drag king n. slang – a woman who dresses up as a man; a male impersonator

Drag became an informal term for cross dressing in the 1800s, but primarily referred to men who dressed in female clothing. Such individuals later became known as drag queens, and the impersonation of women by men has traditionally enjoyed greater publicity and attention in both popular culture and academic literature than the female equivalent: drag kings. Nonetheless, the latter too has a rich and extensive history, one which I’ve begun to explore using material stored at the Greater Manchester County Record Office.

My interest in this topic was sparked off by a member of staff at Archives+, who discovered that during WWI, a number of Manchester ladies were photographed wearing military uniform, in spite of being unable to serve as soldiers. Was this just a simple act of ‘dressing up’? A show of patriotism? Or an exploration of gender and empowerment? Keep an eye on the GM1914 blog for more on this story.

The purpose of this post, however, is to introduce some early female cross dressers and their links with Manchester.

First up, is Vesta Tilley, one of the most famous male impersonators of her day and a star of British music hall entertainment during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Born Matilda Ann Powles in 1864, Vesta was the daughter of a music hall chairman and performer. Before changing her name at the age of 11, she performed as a child in pantomimes and music hall events, later becoming a fully fledged male impersonator and singer. Her characters included policemen, gentlemen and, later, soldiers.

The fact that a significant number of pictures of Vesta found their way into the Documentary Photographic Archive at the Greater Manchester County Record Office, evidences her widespread popularity. She also performed in Manchester on several occasions at venues such as the Ardwick Empire.

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Above: A Vesta Tilley postcard (source), similar to one donated to the archive by a North West music hall promoter.

Below: Tilley as a Victorian toff (source)

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The foppish gentleman above was one of her best known roles, and through songs such as Burlington Bertie she successfully parodied upper class men, by mocking their airs and graces. Her witty performances were a huge hit, and this popularity would later be utilised during the WWI military recruitment drive.

Vesta married music hall boss Walter de Frece, who wrote many of her songs, and together they were active supporters of the war effort from 1914 onwards. Walter eventually became a Conservative MP and both husband and wife were active in politics. Vesta was even dubbed ‘Europe’s greatest recruiting sergeant’ when she became involved with recruiting soldiers for WW1. She performed popular songs including “The army of today’s all right” and “Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who Loves a Soldier”, adopting the guise of characters such as “Tommy in the Trench” and “Jack Tar Home from Sea”. She also entertained wounded soldiers in hospitals.

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Above: Tilley in costume as a soldier, in an autographed image donated to the archive by the son of a former Manchester comedian (source)

Tilley wasn’t the only male impersonator playing the music hall and vaudeville circuits during this period. Fellow star Ella Shields, who was born in America but also toured in the UK (she married an English songwriter), was similarly popular for her performances of male characters.

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Above: A signed Ella Shields postcard (source) – from the collection of a 1920s North West music hall promoter

Below: Also signed, Ella in character (source) – from the collection of a former Manchester comedian.
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Hetty King was another famous example, although she does not appear in the archive as far as I can tell.

These performers were not just entertainers – they were also pioneers who helped to popularise the idea of women dressing as men. For centuries women have played male parts in theatre and vice versa, but the solo performances of artists such as Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields brought male impersonation into the spotlight, both literally and metaphorically.

Their well-received characterisations demonstrate that masculinity, like femininity, is a construction – a fictional performance. The mannerisms, gestures and ways of speaking that characterise men and women can be mimicked by either sex. Male clothing in particular can transform, and empower women. Joan of Arc, Dr. James Barry and Dorothy Lawrence all demonstrated the transformative power of male dress in this respect.

Years later, long after the days of music hall, Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields, a performance artist called Diane Torr ran a series of workshops encouraging women to explore their male alter egos. Details about her work are also stored at the Greater Manchester County Record Office, and I will be discussing this further in a future post.

Manchester has a reputation for celebrating diversity in terms of clothing, gender and sexuality, so I look forward to finding out more about what the archives have to say about drag kings and their histories.

This blog post was written for Archives+ by one of our volunteers as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project.
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