Cross-Dressing: An American Pastime

Cross-Dressing: An American Pastime

Whether we like it or not, clothes and fashion are important markers of status, class, gender, and sexual identity. Just ask any high school student who is trying to present their own personal style or identity and comes up against the rules and judgments of parents, teachers, and society. Most schools today have dress codes regulating the length of skirts and banning t-shirts with offensive images and drug or gang references. Some schools also have gendered dress codes, such as the Virginia school which prohibits “any clothing worn by a student that is not in keeping with a student’s gender and causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the educational process or poses a health or safety concern.”

The ostensible purpose of these rules is to create a safe and focused learning environment; however, transgender students are increasingly challenging strict gendered dress codes, especially during prom and graduation season. In Arizona, for example, a transgender teen is petitioning against a school rule that requires different colored caps and gowns for male and female graduates. In Texas, the ACLU got behind a biologically male student who identifies as female and chose to wear a dress to her senior prom. These cases challenge the very existence of gender-specific dress codes, and in so doing they also pose the question of who gets to decide and determine “a student’s gender.”  

Challenges to gendered dress codes are nothing new. In the mid-19th century, the women’s rights movement included dress reform in its platform for broader changes in women’s social and legal status. “Bloomers” – named after Amelia Bloomer, who promoted the new dress in her women’s rights newspaper The Lily – were introduced to American women in the 1850s. Also called the “Turkish costume,” the shorter but still below-the-knee skirt over full-length baggy trousers was an alternative to women’s heavy floor-length dresses, hoops, petticoats, and corsets fashionable at that time.


Dress reformers argued that traditional fashions were restrictive and harmful to women’s health, but the most radical women’s rights advocates rejected the whole idea of fashion as keeping women dressed up like dolls for men’s pleasure. Feminist theorist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wore the Turkish costume, threw out her corset, and cut her hair short in the 1850s. She and other women’s rights advocates in the U.S. gave up the reform costume by the 1860s, fearing their clothing choices had become a distraction to their larger message of women’s equality. Caricatures and criticism of dress reform, however, reveal a clear understanding of the threat “Bloomerism” posed to existing gender roles.


In colonial America there were statutes that made it illegal to dress outside (especially above) one’s station. These codes were concerned with enforcing economic and social hierarchies, but there were other reasons individuals might wear clothes associated with the opposite gender.

It is important to note, especially when investigating the past, that the term “cross-dressing” simply means the practice of wearing the clothes of the opposite sex. The act of cross-dressing itself does not always translate into homosexuality, transgender identity, or sexual fetish. Although there were a few recorded cases of men who cross-dressed as women for so-called “lewd” purposes, the majority of early American accounts of people who cross-dressed did so for reasons of entertainment (such as in the theater or holiday celebrations), as disguise (servants or slaves running away), or, for women, in order to pass in certain male-defined employments or social situations, such as the military.

Disguised as a male soldier, Deborah Sampson is depicted delivering a letter to George Washington. Credit: MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Disguised as a male soldier, Deborah Sampson is depicted delivering a letter to George Washington.
Credit: MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Deborah Sampson is just the most famous example of a woman who dressed in men’s clothing in order to serve in the American Revolutionary War. Long after the war ended, nineteenth-century historical accounts delighted in the legend that Sampson’s disguise was so convincing, she was even able to enjoy “romances” with “a young girl” and at least one other woman without suspicion. Whether these retellings of Sampson’s sexual escapades were true or not, the stories hinted at the gendered confusion and potential eroticism of cross-dressing. Readers were ultimately assured, of course, of the innocence of these encounters.1

Throughout the American Civil War of the 1860s, stories abounded of “petticoat spies” and female soldiers who served valiantly dressed as men, revealed as women only upon needing medical treatment, upon death, or after the war. Rather than challenging sexuality or gender roles, however, these women were lauded (or condemned, depending on which side of the war you were on) for their military service. Indeed, these stories rarely generated any serious consideration of the question of why women could not participate in these roles on a regular basis.

Rather than highlighting gender inequalities, stories of cross-dressing women in the military reinforced traditional gender roles by pointing out the courageous, dangerous, and sometimes humorous circumstances under which women had to don men’s clothing. The story always ended with the women returning to their proper attire and roles as wives and mothers. 

This was not the case with Mary Edwards Walker, a trained physician who served first as a volunteer and then as a paid surgeon for the Union during the Civil War. She survived capture by the Confederates and, after the war, her bravery and skills were recognized with a Medal of Honor by the U.S. government. In fact, Walker is the only woman to date to receive a Medal of Honor.

