Dressing Up: transvestism, drag, and where it leaves women

Peter Ackroyd, Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag, the history of an obsession, London: Thames & Hudson, 1979; reviewed by Pat Green

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific English author who is well-known for his biographies of famous figures such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot. He has also written several novels, which are all heavily informed by meticulous and insightful historical research. Almost all of his work revolves around England: its history, literature and famous figures. The city of London is a leitmotif of his writing, seen through the multiple lenses of his various topics. His most recent book is Queer City, which explores the history and experiences of the LGBT people of London.

Until quite recently I was unaware that Ackroyd had written a book in 1979 about ‘transvestism’ called Dressing Up. It is a very early work, his second non-fiction book, presumably written well before he became well-known. His impressive historical knowledge is already very clear in his discussion of topics such as cross-dressing actors in Elizabethan theatre, although the book itself is actually quite light on text: most of it is devoted to a series of black and white images: photographs and pictures of people ‘dressing up’ as the opposite sex throughout the ages. The style and content of the text will be familiar to anyone who has read any of his non-fiction: dense and intelligent yet more accessible than most academic writing.

From the perspective of anyone familiar with the language of 21st century ‘trans discourse’ however, the standout feature of this book would be its dated terminology and conceptual frames: Ackroyd talks about ‘transvestites’, ‘cross dressers’ and transsexuals’. His central category is ‘transvestism’, a somewhat porous and loosely-interpreted theme which takes in everything from bearded statues of ancient Egyptian goddesses to Japanese ‘Noh’ theatre and contemporary drag performances. The language of ‘gender’ is almost completely absent: there is a passing reference to Robert Stoller and his 1968 book Sex and Gender, but it is fairly clear that the very term ‘gender’ is (in the context of 1979) a rarefied academic concept rather than a popular term. The term ‘transgender’ does not occur at all because it has not been coined yet, and the phrase ‘gender identity’ is also completely absent.

Current debates

How does the content of Ackroyd’s book relate to current day debates and political controversies concerning transgenderism? In many ways it simply doesn’t relate at all: the idea that trans people have a ‘gender identity’ which supposedly makes statements like ‘transwomen are women’ true is not something Ackroyd ever considers here. From the opposite side, Ackroyd’s book is also several light years away from the content and political perspective of a book written in the same year: Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire. Raymond’s book is a critical take on the modern institutions which medicalise gender suffering and focuses on transsexuals, whereas Ackroyd’s book is more concerned with topics such as drag performances and ‘cross dressing’ throughout history and literature. Where would Ackroyd fit in with the debate between gender critical feminists and transactivists? My best guess is nowhere at all: he would be reading some book from the 18th century in his library while the fires burn below. There is a sort of intrinsic conservativeness with Ackroyd: his focus on London and English history, and the canonical Great Authors like Shakespeare and Dickens.

In his biography of Sir Thomas Moore, Ackroyd repeatedly makes the point that modern political ideologies prevent us from understanding historical subjects: we should not confuse socialist ideals, for example, with Moore’s perspective on ‘utopia’.  A similar sort of caution should apply here: a political reading of Dressing Up risks distorting and misinterpreting the content.

Ackroyd is also gay, and this fact no doubt informs his generally sympathetic portrayal. Transvestism, according to Ackroyd, is “a natural and justifiable response to the intolerable burdens which the playing of conventional sexual roles imposes upon certain people”. It represents “[…] the pure spirit of difference. If it were possible to dispel the miasma of moral and sexual taboo which surrounds so essentially simple and instinctive an activity, transvestism could take a small but interesting place in the history of human expression.” His broad and multifaceted approach traces an apparently grand and profound genealogy: sacred rituals from ancient cultures are linked up with 18 h century ‘carnivals of misrule’; cross-dressing actors in Shakespeare plays are considered alongside Japanese Noh theatre.  Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ appears along the way, as does David Bowie.


The terms ‘transvestite’ and ‘transvestism’ appear to occupy a somewhat awkward and uncomfortable space in contemporary culture. First coined by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910, the word ‘transvestite’ is simply a latinised term for ‘cross dresser’. Although the term ‘transvestite’ is still used by some people to describe themselves, many mainstream LGBT advocacy groups disapprove of the term. The influential US lobby group GLAAD, for example, has a highlighted warning section on its glossary page with the instruction: “Do not use the word ‘transvestite’ at all, unless someone specifically self-identifies that way.”

