Cross-dressing occurs for religious reasons, for burlesque, disguise, status gain, even for sexual excitement. It is as old as clothing itself. Mythology and history are full of cross-dressing incidents, mainly of men dressing or acting as women. Women cross-dressing and living as men began to appear in the early Christian Church where there are a number of women saints who were found to be women only upon their death. In fact, women living as men seemed to have been more successful at it in the past three centuries than men living as women, perhaps because their motivations were different. Many of them did so to overcome the barriers that women had to face in terms of economic opportunities and independence in the past.
Anthropologists, impressed by the variety of cultures where cross-dressing and gender change have been found, developed the term “supernumerary gender” to describe individuals who adopt the role and many of the customs of the opposite sex. In American Indian culture, for example, men who took on the roles of women were called berdaches. Berdaches took over special ceremonial rites and did some of the work attributed to women, mixing together much of the behavior, dress, and social roles of women with those of men. Often one can gain status by changing gender identification. Among one group of Blackfeet Indians, there are women known as “manly hearts,” who have the character traits associated with men and often adopt the male role and clothing. Some groups such as the Navajo identify three, not two, sexes and designate the nonconformist to the third sex. Several identify more than three genders.
Male cross-dressing is part of religious worship in different Hindu sects. Sakti worshipers consider the godhead be essentially feminine, and men present themselves in women’s costumes. In one Hindu cult, the Sakhibhava, which holds that the god Krishna is the only true male while every other creature in the world was female, male followers dress like women and affect the behavior, movements, and habits of women, including imitating having a menstrual period. Many of them also emasculate themselves, and play the part of women during sexual intercourse, allowing themselves to be penetrated as an act of devotion. The technical term for these men is hijra (eunuch or transvestite). Some observers have called them homosexuals, although it is probably better to regard the role as asexual.
Such androgynous beliefs are not confined to Hinduism but exist in sects of other religions as well. In Islamic Oman, the Xanith are regarded by Oman society as neither male nor female but having the characteristics of both. Though they perform women’s tasks, are classed as women, and are judged for beauty by women’s standards, technically they do not cross-dress. Instead, they feminize their male costume in every way possible. A Xanith, however, can change her or his status in society by marrying and demonstrating his ability to penetrate a woman.
Because Islam is such a sex-segregated society, and public appearances by women limited, many Islamic areas have tolerated and institutionalized female impersonators. In Egypt one groups is called khäal (“dancers”). They perform at weddings and other ceremonial occasions, and though technically their costume is not quite like that of women, they do all they can to appear as women, including plucking out hairs on their face.
Though women’s roles were not quite so restricted in the West, there were still strong prohibitions. They could not appear on the stage, for example, and women’s roles were taken by female impersonators until the seventeenth century. This was also true in Japan, and in other countries as well, including ancient Greece.
The earliest recorded historical woman to dress and act like a man was Hatshepsut, an Egyptian from about the fifteenth century B.C.E. She is even portrayed in statues and carvings wearing a symbolic royal beard. After her death there was an attempt to obliterate her memory, but her record managed to survive. History, however, is less kind to male rulers who cross-dressed. A good example of this is the Assyrian king Sardanapulus (also known as Ashurbanipal) in the fifth century B.C.E., who is said to have spent much of his time in his palace dressed in women’s clothing and surrounded by his concubines. When news of this behavior became widely known, some of his key nobles revolted. Although his cross-dressing was looked down upon because it showed feminine weakness, he fought long and bravely for two years, and before facing defeat, he committed suicide.
Greek literature is full of cross-dressing in both mythological tales and actual events. Greek writers reported that among the Scythians there were groups of individuals known as Enarées, who had been cursed with the feminine disease by the god Aphrodite for raiding her temple. Another Greek writer claimed that their cross-dressing was brought on by a temporary impotency caused by spending so much of their time on horseback. Cross-dressing was also part of religious rituals in Greece itself, usually as part of an initiation ceremony emphasizing the essential opposition between the male essence and the female one. Young men at such ceremonies appeared initially in women’s clothing and after being initiated into manhood, tossed them aside. Cross-dressing figured prominently in the religious ceremonies associated with the god Dionysus, who according to some legends had been reared as a girl. Other gods and goddesses also required their worshipers to cross-dress at least some of the time. The ubiquity of such festivals might well indicate that the Greek who drew strict lines between sex roles and assigned a restricted role to women, needed periods during which the barriers were removed.
In Sparta, where marriage for men was delayed until they were thirty, men had to live in segregated barracks even after they were married. When they did marry, the young bride (probably a 14-year-old) was dressed in male clothing so that her husband could sneak away and come secretly to her in the night. She was not able to resume her traditional clothing until she had become pregnant, a true sign of womanhood.
