Hair: A Disquise

The theater’s critics, anti-theatricalists quickly condemned the act of cross-dressing. One of their biggest fears was for the practice to reach the streets.

That “fear” soon enough became reality.

Cross-dressers were from all classes and all genders. As Jean E. Howard specifies though, “given biblical prohibitions against the practice and their frequent repetition from the pulpit and in the prescriptive literature of the period, one would guess that the number of people who dared walk the streets of London in the clothes of the other sex was limited” (Howard 20).

However people did. Cross dressing in the streets of London was a tool for disguise publicly and in the shadows quite interestingly enough…



Cross-dressing worked to conceal the identities of both men and women. Women cross-dressed in that setting in order to travel freely to travel safely alone or to escape pursuers, while men were more…rash with their use. David Cressy makes this clear, stating:


“Men dressed as women sometimes during enclosure riots or other public disorders, linking social protest to traditions of festive inversion, to taunt the authorities or to evade identification. They might occasionally don an item of female dress, or have one put on them, while carousing or drunk… Prisoners sometimes dressed as women in order to escape. Some men may have disguised themselves as women in order to infiltrate a forbidden place or to make a rendezvous with a lover. Some men may have worn women’s clothes for the sake of erotic stimulation” (Cressy 459).




Now you might be asking, “How would cross-dressing work for rioting?” Well, it actually worked very well. Men cross-dreriotssed in order to conceal their identities, and shield them from harsher punishments, because, as it turned out, most of the time women received lesser punishment than men. Additionally, as Robert Clark puts it, “dressing in female clothing empowered the man to engage in “irrational,” quintessentially female, and socially disruptive behavior” (Clark 331). Exxxccccuuuuussseeee me????

Notable court cases such as the scandals at the 1565 Bridewell and 1605 Alderman court trials, where male prostitutes were accused of “transvestism” and riots such as the Kent and Essex enclosure riots of 1450-51 proved that “by 1631, the use of transvestism at times of political protest was well established…In this manner, transvestism has a central, anarchic purpose in the destruction of established order” (Normington 61).


Suggested Readings:

⊗ Howard, Jean E. “Cross-Dressing, the Theater, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” , 1993. 20-46. Web.

Clark, Robert L. A., and Claire Sponsler. “Queer Play: The Cultural Work of Crossdressing in Medieval Drama”. New Literary History 28.2 (1997): 319–344. Web…

Cressy, David. “Gender Trouble and Cross-dressing in Early Modern England”. Journal of British Studies 35.4 (1996): 438–465. Web…

⊗Normington, Katie. Gender and Medieval Drama. 1. Vol. Woodbridge, Suffolk;Rochester, NY;: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Web.



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