Male Cross-Dressing Performance in Britain, 1918-1970

  • Jacob Bloomfield

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis will examine how British male cross-dressing performance remained commercially and critically popular from 1918-1970, despite increased cultural anxieties about the links between gender variance and transgressive acts, behaviours, and categories of identity. Through an analysis of popular male cross-dressing in this period, I will explain how artists and their performances navigated the theatrical and cultural terrain to establish and cultivate mainstream success. Far from being an ‘outsider art’, male cross-dressing endured as an essential part of the fabric of British entertainment from the interwar period through the so-called ‘permissive society’ of the 1950s and 1960s. Even as the variety theatre declined and new forms of entertainment such as radio, film, and television emerged, male cross-dressers were pioneers of the entertainment industry, readily adapting to the changing nature of leisure. Equally, male cross-dressing performance was at the centre of many key public discussions in this period, including those regarding the changing nature of normative masculinities, sexual morality, the decriminalisation of certain homosexual acts, the proliferation of live erotic entertainment, and the breakdown of the official theatre censorship system. However, the centrality of male cross-dressing in relation to these key public debates has been scantly acknowledged by historians of interwar and postwar Britain, in spite of the enduring popularity of the art form in the 1910s through the 1960s. The first three chapters of this thesis investigate the significant manifestations of male cross-dressing performance from 1918-1970: touring revues featuring cross- dressing ex-servicemen in the interwar and post-Second World War periods, the pantomime dame in the interwar years through the 1950s, and the emergence of the drag queen in the 1950s and 1960s. The final chapter highlights areas in which male cross-dressing performance was deemed controversial through an investigation of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship system. This thesis will argue that contemporary views of male cross-dressing were complex. I will seek to unpack the various regimes of knowledge as they related to the meanings, or absence of meaning, perceivably associated with male cross-dressing. In doing so, my study will reveal that the practice held different and often contradictory meanings for performers and audiences alike. For instance, some newspaper reviews of theatrical productions featuring cross-dressing troupe Les Rouges et Noirs, which this thesis will explore in great detail, made vague allusions to the authors finding gender variance both troubling and alluring. Statements to this effect ranged from the cautiously complimentary: ‘How they have managed to eliminate all trace of that subtle unpleasantness so often associated with this type of thing I know not,’ to the unabashedly positive: ‘Reg Stone [of Les Rouges] in particular... achieves a wonderful sexual transition, complete in all its details down to the white powdered arms and polished manicured fingernails, the dainty gestures and positively pretty little affectations of femininity.’ Male cross-dressing performed before an audience could at once be a source of pleasure and anxiety in a time when British mass entertainment reached a greater and more diverse range of spectators than ever before. It is my hope that this thesis will reorientate interest in interwar and postwar male cross-dressing performance and will inspire a more critical historical approach to the study of gender variance in the twentieth century.
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorLaura Doan (Supervisor) & Frank Mort (Supervisor)


  • gender history
  • masculinity
  • modern British history
  • cross-dressing
  • cultural history

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