I suspect ever since gender specific attire was created there have been those who’ve broken the rules. As I’m something of a student of human nature, we haven’t really changed much over many thousands of years. We have far better education now, social norms evolved and changed over time, as have the attitudes towards this passion we all share.
At times, it has been a tolerated, even a welcomed part of society. Changing attitudes and laws have forced it underground and sometimes it has been barely tolerated. There are the times when society’s standards against it have been viciously enforced, even if it wasn’t against the laws of the state at the time. All depending on the time and place.
Men dressing as women wasn’t actually illegal, but a law against wearing a disguise was, mainly to give some teeth against war time spying, but it was used as an excuse to arrest crossdressers. A great deal of crossdressing documentation comes from police and newspaper reports of the day and was therefore printed from that point of view. As it still is frequently today, it was seen as gay behaviour, though certainly back then as it is now many were heterosexual. Though we seem to have a difficulty with definitions in modern times, it becomes even more difficult to apply them to historical figures.
This period is the late 19th Century in England, which was also known as the Victorian era, after the long serving British monarch, Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 till her death in 1901.
As all leaders do, she had a tremendous influence on the society at the time. After the death of her beloved husband in 1861she went into years of mourning and enforced her own code of restrained sexuality (of which there are reliable reports that she herself did not follow!) on everyone.
Not everyone wanted to be pigeon-holed into restrained sexuality, as the Queen seemed to want her subjects to enjoy. As a result, a large number of underground brothels existed, plus there were other clubs and organizations designed to cater to most anyone’s taste. During this time, a number of cases came to light of men dressing as women. They often ended up before the courts with mixed verdicts.
At the time women did not have the rights men enjoyed. Back then to pass one’s self off as a woman meant you took a huge step down in status and rights. This meant you really had to WANT to do it. Most of us can attest to how the desire waxes and wanes, but just gets stronger and stronger over time.
Naturally, one’s tastes and inclinations are not limited to class or financial means. Then as now, the more means at one’s disposal the easier it was to feed your desires. In London during the 1880’s there was the “Hundred Guineas Club,” so named for the cost of a year’s membership—a small fortunate for working class people of the time. One hundred Guineas was about 105 English pounds, which would be in excess of $10,000 in today’s money. So only those with considerable means could join, keeping it very exclusive.
The most interesting thing is that it wasn’t just another high class brothel but a crossdressing club. I haven’t found any records as to how one actually joined, but one might imagine new members having to be recommended by an existing one, and then answer some questions, much as it still happens today.
One interesting stipulation was that everyone had to use a feminine name, and they used it whilst visiting. Sound like any place you know?
They had to arrive and depart dressed en femme, as we now say. As this was the Late Victorian era you can imagine the outfits they might have worn! It would have been a sight to see, all these wealthy “gentlewomen” arriving by coach and cab in elaborate Victorian costumes. Some of us have quite the fascination with outfits such as these. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to dress like that all the time!
I wonder about the practicalities of getting all the clothes and accessories needed. Perhaps they would sew the gowns themselves, but more likely there was a network of seamstresses who would make the clothes you needed. This was before you could just walk in and buy what you wanted off of a rack, never mind ordering off the internet!
With the Royal connection, a frequent and very popular member of the club was none other than Queen Victoria’s grandson, and heir apparent, Albert Victor, who took the name of her grandmother, Victoria as her feminine name.
Most evenings when one arrived, you spent time relaxing, chatting and getting aquatinted with each other, while imbibing your favourite beverage of course. Later in the night the lights were doused. You could either go upstairs with the person you’d already chosen or advance on one of the young lads employed as waiters. It was considered part of the job, and they were told not to refuse any advances! Much like the professions of today, their main income came from tips and not just from serving drinks.
Such a place could not last forever. The police raided it after some years in operation and shut it down. With it being England, the entrenched class system made sure those upper crust gents were able to scoot to other parts of the world for a time until the furor died down.
As we all know, this need to be feminine doesn’t just go away. I wonder about all the other “gents.” Did the club start up again, but with a little less fanfare perhaps?
I could not find any reports whereby the Queen knew of this particular dalliance of his, but she was certainly well informed of his rather promiscuous nature with men and women. The Queen felt the future of the Crown was at stake and to this end she decided Albert needed a good wife to provide the country with the next generation of heirs, and to provide him with some much needed respectability.
After scouring the European nobility, she found an attractive, eligible young noble woman to marry him, however, she refused! It was on to her second choice, who agreed to marry the Prince. It was hoped that she would be able to bring him into line.
It was not to be, as he passed away of a respiratory illness a few months before the nuptials.
Being of a practical nature, the Queen didn’t want all of her hard work to go to waste, so she decided the next son would make a good husband for this lovely young lady, and he agreed.
That young woman would become the grandmother of the current Queen of England.
I find this story fascinating; can you imagine if this happened now? What if one of the current Princes were to be found going out en femme today. Even though we are in a much more enlightened age, I’m sure quite a scandal would ensue. What do you think?
What do you think might have happened if Albert Victor had not passed on and inherited the
throne? A crossdressing monarch?
Picture yourself living in Victorian England, would you have dressed up and gone out even if you didn’t have the means to join the Hundred Guineas Club?
More Articles by Amy Myers
- The “Thrill” is gone, or is it?
- Thanks to the many people behind the mirror at CDH!
- Find your Balance
- To Pass or not to pass, that is the question!
- A Short History of Crossdressing