defining the topic of the book, and a statement of intent.

Chapter 2 (In the Beginning: 40,000-1200 BCE)

Edition and English translation of a 13th c. French Arthurian romance. Roche-Mahdi has a brief preface giving the history and context of the manuscript and a brief synopsis of the major themes.

Pages

Subscribe to cross-dressing