Put on the Garments of Shame: Cross-dressing in 1620

For hundreds of years, women’s fashion has been a magnet for satire and mockery. A woman interested in fashion, astutely observed by feminist scholar Sandra Clark, is often associated with two ‘fruitful themes of misogyny’: frivolous excess and overt sexuality. In a brief (yet repeating) and curious phenomenon, London in the year 1620 saw such satire distort itself into an attack on a particular type of fashionable women – those who were dressing and acting like men.

We should, first, imagine ourselves in the bustling streets of London in the year 1620; King James I was the first Scottish king as the increasingly urban capital became populated with an emerging merchant class that was – controversially, of course – wealthier than ever before. The English Renaissance was at its peak, and theatrical culture was flourishing. Nestled among this transforming social landscape of seventeenth-century England was the strange and sudden condemnation of women wearing men’s clothes.

Man’s doublet of black silk shot with silver, with silver ribbon points, made in England, circa 1630-1635. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Accessed via: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O361542/doublet-unknown/

Evidence of this first emerged in a letter written on 25 January 1620 by prolific author John Chamberlain to a friend outside of the capital. A new fashion was spreading across London, it seemed – he wrote of women in ‘broad brimmed hats’, ‘pointed doublets’, with their hair ‘cut short’. ‘The world is very far out of order’, he lamented. King James I must have too felt a disruption to gendered stability and instructed all bishops and preachers in London to ‘to inveigh vehemently and bitterly … against the insolence of our women’ via their sermons.

Title page of ‘Hic Mulier’. Hic Mulier (London: Eliot’s Court Press, 1620) in E. Arber (ed.) A transcript of the registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1554-1640, (5 vols, 1876).

Soon after the King’s reported orders to the pulpit, on February 9 1620 an anonymously written pamphlet was printed and distributed around London, hatefully entitled Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman. A vitriolic document, it is addressed to the fictional titular character Hic Mulier, a cross-dressing woman who has ‘cast off the ornaments of [her] sexes, to put on the garments of Shame’. These garments of shame, much like the letter of John Chamberlain, included a ‘broad-brim’d Hatte, and wanton feather’, and the ‘loose, lascivious embracement of a French doublet, being all unbutton’d to entice all of one[‘s] shape’. To this pamphlet’s anonymous author, the Hic Mulier type, in her confusingly masculine-yet-seductive garments was represented in growing numbers of ‘city wives’ – the new class of wealthy mercantile (not aristocrats nor gentry) women.

A wall painting of two masculine women in broad-brimmed feathered hats, smoking a pipe and holding a mirror. Part; English, c. 1632, painted plaster, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Accessed via: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78991/fragment-of-a-unknown/

Up until this point, fashion was something heavily regulated by the Crown. Sumptuary legislation ensured that only those of high status could wear fine clothes and fabrics like lace and silk. But repeated proclamations of these laws in 1574, 1577, 1580, 1588, and 1597, can only suggest alarm from the government at the growing agency of fashion. For the first time, too, the legislation specifically imposes restrictions on not just men but their wives. Women, clearly, in the context of apparel, were becoming increasingly independent. Fashion itself was upsetting social and gendered order, and as the merchant class became established, the explosion of the cross-dressing controversy in 1620 epitomised this this. Indeed, in the weeks following Hic Mulier, or, the Man-Woman, two more satirist pamphlets featuring the cross-dressing women were rapidly published and circulated.

Illustration of Mary Frith, or Moll Cutpurse, an infamous London cross-dresser. The title page of the 1611 quarto in The Roaring Girl ed. Paul A. Muholland (Manchester, 1987).

In such a rigid and orderly society, men’s clothes were obviously perceived differently on women’s bodies. The scandalously unbuttoned doublet worn by the androgyne in Hic Mulier was not uncommon in men for in the early seventeenth century; indeed, it was fashionable particularly for artists or poets to sport a somewhat unkempt appearance with open collars and their doublets undone. A woman in an unbuttoned doublet, of course, was no longer melancholic and artistic but immodest and enticing, revealing the natural shape of her body. According to the pamphlets, the cross-dressed woman was the antithesis to the modest, feminine woman, and ‘will give her body to have her bodie deformed’. Crucially, to these moralists, Hic Mulier was conversely masculine in both behaviour and appearance (even carrying a dagger for duelling) yet promiscuous and ‘bawdy’.

