We live in a time when people are very divided on the question of sexual and gender identity. Society’s attitudes to gays and lesbians has improved massively over the last thirty years. But transgender people are still fighting a battle. So, what a surprise to look back in newspaper and other archives over the last two hundred years and discover – as I have done – that cross dressing has a long and fascinating history. Men and boys who’ve dressed as women and girls and vice versa – for all kinds of reasons. But the consequences could be severe with arrest and imprisonment, even in the 20th century. Let’s investigate the history of cross dressing!
Mabel becomes Jim in the mid-west – and cross dressing pays off!
In 1909, the St Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Mabel Davis who had dressed as a man for a year calling herself Jim. With her new identity, Jim went off to become a farmhand, labourer, and hotel cook. Even did a bit of house demolition. Jim enjoyed the work and smoking tobacco – though chewing it was repellent. However, Mabel/Jim kept up with the tobacco chewing to maintain the masculine appearance. After that year as a man, Mabel told the newspaper – she wasn’t going back. She fully intended to remain ‘he’.
Cross dressing in history could land you in jail!
In the same year, a woman dressing as a man in Oregon got a sixty-day jail sentence. Clearly things weren’t as liberal as in St Louis! Miss Adele Pefferle, aged 23, was revealed to be a woman when she went to pick up a suit being pressed and cleaned at her tailor. While waiting to get her trousers back, the tailor had agreed to lend her a pair of his.
But I’m assuming he tipped off the police in the meantime and when she returned to get her trousers, she was asked to remove the tailor’s trousers in front of everybody. Quite reasonably she refused and was then arrested. It emerged that Adele was an accomplished musician in several women’s orchestras but had difficulty of late getting work and so had taken to wearing men’s clothes to find a new job.
However – the police countered that their evidence suggested she had been wearing men’s clothes for far longer than she was admitting. Over a period of eight years, they claimed. And had used the name Joe Howard and other male aliases. It was also noted – horror of horrors – that she had not used make-up for several weeks and cut her hair short.
This went to court and scandalised Oregon! Adele begged not to be sent to jail: “I have never used profane language, and never go into saloons. There is no reason why I can’t go free. I don’t bother anyone.” Despite her eloquence and fairly respectable background, she got a prison term.
A few years earlier in August 1895, Reginald Culton was arrested in Central Park, New York “on a charge of masquerading in female attire”. He was Stella Lawrence at the time and a horrified magistrate requested a doctor from Mount Sinai Hospital to examine the cross dressing felon. Reginald/Stella’s defence was that his feminine appearance compelled him to dress as a woman and he was making an honest living as a maid.
Society woman caught cross dressing!
The last story is priceless. Whereas those cross dressing above were in part trying to make a better living – aside from other motives obviously – this society woman was accused of dressing a man so she could go “slumming”. Mrs Dubia wanted to see the sights of Chinatown in San Francisco and in order “to see places forbidden to women” put on male clothing. She was in the company of at least one other female socialite who did likewise.
DISCOVER MORE: Eighteenth century cross dressing diplomat
Sadly, journalists found out and exposed her cross dressing in the newspapers. They then made a beeline for her husband, Walter J Dubia – secretary of the Barnum & Richardson Manufacturing Company in Chicago. Interestingly, while vainly trying to deny that his wife would cross dress, he admitted knowing “a great many women” who dress up as men behind closed doors for “parlour theatricals”.