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It’s behind you!

A fond Christmas memory of my London childhood was the annual trek westwards to the Golders Green Hippodrome, to see the pantomime. Why we didn’t go to the much nearer Hackney Empire is a bit of a mystery. Such is tradition. And of course, it’s the tradition – the repetitive, familiar formula – that makes pantomime. 

The same few tales, the call and responses.  

“It’s behind you!”, 

“Oh not it’s not” 

“Oh yes it is”, 

“Oh no it’s not”.  

Of course, it’s also the much-loved stock characters – beautiful heroine, evil villain, and of course, the principal boy, who is in fact a girl. And the crowning glory of pantomime, the dame, who is of course a man dressed as a woman.

Twankey Hankey Pankey

The dame is what makes any pantomime a triumph or a flop. That great knight of the theatre, Sir Ian McKellen, decided in the early 2000s to help revive the great English tradition of pantomime, which had fallen into a bit of a decline. So he took the role of Widow Twankey in Aladdin,  staged at the Old Vic in London. 

I took my  son along, aged around 12 at the time. I think he remembers it vividly because there on stage was Gandalf the Wizard himself, hamming it up for laughs!  Whereas I still blush at the absolutely filthy innuendos uttered from Sir Ian’s lips. Innuendos so bad (or good), I could not even bring myself to write them here.  They passed without remark over my son’s head. Such skills are the mark of a great pantomime dame.

Dan Leno, as Widow Twankey

Pantomime dames and principal boys as we know them first came to prominence in early Victorian times. Famous male music hall performers such as Dan Leno, were feted for their cross-dressing performances as dames. And actresses  enjoyed the freedom of showing off a shapely leg as a principal boy, in an age of stuffy clothing which covered most of the female body.

Ooh, you are awful….

But have you noticed how this very English love affair with drag, manifested at the Christmas pantomime, permeates into everyday  culture?   British light entertainment  has always been rife with cross- dressers, especially men dressed as women. Les, Dawson, Dick Emery, Benny Hill, Dani La Rue, Lily Savage, David Walliams spring immediately to mind, as well as Mrs Brown and her boys, without having to give much thought at all …… 

And of course,  there’s also Kathy Burke as Kevin the teenage boy-monster,  French and Saunders dressed as countless male characters, and Catherine Tate’s very proper chap intoning “how very dare you!”….

Who can forget Freddie Mercury from Queen dressed as a housewife in “I want to break free” ?      I think it is very telling that, whilst it attracted  mild amusement  in the UK, the video was actually viewed with disquiet in the US. Cross dressing might sit easily within our national psyche, but not necessarily with the same degree of comfort elsewhere . 

Saturday stags

The sight of a typical  English stag party out on the town on a weekend will generally demonstrate this. Or indeed, look at the many drag acts performing in the pubs on a Saturday night – I myself have fond memories of enjoying Miss Fanny Dazzle’s performance of Kelly Marie’s “Feels Like I’m in Love”, in a Birmingham pub a few years ago – but that’s another story. 

Not to say that drag doesn’t appear in the cultures of other countries too; it’s that the relationship the English have  with it seems far more familiar and comfortable, and far less edgy than you’d find abroad.


However – and here’s where the history comes in – the English tradition of cross-dressing in the theatre goes back far further than  Victorian pantomime. 

Even before the development of theatre as we now understand it,  English men cross- dressed on stage. Peter Ackroyd wrote a  wonderful book, Albion, which examines the history of English culture. He devotes a chapter to the English love of bawdy humour, and of drag. The chapter is called “ I see you, Missus!” – the catch phrase of Dan Leno, and  I wish I could have stolen it for this post. 

Ackroyd describes how  in Winchester, in the tenth century, the monks stipulated which types of women’s clothing the designated actors in their order should wear,  to portray the three Marys who  gathered at Christ’s tomb, in an Easter “mystery”  play. 

The “mysteries” were pageants or tableaux, performed at times of the great religious festivals. They were held  outdoors in public, and the stage was a float or wagon. Their subjects were mysteries or religious stories which would have been well-known to the audience, such as the story of Noah’s Ark, or of Adam and Eve. And universally, men played the female roles, in female dress.

Shakespeare rears his head and lifts his quill

Joseph Timms in Twelfth Night: a man playing a woman playing a man

You know of course, that men and boys performed all female roles in the plays of Shakespeare. Women continued to be  forbidden to set foot upon the stage in the days of Elizabethan theatre. Any fan of the film “Shakespeare in Love” can tell you that. So mischievously,  Shakespeare had great fun teasing his audience in plays like Twelfth Night, with a female heroine Viola, played then of course by a boy,  who cross-dresses in order to pretend to be a man!

Then along came the Stuarts and everything changed.  “Masques” – theatrical productions of acting and dancing were performed in aristocratic households. They often featured well-connected ladies in key parts. And after the Restoration, Charles II reversed  Cromwell’s enforced closure of the theatres.  The theatres blossomed, and for the first time,  female actresses played women’s roles. Many, such as Eleanor “Nell” Gwynn became  celebrities, and not always for their acting.

Wearing the breeches

After gaining access to the stage,  women soon started to play men’s roles, in what  were called “breeches” roles. This name arose because  the audience were not just there  to admire  the actresses’ performances, but also to ogle at the sight of a shapely leg in a pair of men’s breeches.

Samuel Pepys writes enthusiastically and approvingly in his diaries of the lovely legs of a favourite actress. He doesn’t mention her acting. The breech actresses  became astonishingly popular. It’s estimated that a quarter of all plays performed in the 40 years following the Restoration were “breeches” roles.

