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1. Cross-Dressing in Fact, Fiction and Fantasy


Playing with Dress: Norms, Bodies, Identities
Catherine DELYFER

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1Fashion, the sociology of dress and the semiology of clothing have been the object of much attention since Roland Barthes’s The Fashion System (Système de la mode, 1967). In this study, the French critic argued that, in addition to being real artefacts with a functional, protective purpose, garments and vestimentary features in general are imbued with meaning and have a deeply symbolic character. They are always already constituted into a “system of signification,” a “true code,” so that the purpose of Barthes’ study was to address in fact “neither clothing nor language, but the ‘translation,’ so to speak, of one into the other, insofar as the former is already a system of signs,” in order to uncover what “veil of images, reasons, and meanings” attaches to dress (Barthes x).

2Such a line of inquiry has proved fruitful for literary critics, historians, and sociologists alike. Exploring the language of clothes, scholars have examined, among other things, the cultural and political uses of dress and ornamentation as marks of wealth, status, and nationhood in the Middle Ages (Burns); the Renaissance fear of the power of clothing to mask or corrupt identities (Currie); the Victorian black suit as a signifier of middle-class masculinity, authority, respectability, and self-discipline (Shannon); the loose Aesthetic dress as a hint of “loose morals” (Bullen 142); as well as 1980s practices of female “power dressing” and “dressing for success” (Entwistle 322).

3But researchers have tended to combine Barthes’ attention to the discourse of/on clothes with a materialist approach to dress as an embodied practice. Indebted to the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ work on “techniques of the body,” and to Michel Foucault’s articulation of technologies of the self in Discipline and Punish, fashion scholar Joanne Entwistle reminds us that dressing in all its forms is a kind of training: a “technical and practical accomplishment which draws on accumulated social and cultural knowledge” and orders “our sense of self in the world, our relationships and encounters with others” (Entwistle 31). Indeed the “operations of dress as it is constituted and practiced” repeatedly over time, combined with the experience of dress as “a subjective act of attending to one’s body and making the body an object of consciousness” are powerful factors in shaping our relation to ourselves and to our environment (Entwistle 11).

4Although contemporary researchers in social psychology have recently coined the term “enclothed cognition” (Adam 918), in order to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer's psychological processes, Virginia Woolf arguably put it more poetically, almost a century ago, when she wrote in Orlando (1928):

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. […] Thus, there is much more to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking. (Woolf 188)

5Yet if dress “moulds” our minds in profound, silent ways, it also offers us the means to negotiate the shifting, often conflicted, dialectic between body and self, between self and other, and between individual and socio-political structure. In fact, dressing up and other forms of sartorial experimentation have often been used to question or re-dress self-representations, social assumptions and dominant ideologies.

6Throughout Western history, challenging the boundaries of socially acceptable, politically legible, and gender-appropriate clothing practices has been an integral part of what Mikhaïl Bakhtin terms the “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order” (Bakhtin 10). From the sacred rites of the Dionysian festivals to the medieval carnival, from pantomimes to music-hall or drag performances, the celebration of grotesque, undisciplined, cross-dressing bodies has always provided a brief but salutary “suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions” (Bakhtin 10). Moreover, cross-dressing has been used to reexamine the nature of social identities and gender hierarchies. Indeed, the wearing of women’s clothes by a male, or the wearing of male clothes by a female, reveals the fluidity of gender, while simultaneously conveying the futility of seeking to impose rigid normative standards in general. As Peter Ackroyd points out, “when one social code is breached, they are all at risk” (Ackroyd 64).

7Though the Greeks drew strict lines between sex roles, cross-dressing figured prominently not only in their religious rituals but also in their legends: the great Achilles, Heracles, and Theseus were all associated with episodes of cross-dressing, or being mistaken for girls, which suggested that their power and strength were in part derived from their ability to transcend gender divisions (Bullough 28-32). The Greeks were equally intrigued by stories of women who disguised as boys, as in the legend of Procris. Sometimes, though not always, such narratives were connected to hermaphroditism (Tiresias) or sex change (Caenis). Ovid too provided several stories of cross-dressing associated with dissident sexuality and sexual transformation. Book 9 of Metamorphoses, for instance, tells the fascinating tale of an unwanted baby girl who is first saved from death by exposure thanks to goddess Isis, who advises the mother to disguise the baby as a boy and give her a gender-neutral name, Iphis. Years later, the Egyptian protectress of women helps Iphis again by concealing the lesbian nature of Iphis’ love for Ianthe and making their marriage acceptable by society by turning Iphis into a man.

8Moving from the realm of legend to that of history, scholars argue that until the end of the Middle Ages transgressive and/or initiatory cross-dressing allowed female saints to trouble sexual categories and, in the figure of Joan of Arc, radically transform women’s destiny. Not only was medieval culture fascinated with the cross-dressed woman, according to Valerie Hotchkiss, but in hagiographic or ecclesiastic writings saintly cross-dressing was also a way of articulating a new mystical body, a third body, as Frédérique Villemur has shown. In the early modern period, there was much controversy surrounding cross-dressing, but the dramatic representation of cross-dressers in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It or in Sidney’s Arcadia reflected a continued obsession with gender ambiguity.

