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A Farewell to Pants: The Role of Cross-Dressing During WWI

With the sexes largely segregated and the intensity of war taking its toll, many men turned to an unlikely coping mechanism: drag. We talked to a historian about the complex reasons soldiers suited down during the First World War.
February 11, 2016, 9:55pm
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Although he was living in a prisoner-of-war camp in southern Bavaria at the time, the British colonel H.N. Thompson celebrated Christmas 1914 with a kiss. In an account published in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps the next year, Thompson writes:

On Christmas Day an exhibition of all the inventions was held, and entrance money, what you liked to give, was charged, which went to the French Red Cross. Nearly seven hundred marks were taken. An officer dressed up as a nurse held the collecting box near the door; yellow straw hair, pink cheeks, very red lips, and a false bust decollete gave the personator a very meretricious appearance. When I appeared 'she' threw 'her' arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks, amid great laughter and cries of 'Vive l'entente'.

This account may be surprising to those who understand the early 20th century as a more conservative era. But according to Lisa Z. Sigel, a professor in the history department at DePaul University and the author of a new paper called "Best love: Female impersonation in the Great War," published in the journal Sexualities earlier this month, cross-dressing during World War I was actually kind of common—even in prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camps.

The reasons for this, however, are not easily unpacked. Discussion of the phenomenon has shifted since scholars first began studying it; initially, Sigel writes, cross-dressing was treated as "mere entertainment, one of the strange absurdities that the war produced without any consideration of the gendered and sexual components of such displays." Later, advances in queer studies led historians to reinterpret the popularity of male cross-dressing by focusing on homoerotic relations and trans issues.

Read More: The History of Black Lipstick

By contrast, Sigel argues that cross-dressing during the war could have been more ambiguous—that it also served as a "coping strategy that stressed malleability" at a time when many men were vacillating between extremes of abject horror and excruciating boredom. "In a context defined by regimentation, boredom, and restriction at best or brutality, violence, and horrors at worst, cross-dressing rejected boundaries," Sigel writes. What's more, the complicated social and cultural clashes happening at the time further contributed to the development of cross-dressing as a way to process—and, briefly, escape—what was happening. In addition to bringing "men with sophisticated vocabularies for sexual variation into contact with those with no sophistication in sexuality or culture," World War I also severely limited the sexes' access to each other; when they marched off to defend their country, men were mostly separated from women, and often traumatically so, for extended periods of time.

To learn more about the role of drag and drag performance in the context of World War I, I spoke with Sigel over email about the basis of her research, how cross-dressing and other alternative behaviors were redefined during the war, and where men living in camps got their costumes.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

BROADLY: In the article, you note that "female impersonation became commonplace in Europe during the Great War"—how commonplace was it?
Lisa Z. Sigel: This article concerns a Europe that was engulfed in war, and a particular war marked by stasis and immobility. That war involved 24 nations, killed [approximately 17 million] men, wounded an additional 20 million men, and under-nourished and then linked the world so deeply that the Spanish Flu of 1918–1919 spread to an unknown number of people and then killed an additional millions of people (estimates range from 20 to 60 million). For much of the war, men were largely—though not completely—segregated from women. These groups of men included the roughly eight million POWs, as well as civilian internees, and the roughly 65 million men who served in the armed services. While there were female nurses, female drivers, female messengers, female civilians, as well as some women who served in the armed forces, most soldiers and sailors lived in male communities. That's a very different context than today. In that context of gender segregation during World War I in Europe, female impersonation became popular.

Part of the basis for your research is the fact that, until now, "scholars have focused on the homoerotics of men performing for other men" during World War I. What does that look like, and why are you trying to offer a counter viewpoint?
For a long time, military historians saw female impersonation as just a lark, something that happened during World War I that could be chalked up to stresses of war. With the advent of the gay rights movement and the study of sexuality and gender, a generation of scholars did the important recovery work of identifying male homoerotics in female impersonation during the war. They saw sexuality in those performances. My work suggests that that's not all that was happening in female impersonation and cross-dressing—that there was ambivalence and dissociation, as well as desire. I think the scholarship is at a point where we can see that lots of factors can be at work simultaneously.


