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.
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.
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.
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.