In a recent Pink News article, we are cautioned against the terminology: “Because so-called “transvestism” was seen as a medical disorder, cross-dresser is now a much more accepted term.” Another reason why these terms are regarded negatively by a layer of LGBT activists appears to be the fact that ‘transvestite’ and ‘transvestism’ are terms of sexuality. The term ‘transsexual’ is another somewhat frowned-upon term, because it emphasises sex rather than the more rarefied and spiritual connotations of the word gender: from the same Pink News article we read that many trans people now reject the word “because having that word ‘sex’ in the middle of it may suggest that being trans is all about sexuality, rather than gender identity.” This concern to push away from any explicit sexual connotations and replace ‘transsexual’ with ‘transgender’ is clearly visible in the replacement of ‘transvestite’ with ‘cross dresser’. In 2016 the Australian newsreader Karl Stephanovic created a furore by his use of the word ‘tranny’. An article about this controversy contains the following passage:

“Transgender Victoria defines ‘transvestite’ as a term that ‘usually refers to men who dress up for sexual pleasure”, which is the reason why Kristine Johnson, the secretary of the Australian Transgender Support Association of Queensland, finds it offensive.

“’I do [find ‘transvestite’ offensive] actually, mainly because that was used as a psychiatric term for cross-dressers, those that were heterosexual men who got a thrill out of dressing up in female clothing,’ she tells SBS.

“‘The preferred term is “cross-dressers” she explains, ‘Don’t get me wrong,[cross-dressing for sexual pleasure] still happens but it’s not perverted, they don’t go out looking for sex everywhere‘.”

Ms Johnson adds that the portion of people who do derive sexual pleasure from cross-dressing do not represent the majority of cross-dressers.” [emphasis added]

Sexual aspect of cross-dressing

This very strong 21st century tendency to downplay, minimise or ignore the sexual aspect of cross dressing is not shared by Ackroyd’s 1979 text. The photographs from the 1970s which he selects are striking and graphic, and include photographs taken from ‘transvestite magazines’ which are clearly pornographic. His analysis of ‘transvestism’ includes an interesting discussion of fetishism and pornography; this aspect of the text resonates with Ray Blanchard’s account of autogynephilia and gender-critical feminist accounts of how pornography influences heterosexual cross-dressers. Before exploring this aspect, however, I will look at the elements of Ackroyd’s account which complicate this alignment.

In his brief consideration of the marital difficulties faced by transvestites, he approves of wives who are “sympathetic towards their husband’s transvestism”. Echoing explicitly the misogynistic undercurrents of 21st century trans ideology, Ackroyd also characterises the wives who don’t treat their cross-dressing husbands compassionately as ‘man-hating lesbians’. There is, in other words, a liberal perspective on human sexuality with a bunch of more or less explicitly-acknowledged patriarchal elements. Alongside the blindness towards the possible concerns of women living with cross-dressing husbands, Ackroyd fails to engage with the political realities informing the lack of ‘balance’ so clearly present in his book: although women dressing as men do appear in both the pictures and the text, they are heavily outnumbered.

Why is it so often men dressing as women, and why is so much more attention given to males who cross dress? In the context of a discussion about pantomime dames, Ackroyd remarks that females impersonating males also had a role in the theatre, but that this is a “peculiarly sentimental and therefore harmless reversal. The female impersonator, on the other hand, has more dramatic presence – the idea of a male mind and body underneath a female costume evokes memories and fears to which laughter is perhaps the best reaction.” The self-assured brevity of such remarks is somewhat shocking: such ‘facts’ seem to be screaming out with questions and demands for further explanations, but Ackroyd does little to help us explore this territory.

Another way in which Ackroyd concurs with the gender lobby is his ‘broad brush’ approach towards his subject: transvestism is a wide and porous concept which Ackroyd is very happy to apply liberally across vastly distinct historical and cultural settings. Although the language of ‘transvestism’ marks a dated approach, the connections he draws between cross dressing and a variety of distinct cultural and religious traditions and practices is very reminiscent of popular narratives espoused by contemporary LGBT advocacy groups and media outlets. The following quote from a 2018 Advocate article is a good example of this approach:

“We were so often gods and goddesses over the centuries, like Hermaphrodite (the child of Hermes and Aphrodite), and Athena and Zeus, both of whom had same-sex lovers. In Japan it was said that the male couple Shinu No Hafuri and Ama No Hafuri ‘introduced’ homosexuality to the world. The ability to change one’s gender or to claim an identity that encompasses two genders is common among Hindu deities. The being said to have created the Dahomey (a kingdom in the area now known as Benin) was reportedly formed when a twin brother and sister (the sun and the moon) combined into one being who might now identify as ‘intersex’.

“Likewise, the aboriginal Australian rainbow serpent-gods Ungud and Angamunggi possess many characteristics that mirror present-day definitions of transgender identity.

