At the heart of this month’s Virago book club pick is the magic and power of the musical hall male impersonator. In Tipping the Velvet cross-dressing enables our protagonists to explore their own independence, adventure, status and sexuality in Victorian London.
We were inspired to find out more about the wonderful world of male impersonators
in the nineteenth century and beyond. Here are a few of our favourite findings:
1. Male impersonation in performance can be seen as early as medieval England, with husbands and wives donning each other’s clothes for Christmas ‘mumming’ performances.
2. One of the earliest documented male impersonators was a woman called Mary Frith (or Moll Cutpurse) a pickpocket who gained notoriety in the fifteenth century for wearing a doublet and britches, smoking a pipe and swearing in public.
3. Between 1660 and 1700 (when the first female actresses were allowed on stage, replacing Shakespeare’s infamous men in dresses) it is estimated that nearly a quarter of all plays performed on London stages contained one or more roles for actresses in male clothes, also known as ‘breeches roles’.
4. The practice of women performing en travesti (literally in [male] disguise) in operas became increasingly common in the early nineteenth century as castrato singers went out of fashion and were replaced by mezzo-sopranos or contraltos in the young masculine roles.
5. Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century male impersonators include: Annie Hindle (a New Yorker who went on to marry her dresser in 1886), Afro-American Blues singer Gladys Bentley (who performed in male attire in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco from the 1920s through to the 1940s), Billy Tipton (a Southern American swing artist, born Dorothy Lucille Tipton, who was only revealed to be female upon her death aged seventy-four in 1989), and the most famous and well paid music hall male impersonator of her day, Vesta Tilley—who found international fame and performed for over thirty years (retiring in 1920) as a female soprano in full male garb. As well as being a hugely popular entertainer, Tilley was also particularly famous for playing a significant role in the recruitment efforts of World War One.
6. Although still nowhere near as prevalent as male to female impersonation in entertainment, examples of the influence of male impersonators can be seen in popular culture from Julie Andrews in Victor/ Victoria the 1982 adaptation of the 1933 German musical comedy of the same name about a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, to the 1993 adaptation of Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando: A Biography staring Tilda Swinton as the titular Orlando, a young man who, two thirds of the way through the film, wakes to find himself metamorphosed into the body of a woman.
7. According to the OED ‘drag king’ as a term for female performers dressing in male clothing was first cited in print in 1972 by Bruce Rodgers in The Queens' Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon.
If this post has left you eager to find out more about the real-life women who might have inspired Tipping the Velvet you can find out more about the famous music hall male impersonators Vesta Tilley and Billy Tipton in Vesta Tilley by Sara Maitland and Suits Me: The Double Life Of Billy Tipton by Diane Middlebrook.
To see more related images head to our Tipping the Velvet inspired pinboard over on Pinterest.
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