Women wearing men's clothes: a potted history

From purposely passing as men to the advent of women wearing trousers, women have been wearing clothes traditionally intended for men for centuries. I’m not just talking about drag kings, although I’ll touch upon that, but also women wearing men’s clothes on a regular basis - just because they’re more practical, they’re making a statement, trying to build their dream career or even just because they like the style. Here’s a quick potted history of influential women wearing men’s clothes...

Hua Mulan (6th century)


The Mulan statue in Xinxiang, China

Regarded as more of a fictitious character rather than a real person (but who really knows!), Hua Mulan is the story of a young woman who takes her ill father’s place in a war. Her family are fully supportive of her decision and, by the time she enlisted in the army, she was very skilled at martial arts, archery and sword fighting. She is captured by Dou Jiande’s army and questioned by the king’s daughter Xianniang - who is also a warrior! When Xianniang realises Mulan is also a female warrior they become ‘sworn sisters.’ As well as the famous 1998 Disney movie, the story of Hua Mulan has been adapted several times for screen, stage and novels.

Joan of Arc (1412 - 1491) 

joan of arc

Joan of Arc was 19 when she was sentenced to death for heresy - or more specifically, cross-dressing and claiming that she had received messages from God. She kept her hair short, wore full armour and played a major role in the Hundred Years War as a military strategist. A little-known fact about Joan is that when she was first imprisoned for heresy she wore male military clothing in prison simply so she could protect herself from rape. It is said she would fasten her tunic, boots and hosen together so it would be difficult for anyone else to undress her.

The court manuscripts for Joan of Arc’s transcripts from the court case were kept - because even back then some people thought the death sentence was grossly unfair. This included theologian Jean Gerson who defended Joan’s hairstyle saying it was more practical on an everyday basis. The transcripts were actually used as evidence to canonise Joan of Arc - making her a catholic saint.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

These two female pirates started off with very interesting backgrounds indeed. Both were raised as boys for a portion of their childhoods for different reasons. Bonny’s was a child born out of wedlock between a reputable lawyer and his maid. This wasn’t socially acceptable so her lawyer father, having grown fond of her, passed her off as his nephew. Read, on the other hand, was passed off as her dead brother so her mother could receive financial support from her own mother-in-law. It actually worked but everyone found out in the end!

In their adults lives Bonny and Read became extremely successful pirates dressing in full men’s clothing and were considered tougher than most of their shipmates. However, it was actually common knowledge they were both women, not many people were fooled. Saying that, when Bonny first met Read on Calico Jack’s pirate ship they were both dressed as men and Read became attracted to Bonny - but soon found out she was a woman.

Ching Shih (1775-1844)

Ching was another popular female pirate of the 18th century who chose to wore clothing typically for men -  and she was a very successful pirate too. In fact, she was one of the world’s most powerful pirates and challenged empires including British, Qing and Portuguese. At the height of her piracy career she ruled 1,800 ships and 80,000 pirates including men, women and children. Interestingly, Ching had special rules for female captives - if anyone raped a female captive then they were sentenced to death. But her crew were allowed to take a female captive as a wife, providing they stayed faithful. Ching was later portrayed in Pirates of the Caribbean movie as ‘Mistress Ching’ - one of the nine powerful pirate lords.

Dorothy Lawrence (1896 - 1964)

 Dorothy Lawerence

Of course, we’ve all heard about the brilliant land girls who were some of the first women in the UK to adopt men’s trousers for work. But Dorothy Lawrence’s story is arguably even more extraordinary. With a burning ambition to be a war correspondent, Dorothy Lawrence managed to follow her dreams and became a journalist on the front line during World War I. In fact, she was the only known woman involved in direct warfare during this time. She had previously tried, numerous times, to join French ranks as a freelance war journalist, but was rejected. Lawrence decided the only feasible way to get in was to dress in men’s military clothing. She made friends with two British soliders in Paris and they helped her with the transformation into a male solider. They gradually smuggled in an entire British Army uniform ad taught her how to march and drill. Lawrence created her own corsets designed to flatten her figure, bulked out her shoulders with cotton wool and gave herself razor rash to complete the authentic look!

When she was returning home on the ferry, she met Emily Pankhurst who asked her to lecture for the Suffragettes. Unfortunately, the War Office banned Lawrence from telling her story via talks or articles. Despite being a highly talented war correspondent, she wasn’t treated with the heroic status she deserved. She was admitted to hospital for ‘erratic behaviour’ and then to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. It’s only very recently that Lawrence is getting the recognition she truly earned for her dedication to journalism.

Vesta Tilley (1864 - 1952)

Vesta Tilly

Arguably one of the most famous male impersonators, Vesta Tilley was a firm favourite with Victorian music hall goers. Effectively one of the UK’s first wave of drag kings to hit the mainstream stage, Tilley simply remarked "I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.” As well as London. she performed all over the UK from the age of 11 and earned enough to support her whole family. Tilley was a hit with people from all walks of life - especially women and working class men. Other notable male impersonator acts of this time included Hetty King, Bessie Bellwood and Millie Hylton.

Nowadays, we’re lucky enough to live in a world where many women can wear men’s clothing without fear of capital punishment or exile. It just goes to show that throughout history, gendered clothing has played a vital role from freedom of expression to following one’s dream career. I for one celebrate these historical figures and hope there are many more to come!


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