“Our ability to transcend gender binaries and cross gender boundaries was seen as a special gift. We were honored with special cultural roles, often becoming shamans, healers, and leaders in societies around the globe. The Native Americans of the Santa Barbara region called us ‘jewels.’ Our records from the Europeans who wrote of their encounters with two-spirit people indicates that same-sex sexual activity or non-gender-binary identities were part of the culture of 88 Native American tribes, including the Apache, Aztec, Cheyenne, Crow, Maya, and Navajo. Without written records we can’t know the rest, but we know we were a part of most if not all peoples in the Americas.”

Ackroyd includes photographs of boys undergoing an initiation ceremony in an Angolan tribe, Kathakali dancers from Sri Lanka, Berdache Crow Indians and several other images drawn from non-western contexts. The text links up cross-dressing with a variety of ancient sacred rituals, which Ackroyd places under the general banner of ‘shamanistic transvestism’. This practice, in all of its many and diverse forms, is “. . . a way of lifting all of the established social and sexual constraints. It mocks conventional human values by inverting the elaborate economic and moral sign system which human clothing represents; it becomes […] a radical act with potentially enormous consequences for the individual and society.”

Ackroyd’s account places a crucial significance on the role of these cross-dressing shamans, who act as a sort of pressure release valve on the social tensions between the sexes: “The folly, the grandeur, the hysteria and even the madness of the shaman are an integral part of his transvestism: his cross-dressing is designed to be irrational, but he resolves through his appearance the arbitrary divisions of ordinary human existence.”

Although the images and ideas are compelling and thought provoking, the heavy-handed abstract universalism of Ackroyd’s account is ultimately disappointing. The byline of the photographs depicting Kathakali dancers actually refers to Sri Lanka as ‘Ceylon’ – the colonial British term, replaced in 1972 by ‘Sri Lanka’. We might be able to forgive Ackroyd for this casual piece of imperialist presumption, but it’s hard not to feel dissatisfied by his broad brush strokes of ‘shamanistic transvestism’. Flick back a couple of pages to images of ancient Egyptian statues of bearded women and boys from a tribe in Angola: the images themselves are powerful and fascinating, but the narrative has all the depth of an article from National Geographic.

What about the women?

All examples given of this ‘sacred ancient’ version of cross-dressing involve men dressing as women, and again Ackroyd remains silent on this important question: why do all the ancient sacred rituals involve men dressing as women, and not the other way around? Another outstanding question which arises very powerfully concerns the massive gap between the sacred rituals depicted and the 20th century examples of men with a fetish for dressing in women’s clothing. The images themselves are radically distinct in kind: an image of a man in a blond wig and lipstick, transfixed by a magazine devoted to Marilyn Monroe, appears light years away from the Kathakali dancers for example. Ackroyd does address this question, but his answer is far from doing justice to the concern:

“. . . shamanistic transvestism, and its sacred purpose in religious festivities, could survive only as long as the phenomenon itself was feared and respected. When those sacred ties have been unloosed, all that remains is the grotesquerie, the striking disparities which cross-dressing embodies. We may still be deeply afraid of it – transvestism evokes a range of anxieties in many people – but the fear can be dissolved by laughter. And so, as the festivals themselves degenerated, the transvestites became farceurs who used their dressing as camouflage for sexual excess. The greater freedom of the numinous gave way to the smaller freedoms of the body.”

Drag theatre

Ackroyd is on much firmer ground when he turns to providing a sketch history of Drag theatre. Pantomime performances from the 18th century onwards were a popular and influential form of mass entertainment, with cross dressing ‘pantomime Dames’ taking centre stage. Comic actors such as Dan Leno (1860 – 1904) were massively famous figures, and pantomime continued to be an influential form of entertainment throughout the twentieth century. Images of characters such as the ‘Ugly Sisters’ from Cindarella being played by men with outrageous wigs and inch thick makeup accompany the text, which offers the following analysis:

“The performer is clearly a man dressed as an absurd and ugly woman, and much of the comedy is derived from the fact that he is burlesquing himself as a male actor. [….] Such acts are, characteristically, harmless ways of breaking certain sexual taboos. They evoke, for example, fears of feminine aggression and overt sexuality at the same time as they play upon anxieties about male homosexuality; all of these fears are subtly represented, and then detonated. Thus transvestism can be a way of releasing sexual anxieties through laughter.”

Ackroyd again repeats his failure to explore the political background of this form of humour. These are very clearly male anxieties and fears which are being catered for, and the mockery of older women as ‘ugly and absurd’ characters should lead to a consideration of the inherent sexism of such performances. Although the text of Dressing Up shies away from such an analysis, Ackroyd’s exploration still provides a thoughtful description of the tensions and motivations at play beneath the surface humour.

Drag performances change in nature over the course of the twentieth century.

