Hello and welcome to the All-Star Team theatrical production of “Clothed Confusion”! Since this play contains varies modes of cross-dressing, it is proper to have a sufficient understanding of dress and what it truly means to cross-dress during the early modern period. Please see below an introduction to dress and the act of cross-dressing, along with a brief history of cross-dressing in theater. As we prepare the show, sit back, relax, and study up!
*Attention: All the actors, critic’s reviews, and specific bill dates in this work are made up for entertainment and project purposes only. All sources used in obtaining the historical information are listed at the bottom of the “Critic’s Reviews” page.
Dress. Right after the name of and individual, it is the most effective communication of gender, (Barnes, 19). In fact, moments after a person comes into this world, they are wrapped in either pink or blue swath; girl and boy specific attire.
By manipulating dress, people are able to visualize their personality and express their innermost thoughts (Barnes, 16). The wearer communicates with others through his or her clothes, giving insight into how they would like be recognized (Davis, 3). Women wear colorful dresses and scarves, whereas men wear trousers and top hats. But what happens when gender-specific attire becomes, well, less gender-specific? Cross-dressing is defined as when one sex desires to dress as the opposite sex, sometimes creating a challenge when determining a person’s gender (Davis, 33). While it still may be easy to determine the sex of a cross-dressed individual, other times it is extremely difficult. Cross-dressing can be used to evade one’s gender given at birth, which has sometimes caused panic (Thomas, 12). Historically, people feared that once a person cross-dressed as their opposite sex, they would transform into their clothed gender and switch sexes (Levine, 10).
Many credit the major theories behind cross-dressing to Thomas Laquer’s 18th century theory of a “one-sex model.” Laquer believed that women contained male genitalia, but did not have the ability to “thrust” them out (Comensoli, 25). In essence, he believed women were an inferior version of a man. However, Laquer was not the first to arrive at this conclusion. The idea of women being a defective glitch in “the creator’s plan” dates back to Aristotle (Comensoli, 23). As a result, people were more tolerant when women cross-dressed as men. When women cross-dressed, they were perceived as trying to “become more perfect humans”; in other words, transform themselves into the superior sex (men) and thus better themselves (Comensoli, 24). Male cross-dressing was viewed completely opposite. Men were ridiculed and considered to have lost their masculinity (Levine, 44). Whereas women received praised and acceptance for their supposed attempts to become more masculine, men received a “no tolerance” rule; in the Middle Ages, cross-dressed men were even associated with witchcraft (Hess, 47). Despite the strict beliefs and restrictions in both Renaissance Europe and Asia (circa 1300-1700) over cross-dressing in reality, the theater was a remarkable exception.
During this period, theatrical productions worldwide used the act of cross-dressing to add depth and unexpected twists to plots within a given play (Doniger, 377). The uncertainty and confusion of cross-dressing was both thrilling and frightening, prompting playwrights to incorporate cross-dressing into their works. Audiences flocked to the theaters, proving the forbidden aura of cross-dressing was essential to the rise in popularity of Renaissance plays (Stoll, 86).
One of the best example of cross-dressing occurred in the English Renaissance theater. Women were banned from performing in public plays for centuries (Li, 29). In order for women characters to be portrayed in the plays, men, usually young boys, were cast as the girls (Li, 29). The “joke” in the theater was that the women in plays (actually young boys) did not “lack” anything; they were finally equal to men (Li, 24). Because of the “transvestite” aspect of the actors and characters, women were “fixed” thanks to the boy actors. Despite England’s exclusion, women were allowed on stage in other European counties. Women appeared on stage in France, Spain, and Italy during the Renaissance period (Li, 29). One English traveler, Thomas Coryate, was stunned when he saw an actress perform in a 1608 Venice play (Shapiro, 42). Even when the English boy actors cross-dressed as the women characters, the playwrights normally let the audience in on the secret. Whether it was the actor visibly changing into his women costume or verbally referencing the actors sex, keeping the audience in the loop reduced their anxiety towards the cross-dressed character and allowed them to view the play with more pleasure (Shapiro, 35). This was known throughout the theater industry as “cross-casting.”
Females join the English theater in the 17th century, but their presence was originally one of mere eye candy (Li, 29). In the beginning, they played small roles, not essential for the plot of the play (Li, 29). The introduction of the actress allowed the playwright to use cross-dressing in a more comedic light, rather than being forced to use the practice due to the absence of women actors (Prest, 20). Before the women were allowed on stage, many female characters were illusionary; often mentioned, but never physically seen during the performance (Prest, 47). While their presence in the theater was nonexistent, women turned the everyday streets into their own playhouse (Solomon, 29). When females would cross-dress in the streets, the anxieties exploited by the theater would resurface, but this time in reality. For example, during the 16th century, prostitutes often cross-dressed in male attire, creating an intensified policing of cross-dressing (Shapiro, 16). Often times, innocent women who were wearing men’s attire only to express their style were accused of prostitution (Shapiro, 16). Once accepted onto the English stage, women actors were a regular and common sight. In fact, women cross-dressed as men in a quarter of all English plays performed in the 18th century (Gatrell, 139).
Now that you are briefed on the history of cross-dressing in the theater, please continue to learn more about the company’s All-Star Line-up and hear what the critics say about this production!
By: Emily Bair