A bit further on in time, Dorothy Jordan became famous – and notorious – for acting in her breeches, in the late 1700s. She went on to become the mistress of William IV, and bore him ten  children. (One of their descendants being David Cameron. There you go).   And later still, the celebrated  Victorian actress, Sarah Bernhardt took on the role of Hamlet in 1899 – at the age of 55. Remarkably, there is an early film clip of her performance as Hamlet, which you can find on YouTube.

Sarah Bernhardt, as Hamlet


Breeches roles for women on the stage gradually declined in the last century, partially because the differences between men and women’s clothing became less dramatic – and women adopted trousers as part of their everyday wear. When you have androgynous clothing, the drama of difference disappears.


But, it’s not only in the theatre that we find evidence of cross-dressing in English culture. Peter Ackroyd also describes how men would cross-dress as women when engaging in violent political acts. 

“The Leader of the Luddites”

In the early 1800s, during the early days of the Industrial Revolution,  some working men would try to  destroy the new machinery which threatened their livelihoods. They had the name of Luddites. The name probably derives from Ned Ludd, who was an early protestor against the new machinery. Some Luddites,  when attacking the new factories and machinery , would cross-dress as “General Ludd’s wives”. 

Earlier in Surrey, men cross-dressed as  a mythical character called “Lady Skimmington” and attacked a group of people called “Diggers”.  The Diggers  were radicals who, in the 1650s, wanted a more equal society and division of resources. They moved onto common land and tried to dig, or cultivate it, for communal use, hence their name. The Skimmingtons thought otherwise. They dressed up and then violently took on the Diggers.

A diversion to Skimmington

As an aside, why “Lady Skimmington”, you may ask? Well, I certainly wondered. And so I found out about the old English custom of Chivari, or Charivari. It’s  also called Skimmington or Skane, in various parts of the country. This was a method of public shaming. If someone had socially misbehaved, a crowd of people would  parade in front of the miscreant’s dwelling, often in cross-dress. Armed with pots and pans and musical instruments they would  create an absolute  din. It might be used against a philandering husband, or a nagging wife. A skimmington was a long spoon or ladle, used in cheese making, and it’s thought it was used by wives to whack their misbehaving husbands with, hence perhaps the transfer of name to the custom.

Charivari was the European version of the custom, and I would surmise, is the origin of the alternate title of Punch Magazine, which of course was created to make a din and stir things up a bit. After that short meander around the houses, let’s get back to the 18th century, and our topic in hand.

Molly Houses

I think it’s fair to say that the  English often have a rather ambiguous attitude towards sex and gender. They have generally practiced public and legal condemnation of any behaviours not deemed as normal, whilst turning a bit of a blind eye to the reality. To quote Mrs Patrick Campbell,  from the 1890s, “It doesn’t matter what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses  

Cross dressing, 18th century style

 This is certainly the case with the Molly Houses of the seventeenth century onwards.  These were clubs, or sometimes private rooms in pubs or inns, where people, primarily gay men, could go and socialise without having to adhere to the norms of society. 

They became places where men could cross-dress in comparative safety, although they were sometimes vulnerable to police informants. A lady called Margaret Clapp managed one such establishment in Holborn in London in the 1720s. She was apparently a kind and generous hostess and popular with her customers. Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, police informants betrayed her, and she ended up paying a fine and sitting in the stocks. Mark Ravenhill wrote an excellent play in 2001 about her and her patrons, called Mother Clapp’s Molly House. Interesting viewing for an amateur historian,  if you get the opportunity.

Gone for a soldier

And to finish, a bit of female cross-dressing. English folk songs are full of tales of young maidens disguising themselves by dressing as men and going off to war, usually to find their soldier sweethearts. Or indeed,  going off to war for the hell of it.  Here is a typical song:

When I was a young girl, the age of sixteen,

I from my parents ran away and went to serve the queen

I enlisted in the army like another private man

And very soon they learnt me for to beat upon the drum

(The Female Drummer c 1700s)

The roaring girls

And the songs reflected what could happen in real life. There were always young women who fought back against the constraints of society.  In 1611, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton produced a popular play called The Roaring Girl. 

Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse

It was based on the contemporary life of Mary Frith, commonly known as Moll Cutpurse.  Her nickname is a clue to her earlier life, robbing the guileless by cutting their purses and stealing the contents, whilst an accomplice distracted them.

Moll refused to wear female clothing, and preferred to  dress as a man. She once accepted a bet for £20, to ride as a man from Charing Cross to Shoreditch in London. She won the bet, riding on a performing horse, whilst blowing a trumpet. She also appeared on the stage, dressed in male clothing, and there is speculation that she actually made a guest appearance as herself, in The Roaring Girl.  Although Moll had several brushes with the law, society was surprisingly tolerant of her.  The story of her life is an entertaining read.

She is but one of many other Roaring Girls, who decided a quiet life wasn’t for them. You can find plenty of them in the folk songs and the historical documentation if you look – explorers, pirates, soldiers, drummers, cabin boys. Even the ones that went to find their sweethearts were apt to shoot them down, if  they  found them walking out with other girls. Calamity Jane, eat your heart out.

Hiding in plain sight

When you consider the matter, the English become acclimatised to cross-dressing from very early on. We go to the pantomime and laugh at pantomime dames. And we listen to fairy tales about wolves dressing as grandmothers. We watch television programs with our parents, where cross-dressing comedians cavort, way before the water-shed. 

I wonder, could cross-dressing Grayson Perry have been accepted as a serious artist in any other country but here? No-one bats an eyelid.  This attitude, I believe,  stems historically from a uniquely English way of blurring gender lines – usually with a dose of bawdy laughter.

A good read

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