Costume Society Ambassadors, News  |  September 13, 2014

Women Cross-dressing and the Early Modern

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Royal Shakespeare Company stages three little known Jacobean plays this year, with the overt intention of celebrating female actresses with “some of the greatest parts ever written for women”. The inclusion of The Roaring Girl by Middleton and Dekker into the theatre summer season, brings on stage a particular troublesome debate that questions, then as now, gender inequality and subordinate position of women. The protagonist of the play, dating 1611, is Moll Cutpurse, the dramatised version of Mary Frith, a renowned and gutsy thief and cross-dresser of the early seventeenth century (Fig. 1-2). Wearing man's clothing for the whole course of action, is a way to affirm her independence, freedom and acumen. How to forget the Roaring Girl's best scene, when the tailor takes Moll's measurement for a new pair of breeches, which is subtly charged of sexual innuendos.

Early modern women cross-dressing remains a kind of obscure phenomenon for us, though it gave hard time to Puritan pamphleteers and moralists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First instances of early modern women cross-dressing dates back to the 1570s, yet the quarrel reached its apogee in 1620. It is from this year a letter by John Chamberlain to his friend Sir Dudley Carleton that claims: “the world is very far out of order”. The perception of chaos was such to require the direct intervention of the King James I, ordering the Anglican priest to “inveigh vehemently and bitterly in their sermons against the insolence of our women”. Dating 1620 are also two anonymous pamphlets, Hic Mulier, or The Man Woman and Haec Vir, or the Womanish-Man, now available at the British Library. Their title pages offer a fascinating visual glimpse to the gender controversy and are charged of the typical Renaissance allegorism. Hic Mulier's title page depicts two masculine women at the barber's shop (fig.2). One wears a man's doublet and is having her hair cut short, renouncing to one of the main emblems of femininity; the other one wears a blatant man's broad-brimmed hat with feathers and looks at her image reflected in the mirror as a sign of vanity.

In Haec Vir (fig. 4) the Man-Woman stands in front of the Womanish-Man, who carries a mirror and a fan in his hands and wears ridiculous breeches with ribbons. In its ironic beginning, when the two characters first encounter they mistake each other's gender. This confusion opens up the opportunity for the manly woman to discuss her social position in the patriarchal society and the very meaning of dress in the early modern gendered system.

Strikingly surprising for their modernity this sources put back the date of the first manifestations of feminism, which made use of dress as a powerful weapon to fight and re-negotiate women's subordination, in both real life and theatre.

Nadia Saccardi, Costume Society Ambassador 2014

  • 1)Moll Cutpurse alias Mary Frith National Portrait Gallery Online Archive
  • 2)Moll Cutpurse alias Mary Frith National Portrait Gallery Online Archive
  • 3)Hic Mulier
  • 4)Haec Vir