Cross Dressing Through History – Women

This is the second installation of the lecture I recently gave in a gender / sociology class at FIT. The first focused on the adoption of feminine fashion trends by men and the seemingly inevitable moral condemnation / censorship of such implied homosexuality (accurate or not); this one follows the appropriation of menswear by women — at first timidly, but sewing the seeds for the full-blown women’s dress reform in the 19th century.

I’m not pretending this is an all-inclusive history, and so I’ll jump in at the 16th century. With rigid social roles dictated by gender and reinforced by gender-specific clothing, one of the earliest and most consistent ways that women snuck into menswear was with accessories, specifically headgear. Well into the 20th century, millinery was requisite for the completion of any ensemble, male or female (in portraits with bareheaded subjects, the hat is almost always painted nearby). Hats were a subtle-enough portion of an outfit that women were able to dabble in menswear by minimally manipulating the size and scale or adding feminine feathers and furbelows (I love that word, don’t you?) to girlie it up a bit. Here we see Mrs. Henry VIII (wife #6) wearing a small, curved cap with ostrich feather that’s rather similar to her husband’s:

Catherine Parr, unknown artist, c. 1545, wife of Henry VIII

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540

In medieval days when fencing was a legitimate form of conflict resolution, slashed rents in a man’s clothing were badges of honor to the living victor of a sworded confrontation. This was appropriated into general men’s fashion in the form of “slashes” which were slits along sleeves or chest that allowed the stark white linen underclothes to “bleed” through. Though this decorative style was firmly rooted in a demonstration of sparring virility, it was soon interpreted in womenswear, muddying the symbology in a delightful manner (says me). Men’s styles at large already had a close relationship to armor with sharp V waistline, and pronounced shoulder and chest seams that impersonated metal rivets and joints:

English armor of George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland, c. 1580–1586

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, 1565, by Steven van der Meulen

Queen Elizabeth I was known for her lengthy “virginal” (that is, unmarried) matriarchal reign and, among fashion historians, her calculated use of fashion to assert her dominance within her own court and as a world leader of one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries (an interesting topic for another post). It’s unsurprising then, that she would sport these masculine slashes, pronounced shoulders, deep V corset and phallic sword to signal her capability and equality with male rulers.

detail of Elizabeth I, c. 1560s, with lace ruff

The male-hat-adopted-by-females trend continued in the 17th century, even as the fashionable hat shape changed radically….

detail of Rubens and his wife Isabella Brandt, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1610

Compare to men’s:

detail of Tric-trac players, attributed to Mathieu Le Nain, c. 1650

Though women’s hair was always kept long as a symbol of sexuality, femininity and fertility, it was also always swept away from the face and neck for modesty (because of those sexual connotations). Though Henrietta Maria (below) might look perfectly feminine to modern eyes, her asymmetrical, partially dangling curls were based on men’s hairstyles (as is the hat):

detail Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson by sir Anthony van Dyck c. 1633

As women gradually (oh so gradually!) branched out into sports and athletic pastimes, the only existing model for sporting attire was that of men’s. Therefore equestrienne gear was one of the first places entire female ensembles were able to mimic entire ensembles of menswear, often incorporating military-inspired embellishment (continuing the theme of war that armor-influence fashion introduced). Below we see Lady Henrietta Cavendish wearing a masculine tri-cornered hat with phallic whip replacing the phallic cane Elizabeth I brandished. The skirt hemline is slightly shorter than would otherwise be acceptable, to allow improved (though still cumbersome) movement. When women were painted in such masculine clothes, the horse is almost always in the background to confirm the outfit is for a specific purpose and not daily wear.

Lady Henrietta Cavendish by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c. 1715

Compare to menswear with full coat skirts, wide cuffs, long (bewigged) hair, and military-style embellishment on the chest:

detail of The Court of Chancery by Benjamin Ferrers, c. 1725

Equestrienne portraiture remained popular through the 19th century, documenting the persisting military / millinery menswear influence in that sport:

Countess Sophia Maria de Voss by Antoine Pesne, 1745

The woman below can clearly be seen wearing a top hat — headgear of the upper class 19th and early 20th century male — and jacket-like bodice with tie:

A Woman Hunting by Alfred De Dreux (1810-1860)

She looks not unlike a flaneur, a 19th century strolling man of leisure (note his female companion does not wear a top hat, as it would be inappropriate in this context):

detail of "Paris, Rainy Weather" by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877

As I suggested in my last post for men adopting female fashions, only women of the privileged upper classes could get away with wearing masculine clothes or accessories. You can see that many of the pictures I culled are royalty (who have a bit more leeway when it comes to forging fashion trends and thumbing convention), and only the wealthy could afford horseback riding as a pastime, much less specific (costly) outfits that could only be worn for that one activity. (Please comment if you know this to be inaccurate; this is my hunch.)

Next week I’ll discuss the specific influence of the Women’s Movement on fashion, and vice versa, as lower class women who simply wanted to be comfortable and hygienic championed dress reform as a movement of its own.

Related Articles

4 Comments

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive

Affiliations

Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.