Female impersonators such as Danny La Rue changed the script away from ‘old and ugly’ towards a more glamorous and overtly sexualised image of women. This tendency takes an extreme form with the French transsexual performer Coccinelle who achieved great fame in the 1950s and 1960s:

Ackroyd includes a brief mention here of the ‘explicitly homosexual drag of pubs and clubs’, and there follow several full-page images of men in drag costumes. Danny La Rue and Coccinelle appear as glamorous Marilyn-esque portrayals of femininity, whereas the pub versions are grotesque caricatures: huge fake breasts and false eyelashes with gigantic wigs and buckets of makeup. His comment on these images is worth quoting: “there is a strong misogynistic element involved in such routines, as though the homosexual rejection of women were somehow magnified – and therefore justified – by the unreal, oversized and over-sexed version of the female.”

Ackroyd does not develop this thought further – you get the sense as a reader that he is much more comfortable as an historical commentator, and shies away from political questions.

Drag and misogyny

This recognition of a ‘misogynistic element’ of drag performances is developed, however, by recent feminist commentators Kelly Kleiman and Meghan Murphy, who both react strongly against the appropriation of stereotypes for the purposes of entertainment.

Meghan Murphy sums up this perspective:

“When men dress in drag and supposedly imitate women, it is most often very sexist in a remarkably similar way to the whites imitating racial minorities. . . All the things I have shunned as part of the ancient ‘cult of womanhood,’ all the superficial, commercialized, and fake aspects of ‘femininity’ that I have fought to be freed from, these men were embracing as their ‘womanhood!’ Tons of make up, huge dyed bouffant hair-dos, binding lingerie, heels, nylons, shaving. . . and these men in drag who were supposedly acting like women, also acted giddy, stupid, shallow. . . it is odd to me that this could be seen as anything but blatant sexism.”

There is of course a very popular ‘counter narrative’ to these sorts of observations, much more in line with Ackroyd’s overarching effort to portray a ‘spirit of difference’ against the constraints of a repressive heteronormativity. The black drag queens documented in Paris is Burning are empowered by their costumes and performance. The Stonewall riots involved drag queens fighting for gay liberation.

The fabulous frocks worn by the characters in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert were a challenge to the toxic masculinity of the Australian outback. Whatever the merits of this popular and influential celebration of drag performance as a politically progressive practice, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Ackroyd is recognising an important truth. He shares a strong motivation with the gender lobby to portray the act of cross dressing as subversive and profound. Yet he is honest enough to recognise the ‘misogynistic element’ of drag, a recognition which is conspicuously lacking from most contemporary mainstream LGBT discourse.

The final chapter in the book is ‘Transvestism in Literature’, a brief yet impressive tour of cross-dressing themes in historical works of fiction. Ackroyd is able to distill and convey insightful remarks in a few paragraphs, with choice quotes such as this one from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando:

“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking. . . .  It is often only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

Transvestite pornography

The final section of the book shifts away from the lofty heights of Balzac and Woolf, and examines the topic of transvestitic pornography. As in his discussion of 20th century drag performances, Ackroyd does not shy away from the less appealing and uncomfortable aspects of his subject. Even if couched within a broader narrative of sacred rituals, ‘spirits of difference’ and profound works of art; Ackroyd’s concluding words confront the unavoidable fact that transvestism is tied up with a specific type of pornography:

“The real nature of the obsession is camouflaged in apparent aspirations toward a kind of giggly girlishness. This division, between the decorous and ‘lady like’ surface of the transvestite and the fetishism which exists beneath, is a large one but it has been forced upon transvestites by the culture itself. At the same time as they become attached to the sexual stereotypes of femininity, they internalise all the guilt publicly attached to their condition and thus the fetish grows. The division works on every level – but, in the context of the written word, it manifests itself in the transition from coy and ornate prose to the excessive vulgarity of transvestitic pornography.

“Since the condition is essentially autoerotic, the visual pornography seems peculiarly rootless and inhumane. Transvestitic models adopt obscene poses, but always alone, their genitals visible beneath the female underwear in a parody of secrecy and lust. But the images lack resonance and definition; they are much flatter and cruder than most homosexual or heterosexual pornography, principally because the context of, and audience for, the obsession is so ill defined. The accompanying captions imitate the insubstantiality of these images by using the language of vulgar femininity – ‘GIRL, a person’s got to sleep sometime don’t they?’ – without having any of its vitality. This is perhaps why the analytical explanation of the sexual roots of transvestism is not entirely convincing: when transvestism is treated as a sexual phenomenon, it becomes overblown and lifeless, borrowing its vocabulary and images from elsewhere. If it were necessary to prove that transvestism is not primarily or exclusively a sexual activity, its pornography would be a good witness.”