Clearly temporary assumption of opposite gender by men was acceptable if the aim was laudable or if the alternatives to the impersonation were considered more socially undesirable than the disguise itself. Hymenaeus, a youth from Argive, disguised himself as a girl to follow the young Athenian maid he loved. Solon is said to have defeated the Megarians by disguising some of his troops as women to infiltrate the enemy forces. Achilles, in order to be protected from potential enemies, was said to have lived the early part of his life as a girl and was finally exposed by Odysseus. The legends are bountiful.
Latin literature, particularly of the imperial period, has a number of stories of cross-dressers. Julius Caesar found a man dressed as a woman at religious ceremonies held in his house who was there to arrange an assignation. The Emperor Nero cross-dressed, and so did the Emperor Elagabalus, who was proclaimed emperor as a fourteen-year-old boy in 218. In both of these cases, however, their cross-dressing was regarded as an indicator of their flawed character.
Christianity was hostile to cross-dressing, as was Judaism from which it derived. But as indicated above, a number of female cross-dressers are known, many of whom became saints. When their true sex was discovered, usually at their death, they were praised for their faithfulness and saintliness, and their ability to rise above female frailties. There were limits, however, on what was acceptable.
A recently discovered Medieval Romance, Le Roman de Silence, tells the story of a girl raised as boy in order to preserve the inheritance of her parents. Silence is told by her parents in her early teens that she is really a female; but, though torn by her “feminine desires,” she maintains the male role until she is permitted to resume the woman’s role by the king. There are other stories as well, but the easiest to document are the male actors who played feminine roles on the stage until they became too old to do so, up to the middle of the seventeenth century. Occasionally a legal case reports a cross-dresser, as did a London city record of a male prostitute who plied his trade as a woman. Even the woman’s role in many operas was sung by castrati, a castrated male, until the nineteenth century.
Cross-dressing and impersonation was generally easier for a female to do than a male simply because of the beard problem. This meant that on the stage it was adolescents or young men who usually played the feminine role. Females, for their part, could pass as young men wearing loose clothing until fairly late in their life, and then with a false beard continue to do so. Some young enterprising Dutch girls served as seamen on ships bound for Indonesia, where they settled down. Many women fought as men in most wars and continued to do so until the twentieth century, when pre-induction physicals were established in the American and other armies.
Even the most dedicated transvestite, the Abbé de Choisy (1644-1724), whose memoirs of his life as a woman survive, more or less abandoned his public attempts to pass as a woman as he aged. He continued to cross-dress when the opportunity presented itself, but his identity was no longer a secret. To keep himself entertained he wrote fictional accounts of cross-dressing.
It was in eighteenth-century London where cross-dressing organizations appeared. A number of men’s-only clubs were established and some of them became quite notorious. One group, known as the Mohocks, went out at nights regularly seeking lower-class women and girls whom they stood on their heads so that their skirts would fall down, exposing their bare bottoms. Not all clubs of this period, however, were quite so boisterous. One of the more subversive of the male tradition was the Molly club, whose members met in women’s clothes to drink and party; Edward Ward, who in 1709 wrote The Secret History of Clubs, described their meeting where they dressed as women:
They adopt all the small vanities natural to the feminine sex to such an extent that they try to speak, walk, chatter, shriek and scold as women do, aping them as well in other aspects. . . . As soon as they arrive, they begin to behave exactly as women do, carrying on light gossip, as is the custom of a merry company of real women. (p. 209)
Whether this club was an organization of homosexuals is not clear, but several historians believe that this was part of an attempt to establish a distinct gay identity.
Certainly there was a growing curiosity about cross-dressing and impersonation in public in both England and France in the eighteenth century. The most notorious cross-dresser was Charles d’Eon, known as the Chevalier d’Eon, who was a member of the personal secret service of the French King Louis XV. D’Eon apparently used his ability to pass as a woman to carry out his spying tasks, and later as he became involved in a struggle with the French government under King Louis XVI, he received a pardon from the King, providing he dressed as a woman that the king believed him to be and lived in exile. When gambling in England over his sex reached a peak, he apparently was involved in a bribery scheme in which two English physicians testified he was a woman, whereby his friends collected some money. For a time he became a sensation in Paris and in London, burlesquing the gestures and mannerisms of women, and when he ran into financial difficulties in England he supported himself by his expertise with the sword. He gave exhibitions and lessons while dressed in proper women’s attire. He died in poverty in 1810; as his body was being prepared for burial, he was found to be a male. He might be called the first transvestite to become a media event.
