Guess who’s been learning some interesting things about early modern cross-dressing recently? That’s right, it’s me! I have to say that my current essay has been one of the more interesting ones that I’ve had the pleasure to work on; and the best thing about early modern history is there’s a good chunk of sex and weirdness to be found if you get bored of the usual things, like the Reformation or whatever.
So, I hear you cry, people cross-dressed back then? Yes, yes they did… apparently. Specifically I’ve been looking at a little peak of anxiety in the early seventeenth century, where contemporaries seem to have responded to an increase in women dressing themselves in masculine attire. Now those who have seen Shakespeare in Love might know that men adopted the parts of women on the stage, but this image of cross-dressed women in the streets may appear more surprising.
Before we get carried away there’s no indication such behavior was widespread, in fact it may only have been a fashion trend among certain ladies in the capital, however it certainly worried James I who ordered ministers to inform such women of the error of their ways and denounce their behavior. Anxiety also manifested itself through colorful pamphlets however the press was not all negative. The typos of “Mary Ambree”, a woman who disguised herself as a soldier, was popular subject matter for early modern English ballads. This “type” usually disguised herself as a man for the pursuit of certain ends, for example to find her lover or a family member at war, and once this mission was accomplished she returned home to assume the role of the doting wife, sister or daughter that she was expected to.
I find cross-dressing interesting, both in the modern and early modern period. Indeed I find any type of dressing interesting because of the very conscious statement that can be made about who you are or how you wish others to perceive you. Some have theorized that women disguised themselves as men to achieve real economic or legal goals, dressing themselves up to play a role that would ensure they were taken more seriously in court. In a society that perceived females to be less reliable and more volatile than men this could be perhaps more of a viable tool than we might think. Even if the disguise itself was not convincing such women could be seen as stating that they had adopted a male role, and the qualities that were assumed to accompany this, for their immediate purposes. Since the adopted role would presumably soon be dropped once one’s objective had been achieved we might see this as safe and permissible, with a return to normal gender codes as seen in the resolution of many “Mary Ambree” ballads.
Yet there is, I think, a more interesting point to be made here. The reason such transformations were possible was precisely because early modern individuals themselves saw gender as a changeable, constructed category. That is to say, by adopting male or female clothing one might also come to acquire the traits (good or bad) that were seen to accompany one’s attire. Allowances must be made for the creative use of metaphor and invective; nevertheless time and time again in contemporary sources we see masculine-women and feminine-men described as though they were in the process of becoming the opposite sex through their choice of clothing. The predominant view of constructed individuality holds remarkable parallels with modern theories of gender today, which tends to permit considerable choice and “grey areas” outside of the traditional realms of “man” and “woman”.
So what happens if we apply this to modern fashion? Consider the power-dressing phenomenon of the 1980s. What could this have been if not an attempt by many women to portray themselves as business-like and professional by adopting the traditional attire of businessmen? However this is not merely an external thing, to be judged from without, the feeling that we might be shaped by our dress arises internally as well. It is often said of Margaret Thatcher that she dressed and spoke differently to appear more masculine and assertive, however one must surely wonder if she felt these changes herself. I expect that she came to do so.
Clothes make you feel different. In the realm of cross-dressing they offer a myriad of different ways to express oneself, as female, male or an individual in possession of certain traits and values. Given the considerations that this presents, from the seventeenth century to our modern world of consumption, choice and variety; I wonder whether the next time you try on an outfit I might be worth asking not merely how you want to look, but how you want to feel. Or even, for that matter, who you want to be.
The choice is yours.