Women have been dressing as men for centuries, and this phenomenon is surprisingly well documented by material stored at the Greater Manchester County Record Office. In my first post on this topic I discussed music hall performers such as Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields, who made names for themselves by performing male personae on stage. Many years later the term drag king was coined, and for my second post I interviewed one lady who pioneered this concept; Diane Torr even delivered a ‘drag king workshop’ here in Manchester, in 1996.
Following this I discovered a number of ladies with Manchester connections who dressed up as men, and, even earlier, a woman who had posed as a man in order to serve as a soldier in the 1700s! This post goes full circle, and returns right to the start of my research – to the stage. And yet another male impersonator.
Kitty Bertha Dennick was born in 1886, and her father was early music hall performer George Dennick, but aside from the information in the Documentary Photographic Archive, there seems to be very little information about her. She wasn’t a Manchester resident, but her daughter later moved to the North West, and donated the images in this post to the archive back in the 1980s.
Above: Kitty Dennick (source)
Unlike the performances of her well-known counterparts, Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields, Kitty Dennick’s work as a male impersonator seems to have been overlooked. Inevitably the passage of time, declining memory and the selectivity of archiving restricts our knowledge of particular phenomena, or in this case, a music hall genre, to specific events and individuals. Which criteria, then, make certain male impersonators more archive-worthy than others? Popularity? Luck? Location?
Above: A business card belonging to Kitty Dennick (then Wootton) (source)
Kitty Dennick was a Birmingham-based performer, and as the photographs below demonstrate, she was a visually convincing ‘man’. However, there are still many unanswered questions, such as where did she perform? Was she successful? Well known? What drew her to male impersonation in the first place?
Above: Kitty Dennick as a man (source)
According to the information in the Documentary Photographic Archive, her theatrical career began as a teenager; one half of a ‘cakewalk’ double act.
Above: A couple dance the cakewalk (source)
Indeed, a number of other male impersonators began their stage careers as children, including Vesta Tilley. Following her teenage career as a music hall performer, Kitty went on to perform as a man, both on stage and at various private functions. She even sang for the troops during WWI.
Above: As a soldier (source)
Kitty married twice (becoming Mrs Wootton, then Mrs Hirst respectively) – her first husband was Joe Wootten, a pianist. I wonder if they performed together?
Below: As a gentleman (source)
A letter in the collection refers to a proposed performance for the curiously named Order of the Buffaloes:
Another letter invites her to perform at the society’s annual dinner, following a successful performance at the previous year’s installment. This reflects positively on Kitty’s talent as both an impersonator and as an entertainer.
In a way, it is unsurprising that many of the documented examples of women impersonating men, come from theatrical or entertainment contexts. After all, cross dressing on stage has a long history – men and women have been playing each others parts for centuries. Pantomime and music hall provide many examples, and under the guise of acting, a number of women have been able to explore cross dressing in creative ways. And continue to do so.
Above: One of the many male alter-egos of Kitty Dennick (source)
However, for others, cross dressing is not just a temporary role, but a means via which to construct a new and lasting identity. Sarah Roberts and other women in centuries gone by truly lived as men, as do some women today. Regardless of their intentions, all of the women I have studied in this series of posts demonstrate that gender identities are, to a large extent, performed through clothing, attitude and body language.
Although Kitty died in 1981, her legacy lives on; not just in the Documentary Photographic Archive here in Manchester, but in the work of contemporary male impersonators and drag kings. She joins a long line of women who didn’t take gender for granted, and, by masquerading as men, exposed the fragile foundations of its construction.