It was not until the last part of the nineteenth century that cross-dressers appeared in ever-increasing numbers. That period in history is when distinctions between male and female domains were strongly entrenched in the upper and middle classes. It was also when there was an increasing emphasis on sports and manliness in these circles. Carried to an extreme, the demands of masculinity could turn to a kind of bullying, as it often did in the English public schools. In America, masculinity, at its worst, was a kind of anti-intellectualism in which music, literature, and all the “finer” things were feminine, and those boys who were interested or excelled in those pursuits were defined by the dominant male group as feminine. Terms such as queer, fag, fairy, or even girlish were applied to boys who outwardly seemed to express an interest in anything assigned to the women’s sphere. This continued on until the rise of the new wave of feminism in the 1960s. In my own studies of cross-dressers carried out in the 1980s, I found that the male cross-dressers who identified themselves as heterosexual had adopted an almost dichotomized personality in their youth. They were well adjusted outwardly to the male world, but in order to express what they regarded as the feminine side of themselves, they felt a need to cross dress. In this way they could express, even temporarily, some of the feminine qualities they felt they had but then safely return to the masculine identity.
The separate-sphere concept tended to make women less understandable and more mysterious to men; the stricter the separation, the more defined the spheres, the more mysterious women were. One result of this was the fetishization of women’s apparel. Women spent a good part of their time trying to better understand men’s needs as mothers, caregivers,and teachers, but men, rather than attempting to understand women, objectified and eroticized objects identified with the female, such as underclothes or even outer clothing. In some ways clothing seemed to be the ultimate of being female.
At the same time female clothing was eroticized. The corset is a good example since it was not sold as a waist cincher or form maker but as a preserver of feminine virtue. Corsets also helped rearrange the female figure, emphasizing a narrow waist and resultant hourglass figure that gave prominence to the bust and buttocks. One of the more interesting results of this was the growth of what might be called “corset literature,” aimed at a male audience. In this fictional literature adolescent boys are put into corsets to form their figures and to feminize them. In the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century, such literature was widespread. Eroticization of clothing was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that so many of the items of women’s apparel were designed to emphasize or bring attention to certain aspects of the female figure, from bras to nylon stockings to high heels. High heels, for example, force the wearer to lean backward, thereby accentuating the buttocks and the breasts. Heels also force women to walk with smaller steps emphasizing their supposed helplessness. It was almost as if clothing made the woman. Men wearing it would often get an orgasm.
A number of plays were written in the last part of the century that included plots in which men had to get into women’s clothes. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is just one example. There were so many impersonator parts that some men made a career of playing them, including Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park. They also dressed as women while offstage and were arrested for soliciting men.
Cross-dressing, in fact, had a significant role in the growing gay community. One way they could come together in public was in the masquerade or cross-dressing balls that began to be held in significant numbers in major urban centers in the late nineteenth century and continued through the twentieth. Not all cross-dressers, however, were homosexual and the phenomenon came under serious study by two pioneering sexologists, Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld.
Ellis called the phenomenon eonism, after the Chevalier, while Hirschfeld coined the term “transvestism.” Their pioneering studies were neglected by Americans, particularly Hirschfeld, who was not translated into English until the 1990s. The study of cross-dressing received renewed emphasis through the case of Christine Jorgensen, which received international publicity in 1952. Interestingly, the physician involved in the case called her a transvestite, and only gradually was the phenomenon of transvestism distinguished from transsexualism.
Organized transvestism began in the United States in 1959 through the efforts of Virginia Prince, a Los Angeles resident, who began meeting with a group of fellow transvestites she had met in a Hose and Heels club. She quickly emerged as a spokesperson for what she called heterosexual transvestites, to distinguish them from gay queens and transsexuals. The movement spread rapidly around the world so that there are clubs or groups with a variety of names in the majority of the countries of the world. In the United States there are competing national organizations and a lot of local groups that have no affiliation. Coinciding with this growth was the increase of merchants to supply clothes and accessories to would-be cross-dressers, whether gay, straight, or in between.
Interestingly, many of the cross-dressers in the organized groups dress in the style of clothes that were popular when they were young, almost as if there was an imprinting of what a woman should be. They seem to ignore the freedom that women have in clothing, and few of them for example, wear pants even if they lack a fly. One of the objectives of a significant number of trans-vestites is to appear in public as a woman without being read. This is the ultimate example of a cross-dresser. It is only the most daring of cross dressers who even belong to the organized groups, and it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of secret male cross-dressers who are closeted, keeping their clothes in a special suitcase or drawer, to be pulled out when the opportunity arrives. Often the only public indication of their secret life is in buying clothes, through catalogues or getting literature on the topic. Many have wives or significant others who do not know, although in organized transvestism there are wives and other female support groups to help them cope with the cross-dressing activities of the men in their lives.
Though women still impersonate men, it is not the clothing that interests most of them. With the clothing freedom women have, and the increasing breakdown of barriers to job and other economic opportunities for women, cross-dressing, in the sense that the men involved take part in, is almost nonexistent.
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Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
____. Gender Blending: Transgender Issues in Today’s World. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1997.
Docter, Richard. Transvestites and Transsexuals: Toward a Theory of Cross-Gender Behavior. New York: Plenum, 1988.
Ellis, Havelock. ‘Fonism.” Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 2, part 2. Reprinted New York: Random House, , 1936.
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