Walker did not try to disguise her sex, but simply wore masculine clothing for her work as a surgeon during the war. After her wartime service ended, however, there was less tolerance for Walker’s clothing choices. In civilian life, women were expected to act and dress as women, and in the 1870s, Walker, an outspoken dress reform and women’s rights supporter, was arrested more than once for dress violations (wearing men’s clothing), charges which she fought in court.2

Walker sat for several photographs between the 1860s and early 1900s, showing her clothing transformation from bloomers, to a full men’s suit and trousers, to an elderly woman wearing a men’s overcoat and top hat.3

Walker crossed more than dress codes. She pursued non-traditional employment and for many years shared a home with Belva Lockwood, a pioneering woman lawyer. Walker attracted attention and criticism as a public figure who openly challenged gender roles in her work as a women’s rights activist. By the end of the 1800s, however, some of the changes in women’s fashions that Walker and other early reformers had sought were becoming more mainstream. For example, younger women were encouraged to participate in more active lifestyles, including women’s athletics in colleges and bicycling.

Bicycling Outfit.

Indeed, bicycling – and its corresponding fashions – was championed precisely because it offered women more freedom of movement and greater health, a message feminists, once scorned for their views on dress reform, could now publicly embrace. Both suffragist Susan B. Anthony and temperance leader Frances Willard discovered and celebrated the bicycle in their later lives.4

A shift occurred at the end of the century, however, from dress reform (in particular, women in pants) as a question of politics or health, to cross-dressing as an expression of sexuality. In this 1903 Vanity Fair spread, the photos and text present a titillating view of two “bifurcated girls” (women in pants) playfully wrestling. Note that the women are not wearing even the looser-fitting bicycle or exercise style pants of the day, but rather are dressed in men’s-style trousers and vests.5  

Vanity Fair’s Bifurcated Girls.

By the early decades of the twentieth century, the visibility and regulation of urban queer cultures (including gay bars and nightclubs, gay prostitution, and drag balls) corresponded with new legal and medical perspectives on homosexuality and cross-dressing.6 Many cities had already passed laws outlawing cross-dressing under a broader category of “indecent or lewd” behavior. An 1863 San Francisco ordinance placed a fine of up to $500 on

“any person [who] shall appear in a public place in a state of nudity, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd dress, or shall make any indecent exposure of his or her person…”

Similar statutes were passed throughout the United States – from Chicago to Memphis to Denver to Orlando, Florida – between the 1850s and the 1920s (with isolated cases at even later dates). During this same time period, the new fields of psychology and sexology emerged, and researchers began to look at a wider range of human sexual behavior, quickly determining that “inversion” (homosexuality) and bisexuality were perhaps more common than generally acknowledged.8 Likewise, the sexual or erotic aspects of cross-dressing were identified and, for the first time, seriously studied, primarily by Magnus Hirschfeld, who is credited with coining the term, transvestite.9

In his 1910 study, The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress, Hirschfeld interviewed both male and female transvestites and homosexuals. He argued that cross-dressing, as well as adopting the speech or mannerisms of the opposite sex, was in most cases unrelated to the sexual orientation of the person; he pointed out that “not all homosexuals are effeminate…and not all effeminate men are homosexual.” Indeed, he found among male transvestites “an even stronger antipathy [toward homosexuality] than normally appears in other heterosexuals.”

Undoubtedly, many of his subjects would now be considered transgendered (he described “men who live totally” as women and women “who more or less lead the life of a man”) or transsexual. Hirschfeld was at the forefront of understanding a range or continuum of sexual desires and identities and, in fact, participated as a physician in the first sex reassignment surgeries in Germany in the 1930s. In his efforts to separate sexual orientation from gender identity, he wrote:

“There is not one specific characteristic of a woman that you would not also occasionally find in a man, no manly characteristic not also in a woman…every combination possible can occur, every possible combination of manly and womanly characteristics.”

One hundred years later, Hirschfeld’s words still seem revolutionary in our culture which remains uncomfortable moving beyond binaries of female and male, of gay and straight, of girls wearing dresses to prom and boys wearing tuxedos.


  1. Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. New York: Knopf, 2004.
  2. Allen Mikaelian, Medal of Honor: Profiles of America‘s Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present. New York: Hyperion, 2003.
  3. The first two photographs are included on Walker’s National Library of Medicine profile page: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_325.html; the Walker top-hat photo is dated as 1911: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dr_Mary_Edwards_Walker_man%27s_top_coat_and_hat_c_1911.jpg
  4. See Willard’s account of “How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle” – http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5038/
  5. Image identified and available at: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:CatFight1903.JPG
  6. See Chauncey, Gay New York.
  7. Cited in Stryker, Transgender History, p. 32 [see full citation below].
  8. See Havelock Ellis’ 1915 report on “The Great Prevalence of Sexual Inversion.” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5114
  9. Extensive notes on Hirschfeld’s life and work, including information on his homosexual rights advocacy and organizations, is collected at the Berlin Archive for Sexology: http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/GESUND/ARCHIV/COLLMH.HTM

Further Reading:

 Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.

 George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

 Gayle V. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States. Kent, OH: KentStateUniversity Press, 2001.

Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

 Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

 Susan Stryker, Transgender History. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008.

Featured image caption: Cross-dressing. (Flickr)

Tiffany K. Wayne is an independent scholar living and writing in Northern California with her husband and two children. She received a BA in Women's Studies from the University of California, San Diego, and an MA and PhD in History from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a former Affiliated Scholar with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University and has taught courses in U.S. history, cultural and intellectual history, and women's history at UCSC and at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California.