A Breech or a Travesty? When Actresses Wore the Pants

Mrs. Robinson was known to don breeches.  Her compeers Dorothea Jordan, Anne Oldfield, and Charlotte Charke likewise shimmied out of stays prior to treading across the boards, and they did so with considerable aplomb. Increasingly they and others in their select group were part of a tradition that reversed another tradition–men playing women’s roles–that dated back to ancient Greece.

David Garrick in Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife — Johann Zoffany (1763)

Here and there instances of women in pants are recorded, but as much as modern readers might find actresses traipsing around in breeches a liberation of sorts, it didn’t gain favor with the general western populace until the 20th century.

Despite an excess of cross-dressing heroines in literature, women rarely surrendered their skirts, either at home or, as we are presently concerned, on the stage.  In fact, before the Restoration such a thing would’ve been verboten.  All throughout the Middle Ages and the English Renaissance, boy players dolled up their faces, but fashion, as always, was in flux.  By the end of 1661, women were once again permitted on the stage, and, as one may expect wherever the rib of Adam* is involved, the sexualizing of breeches roles commenced.

An Actress At Her Toilet, or Miss Brazen Just Breecht — John Collet (1779)
Playbill states: “and the part of Capt. Macheath by Miss”

Perception and Reception

The sharp outline of buttocks and thighs, not to mention the inherent amusement in perverting society’s established dress code, titillated many, but not all found breeches roles charming.  In 1702, the premiere of Nicolas Boindin’s Bal d’Auteuil was met with outrage.  To her great indignation, the Duchesse d’Orleans (who—let’s be honest—appears no stranger to idle amusements here) had to suffer through a shocking lesbian flirtation wherein two girls in men’s clothes meet, and, each truly believing the other the opposite sex, make unseemly overtures.  However common breeches roles were at this stage, Boindin’s comedic attempt went miserably awry.  At his youngest daughter’s insistence, Louis XIV announced that officials would be appointed to approve every play prior to production and naughty intrigues were forced to darker places.

Mrs. Jordan in the Character of Hypolita (1791)
Mezzotint by John Jones after John Hoppner portrait of Dorothea Jordan

Under the Clouds of an English Sky

Although actresses ‘usurped man’s prerogative’* by endeavoring to play breeches roles, rules existed to distinguish the actresses as female.  Lest anyone remain confused, the beguiling Monsieur Incognito was to expose her honest assets, typically an ankle or a snowy breast, thereby reaffirming the act as merely a fetish* of women in menswear.  Because the actress unmasked herself during the play, the impersonation was harmless.  Her virile performance aroused and regaled, and in most cases, she did not appall her audience.   Travesty roles, on the other hand, took the artifice to a deeper level, chipping away at the rudimentary distinction between men and women that some found distinctly distasteful.

The great travesty actress of the 18th century was Charlotte Charke, née Cibber.  She will be the subject of an upcoming post, so I don’t wish to spoil her larks with anecdotal abundance, but the most pressing fact I will share is this: she was the only actress of her time to assume a masculine identity both  onstage and off.  Unlike breeches roles, which she learned in 1733-34, travesty parts were sly in that they never revealed the true sex of the actor.  There was no exposure, no wink-wink, nod-nod, followed by gay laughter all about.  By necessity the actress was not a classical beauty.  Rather, she was masculine by virtue of vigor, bearing, or, in the best cases, both.

Dictum number one stated that she had to pull off the role without anyone being the wiser during performance, and as luck would have it, Charlotte Charke excelled in this.  She possessed what might be described an Italian boyishness: dark, slanting brows; wide, hooded eyes; and a strong nose set atop smaller lips.  Not an unattractive look by any means, but one that caused young ladies to swoon at the sensitivity inherent in such a gentle mien.  As Charke writes in her memoirs, she was even “the unhappy object of love in a young lady, whose fortune was beyond all earthly power to deprive her of, had it been possible for me to have been what she designed me, nothing less than her husband.”  But there were also punishments for straying too far outside conventionality.  When Charlotte died in 1760, she was penniless, estranged from her late father, Colley Cibber, and merely a footnote in history until a 21st century interest in cross-dressing and homosexuality resurrected her as a cause célèbre.

*Rib of Adam was a justification in the Gentleman’s Magazine The Actress of Usurper of Man’s Prerogativefor why women chose to play male parts.  This seemed sensible to them since, as women were a part of men, women would logically at some point wish to emulate them at one point or another:  “Even in those who are most gently feminine there remains an inkling of the primeval rib, only needing a special environment for complete development. . .  When woman assumed her proper position in the economy of the theatre, a subtle atavism induced her to retaliate.  Having tasted blood in ‘breeches parts’,” like Rosalind, she was not content until she had fastened her teeth in sternly virile roles.”  

