Friday, November 17, 2023

The Threat of Cross-Dressing

In 1920's Britain - The Man Woman 

My Note: It is hard to imagine 100 years ago female cross-dressing was seen as a threat to society.  Today no one blinks at seeing a woman wearing, pants, and a man's tuxedo on a woman is seen as the ultimate fashion statement. 

Female cross-dressing 100 years ago did not destroy society.  Maybe take a chill pill; Today, M2F cross-dressing is not going to destroy "society as we know it" either.    

Society did not crumble, The article concludes with this last paragraph: 

Some women cross-dressed only for liberty and not to express their sexuality...
A History Lesson

Female cross-dressing in the 1920s was subject to varying reactions from the public, the law and in expert discourse. It was seen in the light of its nineteenth century incarnation as ‘adventurous’, and yet its regulation and condemnation throughout the decade illustrates its increasing threat as it came to be associated with sexuality. Female cross-dressing has to be considered here as in part different from the cross-dressing of men as that was how it was viewed by contemporaries; it was not implicit that all female cross-dressers were homosexual, as it was with male.

Still modern after all these years
Marlene Dietrich’s ageless charisma

Historians such as Laura Doan and Angus McLaren have argued that female cross-dressing was not a threat; Doan propounds the masculine woman’s ‘arrival’ as ‘applauded’[1] while McLaren suggests it did not undermine femininity[2]. The sources, however, reveal something else; the suppression of the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness and the highly publicised prosecution of cross-dressing women on ambiguous grounds suggest the perception of female cross-dressing as a threat by the authorities, precisely in its sexuality and challenge to masculinity.

As the sexual passivity of women was still viewed in this period as largely the norm in the eyes of the public, female cross-dressing was less – although not unentirely – connected to homosexuality. Yet its threat came in another form. The position of women as socially, economically and politically subordinate to men persisted beyond the Great War, despite significant movements towards greater freedom in women’s public agency. The ‘masculinisation’ of women in the 1920s was part of the perceived breakdown of sex division and roles, manifested in the figure of the ‘mannish’ lesbian, and in fashion or the pursuit of liberty. Like male cross-dressing it was the expression of deviant sexuality and transgressed rigid boundaries of male and female, but it also represented the movement of women out of their ‘place’ and into the public arena. By dressing and acting as men, women afforded themselves more agency in employment, in public and in relationships than they held as recognised women. This is perhaps the greatest threat of female cross-dressing in the 1920s.

Representations of female cross-dressing existed in the 1920s across popular culture, in fiction, film and the press. While Laura Doan has argued that this proves that there was little threat from the female cross-dresser to the public, as stories were told with delight and accepted without question, it appears that the apparent frivolity with which these stories were treated is also peppered with criticism and subtle concern.

Diana Mayo in The Sheik – arguably the most popular desert romance novel of the early twentieth century – illustrates the threat of women dressing in masculine clothes for liberty. ‘For liberty’ can be defined here as in the attempt to gain or enact the privileges afforded to men by emulating or impersonating them. Diana rejects her brother’s support and chooses to travel into the desert unaccompanied; in this novel Diana’s clothing represents her independence and agency. By choosing to wear male clothes she affords herself the authority to fulfil her own wishes. The threat is in her daring to go beyond the bounds of her sex. While at once ‘function’, ‘provocative’ and ‘erotic’[3] as propounded by Angus McLaren, Diana’s cross-dressing was also transgressive and audacious. The contrast between Diana’s riding breeches and the flowing robes of the Sheik illustrates potential panic surrounding the identification of class and race when gendered clothing becomes confused; the effeminate nature of the Sheik in the novel and on the screen reflects, as perceived by contemporaries, the deviance of the foreign body. Diana’s cross-dressing disguises her inner femininity, which is revealed as the story progresses; the disastrous events of the novel suggest to the reader the negative consequences of ‘masquerading’ as something one is not. While the story is not a direct comment on cross-dressing, it does illuminate the depiction of the activity in highly popular literature and that this portrayal was not always positive or treated with nonchalance in mainstream culture. Both Diana and the Sheik’s true selves are revealed when Diana expresses her hidden femininity and becomes the woman she really is, and the Sheik sheds his robes for English masculine dress. This transformation is the ‘happy and right’ conclusion, reflecting a desire to right the wrongs of cross-dressing and gender confusion even in fiction.

1920's Flapper
Some women cross-dressed only for liberty and not to express their sexuality, but did not mean they were not a threat. Flappers were described, as in Quentin Crisp’s memoirs, as “boyish”[4]; new masculine styles of clothing became fashionable for women in the 1920s, with cropped hair and close tailoring. It can be argued that the source of public concern with the nature and activity of the flapper and her masculine style was in what her image represented: greater freedom for youth socially and sexually, and greater ability to engage in the public sphere, to be unchaperoned and to live freely. The association of the flapper and her clothes with the lifestyle and dress of young men meant that she was a symbol of modernity and the breakdown of traditional values, youth behaviour and propriety that existed before this decade.

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