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Category Archives: 18th Century

Historical Tales of Cross-Dressers

Throughout history, men and women have sometimes found it expedient to take on the guise of the opposite sex.  For men, it was often a tool to avoid military duties or to escape punishment of some kind; for women, the reasons were often due to the fact that men’s lives were easier – they had access to higher education, could rule, could lead, could travel more safely than a lone woman, and had far more freedom in society; another frequent reason was to avoid being forced into a loveless marriage.  There are many, many documented histories of cross-dressers; I will therefore focus my selection on a few of those cases where expediency was the factor, and not a question of sexual preference.  Some were androgynous, while others were unattractive or neutral enough in features to pass as either gender.  To read each history, click on the links:

Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827):  Served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War as Timothy Thayer.

Hannah Snell (1723-1792): Served as a Royal army foot soldier, and a marine.  She is one of the few cases who became famous within their own lifetime; she revealed her true identity in 1750, and used her tales of adventure to pecuniary advantage.

Catalina de Erauso (late 15oos):  She held many positions, some under the very noses of relatives searching for the missing woman.

Chevalier d’Éon (5 October 1728 – 21 May 1810):  French diplomat, spy, freemason and

chevalier-deon

Chevalier d’Eon

soldier who fought in the Seven Years’ War.

Frances Clayton (1830s):  Female Soldier in the Civil War.

Billy Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989):  Jazz musician.

Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar (1683-1733): A Swedish Corporal under the name of Vilhelm Edstedt.

Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009): A Chinese opera singer and spy.

Margaret Ann Bulkley (ca. 1789-1865): An Irish military surgeon in the British Army, as James Barry.

Marina the Ascetic, Monk (Fifth Century):  She chose exile from her monastery and to raise the illegitimate child of a woman who wrongly accused “him” of raping her, rather than reveal her true gender.  Only after her death was the truth discovered.

Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904): Explorer in the Arabian region, under the assumed name of Si Mahmoud Essadi.  Also, spy during the Algerian revolt against France.  She died in a flash flood at the age of 27.

Anne Bonney and Mary Read (18th century):  Ruthless pirates, they started off as cross-dressers, but once their reputations were established they dropped the male guise.

 

anne-bonney-and-mary-read

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Earrings in 18th Century?

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I recently watched the film “Emma”, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam; as the proposal scene was playing, I noticed her earring and wondered if that was historically accurate – did they have pierced earrings in England at that time (early 1800s)?

While we have probably all heard of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, painted ~1665 by Johannes Vermeer (doubts have been raised as to whether it is actually pearl or rather polished tin, given the reflective qualities and size, but that’s another issue), it is a Dutch painting from the 17th century, and so did not answer my question.  My interest lies more in the 1700s (18th Century) of Britain, and so I began researching 18th C. English portraits.

I discovered that, while there are many portraits with earrings displayed, there are far more without.  So it would have been possible, but was by no means as common as it is today.  Also, sometimes the current hairstyle hid the ears, such as that of the 1770s and 1780s, or perhaps their ears were hidden by the custom of married women wearing mob caps, even beneath other “public” hats.  The portraits do not reveal whether or not they were merely clip-on earrings or studs, though ear piercing has been around for centuries, varying in intensity and use from culture to culture (some for religious purposes, some for ownership such as slave earrings, and others were status symbols for royalty or nobility).  Here are a few portraits I discovered, with their details:

1761, by Joshua Reynolds:  Lady Elizabeth Keppel

1761, by Joshua Reynolds: Lady Elizabeth Keppel.  Note that the Indian woman is also wearing earring(s), and a rope of pearls; I don’t know whether she is portrayed as a servant or merely inferior in rank, due to the placement in the portrait…

Genevieve-Sophie le Coulteux du Molay, 1788 by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun.  Though this is a French portrait, it is from the period in question, and displays a hoop earring.

Genevieve-Sophie le Coulteux du Molay, 1788 by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. Though this is a French portrait by subject & painter, it is from the period in question, and displays a hoop earring, as well as the hairstyle common in this period (in England as well).

Turkish Dress, c1776 Portrait of a Woman, possibly Miss Hill

Turkish Dress, c1776 Portrait of a Woman, possibly Miss Hill

A young woman in powder blue, ca. 1777

A young woman in powder blue, ca. 1777

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