9Through the rise of middle-class ideology and the cult of separate spheres, the nineteenth century, however, saw a drastic consolidation of fixed social and sexual positions. Numerous instances of gender discipline enforced through dress can be found in Victorian literature. Readers of Wuthering Heights (1848), for example, will remember that one of the turning points in the narrative occurs precisely when the heroine is submitted to a process of sartorial “reform” (Brontë 53). Emily Brontë’s portrayal of young Catherine Earnshaw’s transformation from a “wild free thing” into a young “lady” during her stay at Thrushcross Grange emphasizes how dignified Victorian female gentility is socially produced as the result of a disciplining of the body, through the wearing of fine long clothes and an artificial hairstyle which impair movement and cause the wearer to become excessively self-conscious, restrained, and alienated.

10In a similar vein, in the late-Victorian period, Sarah Grand’s New Woman novel The Heavenly Twins (1893) describes the mischievous Angelica Kilroy resigning herself to wearing long dresses when she reaches adolescence. But her conflicted reaction to being fashioned to fit restrictive social, sexual, and moral roles becomes evident when she decides to cross-dress and pass as a “boy,” in order to recapture her former freedom of movement, thought, and expression, until she is finally unmasked. Though Grand ultimately brings Angelica back into the fold, the protagonist warns her twin brother that her feminine clothing will only be “a disguise” (Grand 275), utterly disconnected from her inward sense of her identity—a theatrical prop in her “impersonation” or “performance” of femininity, to use Judith Butler’s terms. Fully aware of the ways in which external dress may constrain an individual’s gender and political identity, Angelica promises that she will not let her lady’s dresses prevent her from being “just as bad [i.e. defiant, free, unconventional] as ever in it” (Grand 275).

11More radically, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) limns the story of a young woman’s permanent rejection of sartorial dressage. As a girl, Radclyffe Hall’s protagonist, Stephen Gordon, enjoys dressing up as Admiral Nelson and feeling and acting “like a boy” (Hall 16). Her masculine name (given by her father) is in itself already a form of cross-dressing. Yet her freedom is momentarily curtailed when she reaches adolescence and is expected to start wearing “soft and very expensive dresses” instead of the woolen jerseys and “rough” tweed suits which she favours (Hall 71). The “open warfare […] on the subject of clothes” which ensues between young Stephen and her mother is presented as “the inevitable clash of two opposing natures who sought to express themselves in apparel, since clothes after all are a form of self-expression” (Hall 71). Here, as Judith/Jack Halberstam has noted, Stephen uses clothing as “a means to cover her queerness and find a comfortable gender expression” (Hall 100). This episode marks the beginning of the protagonist’s life-long struggle against social norms of dress, sexuality, and gender, but it also announces her future rejection of her class and home country.

  • 1 A prominent military surgeon, Dr James Barry was discovered to have a female body after his death i (...)
  • 2 Section 11 of the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885, otherwise known as the Labouchère Amendment, made (...)

12As a cultural phenomenon, late-Victorian and early twentieth-century cross-dressing arguably generated an unprecedented level of curiosity and anxiety, becoming the object of increasingly intense policing after the public scandal surrounding the death of James Barry in 1865,1 the Boulton and Park trial of 1871 (Figure 1), and the passing of the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885.2 Notwithstanding Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement, in “More Radical Ideas Upon Dress Reform” (1884), that “every right article of apparel belongs equally to both sexes” (Wilde 12), the social anxiety around cross-dressing and gender passing was later exacerbated as the links with homosexuality and lesbianism came under close scrutiny during the Wilde trials in 1895 and the obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s novel in 1928.

Fig. 1: Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park dressed as “Stella” and “Fanny” leaving Bow Street Magistrates’ Court after their arrest

Illustration published in The Illustrated Police News, 19 April 1870 (Public domain)

13Of course, as Vern and Bonnie Bullough point out, cross-dressing “is a simple term for a complex set of phenomena”. It ranges from “wearing one or two items of clothing to a full-scale burlesque, from a comic impersonation to a serious attempt to pass as the opposite gender, from an occasional desire to experiment with gender identity to attempting to live most of one’s life as a member of the opposite sex” (Bullough vii). The coining of the term “transvestism” by sexologist Magnus Hirschfield in 1910, however, marked a turning point in the conceptualization of cross-dressing as a pathological deviation from the norms of socio-sexual behaviour. Both as a historical practice and as a visual or literary trope, cross-dressing was more than ever equated with anarchy. It also produced, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have shown, numerous experiments in identity performance and exuberant fantasies of gender fluidity, thus confirming Vita Sackville-West’s and Virginia Woolf’s notion that we have at our disposal “a whole wardrobe of selves” (Gilbert and Gubar 327).