*I almost hate to call it a fetish because it seems quite ordinary today, but the sexualization of women in menswear persists.  Starched white businessman’s shirt, naked woman underneath, firstly comes to mind.

13 thoughts on “A Breech or a Travesty? When Actresses Wore the Pants

  1. What perfect timing! I went to see William Wycherley’s ‘The Country Wife’ last night. There were many women in dresses, a scene where the country wife disguises herself as a boy and lots of sexual innuendo (How is everyone’s China?). Not completely surprised to hear it was banned both in print and on stage from the 1750s until the 1920s.

    1. Synchronicity is always amusing and especially delightful when it’s good synchronicity. I’ll have to get my hands on that play. Anything banned in the 18th century, which was already bawdy to begin with, is a pleasure to read.

  2. Wow, what a fascinating post. I’ve just discovered your blog and I’ll definitely be back, being a lover of the eighteenth century.

    1. Thanks, Beverley. In my humble opinion, 18th century enthusiasts are priceless. There’s never enough of us around, so the more the merrier!

  3. What a truly thought provoking post! I’d always understood that men historically would perform female roles in the attire appropriate for a performance, both in the theater and beyond. I’d never heard of scandal or hearts inflamed by the other direction, logical though it may seem. Absolutely fascinating! Your post made me think of a specific personal moment. Please forgive the need to share an anecdote.

    While working alone at the Christmas store in Disneyland one summer many years ago, I noticed the character, Pinocchio entering the store – he sauntered up to the cash register and after rummaging about for a pen, proceeded to scrawl out a phone number on a pad of paper. Pressing the paper into my hands, Pinocchio stared at me for a moment, the huge fiberglass head betraying nothing more than the sculpted, eager smile; making an elaborate gesture of pointing to the paper followed by a phone-me gesture – he then wandered out into the park.

    The following moment of amused confusion still resonates.
    Was it Pinocchio who gave me his number? Was I being hit on by a little wooden boy who was @ 4’6″? Is that wrong? Exactly how many ways is that wrong? Someone with the head the size of a small refrigerator may be charming, but it’s tempered by Pinocchio’s permanently inappropriate age. Was it a girl beneath the mask? How significant is the tension between the idea of a girl performing as a boy and the performance itself? How would I feel if it was a guy beneath the mask? Was this some Jungian, archetypal issue? Or Freudian? (I never explored in detail what Pinocchio’s lying might imply…). How to feel exactly?

    While those characters are typically played by short actors of either gender it’s usually impossible to tell which; even Pinocchio’s arms and legs are covered with skin-colored spandex. Mickey Mouse is more often played by a girl. I remember fixing on the idea of that tension for all it was worth; the idea of the costume, the performance and it’s weirdly problematic implications.

    Would the performer beneath the mask provoke the same complex response? Would that person need to remain in costume to sustain one’s interest? “Please, would you mind putting the head back on.” Your post reminded me of those same questions.

    1. A hilarious anecdote. The gender-bending poses some possibly uncomfortable questions, indeed. And Pinocchio, in particular, is a discombobulating character. The diminutive height matched with the ginormous nose; the notion of whether he is a little boy or a wooden doll to begin with, and do you really want to know what’s underneath? Perhaps that’s what theatre goers wondered when seeing successful travesty roles and suspecting, always suspecting, that something was amiss. I suppose one could sum it up as: latent desires, beware.

      There is much speculation regarding the travesty role actress Charlotte Charke and whether she was homosexually inclined or not because of her perennial cross-dressing. Based on my research, I’m not convinced, but I think she seemed less of a threat if she were strictly defined as a lesbian.

    1. I think Mrs. Jordan appears poised, curious, open; maybe even mildly self-satisfied with her quizzing glass in hand and sword exposed. But she’s also portraying Hypolita (or Hippolyta) the Amazonian Queen whose feminine power is ultimately usurped by Theseus. This mezzotint is presumably before that unhappy event as she is still
      dressed in mock-masculine clothes. If I had to choose, I’d go for smile: the lips are firm but the eyes are soft.

  4. I just finished playing Charlotte Cushman in a stage play, a 19th Century actress who was also famous for playing male characters – in fact her most famous role was Romeo, whom she played well into middle age.
    While we were rehearsing, I was struck with the question of how she learned to sword fight! Romeo has two dramatic sword fights in the play – when he kills Tybalt, which gets him banished, and when he fights and kills Paris to get to Juliet’s tomb. So how and where did a woman, albeit an actress, learn the swordfighting skills she would need to carry the role off convincingly?
    Would you be interested in doing a post on this topic? I’d be most interested to read it if you do!
    All best wishes and congratulations on a fascinating blog!

    1. Hi Dawn,
      Thank you for the lovely comments. Yours is a fascinating question. I do recall reading about historical ladies who engaged in swordplay, but the particulars of their education presently elude me. It would be a fun blog post, certainly! I appreciate the suggestion, and wish you the best of success with your acting.

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