Posted by: The Snooty Tea Person | September 17, 2012

Female-to-male crossdressing

Glenn Close’s recent film, “Albert Nobbs,” introduces the concept that women in the Victorian Era would dress as men for greater work opportunities, as well as the social benefits that came with being perceived as male, thus assimilating themselves into the unspoken ruling class. This also served as insurance against rape and the degradation that commonly befell women of this period.

This theme is also present in “Tipping the Velvet, ” a book by Sarah Waters, later adapted for the small screen on BBC. The LGBT cult classic presents sapphic Victorian Culture as a sphere characterized by exaggerated gender presentation. This happens in a self-conscious manner–on stage before the public eye, where it is welcomed as a novelty–or in earnest, during homosexual affairs behind closed doors.

My question is how much of this based on fact? Close and Waters paint female-to-male crossdressing as a well-populated underworld of Victorian culture, in response to the era’s signature, hyper-stylized gender roles. Was this practice truly as rampant as these works would have us believe? Or did was it no more notorious than other instances of crossdressing throughout history, such as the onnagata (male-to-female kabuki actors) of Japan?

Albert Nobbs trailer (

Tipping the Velvet ending clip (


  1. I had tried to leave a comment before class, but I somehow accidently clicked something and everything disappeared; so I’ll do my best to recreate it.

    I’m not sure about statistics and cannot answer your questions about the female-to-male crossdressing population of Great Britain, but I can offer an instance in Japanese culture. (Your mention of Kabuki reminded me).

    The Takarazuka Revue (, which had its first performance in 1913, is an all female musical theatre troupe. The troupe is highly selective and requires passionate dedication. After being chosen for the troupe all actresses train together for a year before each is asked to assume the role of either ‘otokoyaku’ (lit. “male role”) or ‘musumeyaku’ (lit. “daughter’s role”).
    Otokoyaku (typically) cut their hair short, dress, and act as males, using male pronouns and masculine forms of speech.

    I don’t know much more about it than what is on the wikipedia page, but there is another encyclopedia entry here:

    Also, for any anime/Sailor Moon fans out there: Michiru Kaioh (Sailor Neptune) and Haruko Tenoh (Sailor Uranus), who were lovers in the original Japanese, were meant to be part of Takarazuka.

  2. I also don’t know whether data exists about crossdressing and trans communities during this period. It would be interested to find out about that, although I suspect that, given the relative secrecy of such communities and either the desire to or tendency to pass, establishing fact or gathering quantitative data would be quite difficult. I do want to mention that later this semester we will be reading about Hannah Cullwick who engaged in both gender and class crossdressing, i.e. passing as a “lady” although she was in fact a domestic laborer and passing as a young man. We can definitely explore some of these questions then.

  3. I’m also interested in this phenomena…not just whether it existed and how common it was, but what it meant to the the people involved, and how conscious most Victorians were about the existence of gender crossing. BUT, since I also don’t have any answers to these questions, I thought I would take my comment in another direction:
    I wanted to point out that the film clip from “Tipping the Velvet” uses a lot of the same visual cues that appear in Bleak House: most notably, the fire, mirrors, and lights that exist within the theater. The female spectator framed in the box seat also reminds me of the Dickens’ frequent reference to window seats where his women sit. In addition, we see examples of women wearing makeup (a phenomenon that Dickens repeatedly satirizes), and using costume to disguise themselves (also critical to his plot). Then, too there is the lyric about a girl “as pretty as a picture”*

    * says this phrase originated in 1900, but that the word PICTURE was used a to describe beautiful objects as early as 1800.

  4. Regarded the presence of cross-dressing and trans peoples in Victorian society: I agree with the professor, that it would be nearly impossible to gather that data, because even if there was someone looking for it, very few of the people who cross-dressed or identified as trans would want to out themselves.

    However, regarding cross-dressing onstage:
    There was a somewhat of a culture of women dressing as men, particularly in Victorian Burlesque theater ( and performing songs on the Victorian stage. This is a large part of the Tipping the Velvet narrative, and in fact is the main character Nan’s entry point into the London LGBT underground scene. However, there was still a great deal of anxiety surrounding this cross-dressing performance. There is a scene in TtV, when Nan is first being fitted for her male stage costumes, and her co-performer Kitty and their manager are unnerved by her appearance, because she looks TOO much like a “real” man. They actually alter the coat’s tailoring (adding flared hips and more of a bust) to create a clearer illusion of a woman only dressed as a man. The charm of the performance hinged on the fact that the audience be able to recognize the woman underneath, play-acting as a man. If the illusion was too convincing, the air of light-heartness or tongue-in-cheek humor that the audience depended on would fail, and possibility of gender-bending would be too immediate and “real.”

    Also, because everyone loves (and if you don’t you should): The ^ Biggest Badasses Who Lived as the Opposite Sex

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