In most of the photographs in this collection, the sitters are unequivocally male or female. Their clothing, facial features and even the way they present themselves to the photographer suggest that most sitters are what they appear to be, either men or women. However, one or two photos seem to idicate that there was a degree of cross-dressing going on. Two images may be seen as men posing as women, one may be that of a young woman in male attire, in the photographs shown here.
The Victorian era is usually associated with strict moral codes and a fair degree of prudery but the newspapers of the day prove that there was another side to society at this time. There are many instances of women taking on the guise of men either for economic reasons or simply because that was the way they chose to live. Maria Cummings was a case in point; her story appeared in the Preston Guardian in 1860. She had left her home in Ireland and came to take on harvest work in England. Finding that she was paid less than men doing the same job, she successfully posed as a working man, receiving her due for the work that she did.
Catherine Coome of Cheltenham had a different story to tell. Having married her first cousin at the age of 16, she then adopted the persona of ‘Fred’ and passed herself off as the son of her husband. The couple moved to Bedford where ‘Fred’ formed an attachment with another young woman, Ellen Smith, and the pair became sweethearts. The relationship was eventually reported to the police who took ‘Fred’ into custody. A newspaper description of ‘Fred’ paints a picture of a slender, handsome person with closely cropped hair. ‘He’ was dressed in a cloth coat, vest and trousers, though no explanation could be found for this charade. In the end, ‘Fred’ and Ellen were parted by their families, the rest is silence. At the same time, Freeman’s Dublin Journal reported that a woman aged 97 had died in Wigan, Lancs. For fifty years she had lived as a man, being known as John Murphy and it was only after her death that her true sex was discovered.
It wasn’t just women who were dressing up as the opposite sex, which was considered a crime in 19th century England. Young men too were indulging in the pastime of ‘larking’, i.e. dressing in women’s attire for a lark. One was a Mr Ludlam, a grocer of Broomhill. On one occasion he was found drunk and in ‘female attire’, a black silk dress, with a shawl and a muff. It seems that in this area of Sheffield complaints had been made by the townsfolk about young men ‘very foolishly, improperly and wickedly’ dressing in female clothes. Mr Ludlam received a night in police custody for his misbehaviour, though no further charge was made. However, this Sheffield man was a mere bit-player compared to two young persons who flaunted themselves in the fashions of the opposite sex. They were the outrageous Fanny & Stella, aka Mr Park and Mr Boulton.
The two young men were often to be seen in full female attire, waving and nodding to other men at the theatre. When their activities aroused suspicion, they were arrested. They turned up at court in the ‘full costume of the period’, green and pink silk gowns set off with ribbons and lace. A large crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle of their court appearance, where Constable Chamberlain said that he had seen them in low cut dresses with bare arms. Although feminine in appearance it was obvious that they were men. Their apartments were searched and a quantity of photographs, some in albums, was recovered, showing the two in both male and female attire. Much female apparel was also found, as well as wigs with long tresses or chignons. Even feminine underwear was discovered, indicating how far Fanny & Stella were prepared to go to pass as women. Even though no complaint of indecency was found against them, they were sent to the house of detention, having changed into men’s attire for their term of imprisonment. The story ran in newspapers such as the Evening Standard for several months. Today, the story of Fanny and Stella and other cross-dressers of history is as fascinating as it ever was. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether the photos I have included show cross-dressers or not.