Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Rose, Mary Beth. 1984. “Women in Men’s Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl,” in ELR: English Literary Renaissance 14:3 (1984): 367-91

Contents summary: 

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.

The play appeared in the historic context of a general social conversation about women taking on male attributes, especially clothing, as played out in tracts such as Hic Mulier which railed against "masculine" women. Moral literature focusing on dress and fashion attacked from a number of angles, including fashion as a symbol of discontent with the status quo (or with one's social status) and as an example of wastefulness. Women's fashions were also attacked as designed to inspire lust. But concerns about women in men's clothing became distinct from these more general concerns.

Texts from the first half of the 16th century rarely addressed cross-dressing seriously, only occasionally forbidding it in terms suggesting it was too transgressive to be considered. The wording used in later 16th century texts suggests that it addressed "masquing" or the appropriation of individual male-coded garments such as doublets or certain styles of hat. This use was felt to erase the distinctions between male and female that dress was intended to encode.

In the early 17th century, these attacks increased in number and hostility. Women wearing male-coded garments were accused of insolence and impudence and specific cited examples included wearing hair cut short or shorn and carrying poniards (a type of dagger), as well as the previous mentioned garments. It was explicitly expressed that these practices represented "the world...very much out of order". Appeal was made directly to "husbands, parents, or friends" to restrain the women's actions if their own shame did not. The target of these polemics was generally presented as middle-class women. Behavioral literature aimed at upper class women tended to provide more abstract and philosophical advice.

The reaction against female cross-dressing is generally viewed as a response to women claiming more personal and social independence, with the virulence of the moral literature indicating the extent to which those claims were successful. Hic mulier [the title juxtaposes the Latin masculine demonstrative article "hic" with the word for "woman"] after describing the idealized woman, laments that women have never before been so masculine. [Cf. Lanser 2014 pointing out that a feature of criticism of early modern gender transgression was that it always framed it as "new".]

The tract focuses on two categories of danger. Firstly, that the breakdown of gender differences in clothing will encourage illicit sexuality (symbolized by the proximity of male and female garments "in embrace"). But more than that, cross-dressing is felt to represent the breakdown of all category distinctions, including class. The use of male dress is seen as leveling class distinctions among women.

A counter-polemic titled Haec Vir [reversing the word-play by combining the feminine article with the word for "man"] claims these challenges as desirable, although the message is undermined by the tract's equivocation. In this responding work, a character identified as Hic Mulier supports women's claims to the same rights as men and equates choice of dress with freedom of choice in life generally. Alas, this position is then abandoned in the pamphlet as the focus moves to the moral hazard of the "womanly man" (represented by Haec Vir), with the implication that women are only reacting to men's abdication of their proper "manly" role.

The play The Roaring Girl purports to tell the adventures of the real life Moll Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, with the added bonus that the play's namesake was known to frequent the theater (though it isn't clear whether she attended performances of her namesake's play). Moll was a notorious figure of the day and the dramatic character's male dress and swaggering behavior were drawn from life. The themes of the play recapitulate the concerns of Hic Mulier: illicit sexuality and social transgression, although the real Moll's criminal activities seem to be minimized.

The main plot is a standard romantic adventure involving a pair of young lovers, a disapproving father who scorns his potential daughter-in-law's poverty, a lecherous gallant, and various schemes of seduction. Moll is viewed by the lecherous male characters both as a compatriot in pursuing women and as a target of their own lust. Moll, however, pretends to accept an assignation with the lecher only to turn it into a duel, appearing in male clothing and carrying a sword. She trounces him while delivering a feminist lecture against the ways that men use their social and economic power to force women to submit to them. In the end of the play, the other women--after having begun by looking askance at Moll and being amenable to cuckolding their husbands--reject seduction as well. In effect, Moll is upholding conventional sexual morality by laying claim to the right of sexual self-determination against the expectation that women will be passive victims of male lust.

Moll is also enlisted on the side of the young lovers when the young man tricks his father into allowing his desired match by pretending to a plan to marry Moll instead. The father's horror at Moll's unconventionality overcomes his disdain for the true sweetheart's poverty. In the meantime, Moll teases the father by talking up what a useful daughter-in-law she would be. Though Moll is portrayed as immodest, rude, and transgressive, she is also portrayed as a figure of courage, integrity, and virtue. Even so, she resists incorporation into society.

In contrast to disguised heroines like Shakespeare's Rosalind or Viola, Moll is always openly female despite wearing male clothing. Disguised heroines normally abandon their male roles in the end in order to achieve the expected heterosexual resolution. Moll, in contrast, stands outside this resolution, remaining contradictory but acting as an agent to enable the other characters' happy heterosexual coupling.