This post is the second in a series about male impersonation and ‘drag kings’ – I had no idea that the archives at the Greater Manchester County Record Office would contain such a rich and diverse array of women impersonating men.
In my first post, I looked at the stars of Victorian and Edwardian music hall, in which male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields parodied popular masculinities of the time, from top hat toting toffs to patriotic soldiers.
In this post I will focus on three Manchester ladies who were inspired by the idea of cross dressing. The results are both entertaining and thought provoking.
In the above photo, a Chorlton lady, Mrs Wild, is wearing a suit of armour at a local pageant in 1930. Traditionally we associate such attire with medieval knights – men on horses fighting battles with swords and shields. However, Mrs Wild’s costume inspiration actually comes from Joan of Arc, the famous saint who allegedly donned male clothing in her quest to lead the French to victory against the English. She was later burned at the stake for heresy.
Above: A depiction of Joan of Arc from the fifteenth century (source)
Joan of Arc is a character who has long invited imitation in festivals, parades and the creative arts more generally. Her association with cross dressing makes her an interesting example to consider here – on the one hand, a suit of armour represented a practical means of attire for any person entering the battlefield at this time, but on the other it might be argued that the masculine connotations of the outfit empowered this young woman to transcend the usual restrictions of her gender.
Like Mrs Wild, Annie Ogden was another Manchester lady who masqueraded as the famous martyr.
Above: As Joan of Arc, although ‘I am not “Joan of Arc”‘ is written below in pencil (source)
Above: As a character from Pirates of Penzance (source)
Above: Annie as herself (source)
Annie was evidently a glamorous lady, who, according to the records, had a passion for dramatics and was a talented tennis player. After leaving school at 13 she joined Ferranti in Oldham as an office girl. Her late father had worked as an engineer for the same company. Working her way up she became personal secretary to the managing director and was described as thus:
“She was intelligent, forceful, respected, feared and also held in great affection.”
Annie was briefly engaged, but the relationship was cut short by her fiance’s tragic death, and subsequently she never married or had children. The photographs and accompanying documents depict an independent and charismatic lady, perhaps a little intimidating too. Maybe her portrayal of male characters on the stage helped to cultivate this sense of independence and determination – characteristics more traditionally associated with men than with women.
Alice Susannah Catchpole
The hilarious shot below shows Alice Susannah Catchpole, dressed as a man, possibly taken during the late 1800s on the Isle of Man. It was donated by a descendent who lived in Manchester.
Here she is again below, with her sister Nettie. Not the sort of image one usually finds in a collection of photographs from the 1800s.
The image below is more typical of a Victorian portrait:
Believe it or not, this severe lady is also Alice Susannah Catchpole. Interesting to note that by donning male attire, she and her sister were able to escape the usual stifling refinement of their time to create poses one might now associate with Facebook!
All three ladies featured here used male clothing to transform themselves, thereby demonstrating the power of costume; not only in the construction of gender, but also in terms of what the wearer is able to do. It is thrilling to discover that male impersonation was something that ‘ordinary’ Manchester ladies have been doing for quite some time, and by sharing their stories I hope to find out more about the history of cross dressing and male impersonation more generally.