14If dress remains, to this day, one of the most significant markers (and regulators) of gender, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, as well as of cultural and professional identity, then what kind of political, social, and aesthetic subversions does cross-dressing constitute or enable? What forms does it take? How is performed and experienced? What are its effects? What kind of new possibilities or empowerment does it open up? Such are the questions that the contributors to this volume address. In their essays, they explore various experiences, representations, aesthetics, and epistemologies of cross-dressing, looking at sartorial transgressions from the Victorian era to the present.

15Through studies of literary texts, fashion, music, film, performance, ceramic art, and contemporary photography, they demonstrate that cross-dressing is a crucially disruptive act, which fundamentally challenges binary categories, introducing, as Marjorie Garber contends in Vested Interests, a “category crisis” (Garber 16). Indeed, what Garber calls “the extraordinary power of transvestism” resides in its capacity to expose “cultural or aesthetic dissonances and to undermine the very notion of an ‘original’ or a ‘stable’ identity” (Garber 16). Taken as a whole, this volume of essays contributes to defining new ways of understanding and theorizing cross-dressing as a historical fact and an aesthetic/poetic practice from the 1860s to the 2010s, taking us from the Paterian dandiacal figure to subaltern cross-dressers, from narrative cross-dressing to contemporary genre crossing, and from queer liminal bodies to camp culture and contemporary transgender personae.

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Ackroyd, Peter. Dressing Up, Transvestism, and Drag: the History of an Obsession. Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Bakhtin, M. Rabelais and His World. 1965. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Indiana UP, 1984.

Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. 1967. Trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard. U of California P, 1990.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Penguin Classics, 2003.

Bullough, Vern L. and Bunny Bullough. Cross-dressing, Sex, and Gender. U of Pennsylvania P, 1993.

Bullen, J. B. The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Poetry, Painting, and Criticism. Oxford UP, 1998.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.

Currie, Elizabeth ed. A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion in the Renaissance. Bloomsbury, 2018.

Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress, and Modern Social Theory. Polity Press, 2000.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1972. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Vintage Books, 1995.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Routledge, 1992.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “Cross-Dressing and Re-dressing: Transvestism as Metaphor.” No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, volume 2: Sexchanges. Yale UP, 1989. 324-376.

Grand, Sarah. The Heavenly Twins. 1893. Cassell Publishing Co. 1898.

Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky. “Enclothed cognition.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48. 4 (2012): 918-925.

Halberstam, Judith/Jack. Female Masculinity. Duke UP, 1998.

Heilmann, Ann. Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: a study in transgender and transgenre. Pagrave McMillan, 2018.

Hotchkiss, Valerie R. Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross-Dressing in Medieval Europe. Garland Publishing, 1996.

Mauss, Marcel. “Techniques of the body.” Economy and Society 2. 1 (1973): 70-88.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phénoménologie de la Perception. Gallimard, 1945.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A.D. Melville. Oxford UP, 2008.

Radclyffe Hall. The Well of Loneliness. 1928. Virago Modern Classics, 1982.

Shannon, Brent. The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1914. Ohio UP, 2006.

Villemur, Frédérique. “Saintes et travesties du Moyen Âge.” Clio. Histoire‚ femmes et sociétés 10 (1999). Accessed 19 March 2019.

Wilde, Oscar. “More Radical Ideas Upon Dress Reform.” Pall Mall Gazette, 11 November 1884. 11-12.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. 1928. Harvest-Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

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1 A prominent military surgeon, Dr James Barry was discovered to have a female body after his death in 1865. For a reassessment of the transgender figure of Barry in Victorian and Neo-Victorian culture, see Ann Heilmann’s recent monograph, Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: a study in transgender and transgenre.

2 Section 11 of the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885, otherwise known as the Labouchère Amendment, made “gross indecency” a criminal offence in the UK. The law facilitated the prosecution of homosexuals such as Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years’ hard labour, or the mathematician Alan Turing. It was repealed in 1967.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park dressed as “Stella” and “Fanny” leaving Bow Street Magistrates’ Court after their arrest
Crédits Illustration published in The Illustrated Police News, 19 April 1870 (Public domain)
Fichier image/jpeg, 154k
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Catherine DELYFER, « Introduction »e-Rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 11 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine DELYFER
Catherine Delyfer is Professor of English at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France. She co-directs the gender studies seminar “Les Jeudis du Genre” within her research centre, “Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes” (C.A.S., EA 801). Her publications focus on fin-de-siècle culture, gender, and the interplay between texts and images. She is the author of Art and Womanhood in Fin-de-Siècle Writing (2011) and has published essays on such aesthetes as Vernon Lee, Aubrey Beardsley, Gleeson White or James McNeill Whistler and on neglected late-Victorian female writers and artists whose work bridges the gap between Aestheticism and Modernism (Lucas Malet, Marie Corelli, Victoria Cross, Jessie Marion King). The contributions included in this issue of E-Rea were initially presented at a conference on cross-dressing she organized in Toulouse in 2017.

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