When did interpretations of cross-dressing transition from, as you write, "popular" to "pathological"?
Cross-dressing, "transsexuality," "transvestitism," female impersonation, and "inversion" were all defined and redefined over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Over the course of this period, scientists, popularizers, and the public began to make sense of these as identities and began to develop a sense of what each meant. During World War I, in the popular press, stories abounded about cross-dressed men and women. There were lots of those "I Escaped Through Enemy Lines Dressed as a Woman" stories and lots of the "Woman Dressed as a Man Goes to Sea for Adventure" tales. There was room for many different definitions of cross-dressing at that moment. It's only in 1928 that Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness, which featured a main [female] character, Stephen Gordon, who dresses as man and loves other women. I've read a lot of letters from the interwar years from men who dressed as women, and they looked for a vocabulary to describe themselves and their desires. Some liked women, some liked men, some liked clothes, and some never explained what the draw was. My area of study ends with the beginning of World War II, and I still see flux in these terms then.

In a context defined by regimentation, boredom, and restriction at best or brutality, violence, and horrors at worst, cross-dressing rejected boundaries.

You mention Michael Roper's 2009 study, "The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War," which details how men came to especially value femininity and mothering during the war. How do you think this translated to cross-dressing and performing? While I know that there was a tradition of performance, I guess I'm not understanding quite how the absence of this kind of maternal femininity translated to the popularity of drag performances.
You seem to be assuming that cross-dressing and female impersonation during World War I looked like current drag performance. All of the indications that I've seen suggest that these performances embodied quite a number of emotional inflections and referenced mothers as well as girlfriends and spoke of humor, love, charm, disgust, pleasures, and home as well as sexual desire. Imagine being a POW in World War I and seeing someone dress and act as a mother; that would be a very powerful experience. Imagine serving on the Western Front, a battlefield mired in stasis, immobility, and death, and seeing someone dress as beauty embodied. In those moments, I think that longings outstripped sexual identity.

What about the current climate of queer studies has allowed you to make this kind of critique? Specifically, your argument that "female impersonation…could be part of a broader emotional life, rather than just an expression of homo–hetero sexual desire" seems very modern—I'm wondering if there's a risk of applying contemporary attitudes to the past.
Yes, the argument that "female impersonation…could be part of a broader emotional life, rather than just an expression of homo–hetero sexual desire" does seems very modern, but that emerges from the period itself. There was a diversity in presentations, desires, reactions, and explanations. In fact, many scholars see "modern" very much emerging from World War I in its art forms, its understanding of psychology, and its politics and social life. The "old" died on the battlefield, and the "modern" was born.

This might be a dumb question, but where did men in POW/internment camps get their costumes? This seems like the kind of thing that would be quashed by guards or people who were otherwise in charge—was that not the case?
Millions of men were interned or made into prisoners of war during World War I, under all sorts of conditions. As a result, any sort of generalization is bound to be inadequate. The POW camps in England fed the (largely German) prisoners adequately, especially given the extraordinary rationing that happened in Germany during the war. In contrast, men imprisoned by the Russian army—which did not have enough food to feed its population, let alone its prisoners—suffered enormously. So what country you are captured by makes an enormous difference.

Your social class and your rank also made a difference. Men were separated into camps for officers and camps for soldiers. There was an enormous gulf between the two; common soldiers suffered without adequate shelter, clothing, or food in many cases. My research is on English soldiers, and the evidence I read spoke to particular camps in Germany and Holland and particular theaters, including the Western Front and the Salonika front (also known as the Macedonian front). Imprisoned officers received packages and had books, plays, bathing facilities, chapels, etc. They were treated as the gentlemen they were. Amateur theatrics were allowed to pass the time and to allow men to be emotionally and spiritually uplifted. Parts for women were played by men. There's a beautiful movie about social class and prisoners of war called La grande illusion, directed by Jean Renoir, that has a cross-dressing theatrical scene.

You used postcards featuring men dressed as women as primary sources in your research. Many of those postcards seem like the kind of thing one might send as a joke, or to be shocking. Is there evidence they were supposed to be humorous, or even exotic, messages (perhaps sent at the expense of people who were "pathological" cross-dressers)? Similarly, you mention that female impersonators often "played with race" as well—today, that kind of play is considered highly offensive.
If imprisoned, if conscripted, if serving in an unending war in terrible conditions, there were enormous pleasures of imagination in dressing up and becoming someone else. Part of that process might be sexist and/or racist, but we also need to understand those performances in context. That context was different than "bros" dressing up at a Halloween party today. It had a different meaning.