Edward Sackville in an unbuttoned doublet. William Larkin, Edward Sackville (1613), oil on canvas; 206.6 x 121.6 cm, Kenwood House: London. Accessed via: https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1610-1619/

This masculine fashion trend clearly exacerbated patriarchal fears of the overtly sexual woman who both looked and indeed acted like a man. But the issue of fashion is also integral – to moralists, wearing masculine clothing served to accentuate a woman’s sexuality, but also highlighted her vanity and frivolity. Unsurprisingly, the illustration on the title page of Hic Mulier depicts a woman in a broad-brimmed feathered hat looking at herself in a mirror.

The only evidence of these masculine-presenting women is in the written criticism and condemnation by men. But it’s affirming that, against the backdrop of socially fluid, urban and increasingly commodified London, a subverting trend in women’s fashion was able to briefly disturb the rigidity of the royal court, pulpit, and press. Although we will never know how many women really cross-dressed in early seventeenth century or what type of women participated, one thing is clear: as long as women’s changing fashions has long caused crises among the male ruling classes, women have been purposefully dressing to subvert, dupe, disguise and express themselves.

By Kathryn Reed

Sources

Clark, Sandra, ‘”Hic Mulier”, “Haec Vir”, and the Controversy over Masculine Women, Studies in Philology 82 2 (1985), pp. 157-183

Hooper, Wilfrid, ‘The Tudor Sumptuary Laws’, The English Historical Review 30 119 (1915), p. 433-449

Newman, Karen, Fashioning Femininity: Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1991)

Vincent, Susan J., ‘“When I am in Good Habitt”: Clothes in English Culture c. 1550 – c. 1670’ (PhD dissertation, University of York, 2002)

 

Barbette

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Decades before gender studies questioned the stability of existing notions of sex and identity, Barbette – born Vander Clyde – transcended ‘male’ and ‘female’ to embody beauty as a performance beyond binary definitions.  In the 1920s, he evolved a circus act that defied expectations. Born in Texas, and living in Paris, he was an aerialist, gliding above the audience’s heads on a trapeze, but with an extra element of theatricality  – he wore drag, which he then removed as the finale of the spectacle – challenging spectators to question what they had perceived and to rethink their perceptions.

His body, and the way he spectacularised it through costume, re-created him as a modernist artwork. Jean Cocteau was enthralled, and commissioned Man Ray to photograph him in 1926, as well as composing a literary homage to him in his essay Le Numéro Barbette of the same year.  In December 1930, pioneering magazine Vu published a photo-essay that showed his complete metamorphosis.  I found this copy in a brocante market in Nice – and was immediately enthralled by the story and the intimate images.  These detailed his masculine attire as he walked through the city streets, and then his gradual transformation as he applied makeup, wig, padding and gown to become Barbette – a name chosen for its very ambiguity.

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He used his own gender dissonance to seduce his audience – his movements and gestures, were feminine, and yet simultaneously masculine – his body muscled and athletic. His act was equally fluid – graceful yet a feat of strength.

He acknowledged Shakespeare’s use of male actors for female roles as inspiration and spoke of the ‘strange beauty’ both they and he embodied. He queered expectations and showed how ineffectual binary gender ideals are – mere cultural props that he redeployed to produce an enticing ‘inbetweeness.’

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His avant-garde performances were a contradictory triumph of transcendence, and it is important to contextualise this within the vibrant world of interwar cabaret and performance in major cities. Barbette’s modernism was at one with contemporary challenges to definitions of art and beauty, and went further with his defiantly indefinable sense of selfhood.

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Although wider interwar society was not in step with his forward looking queerness, he is an important figure and role model. Indeed, he was instrumental in one of the best known pop cultural instances of cross-dressing – in later life he coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their roles in Some Like It Hot (1959).

Sources:

http://asitoughttobe.com/2011/06/02/the-surreal-sex-of-beauty-jean-cocteau-and-man-ray%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cle-numero-barbette%E2%80%9D/