Was my great-grandfather a cross-dresser?
April 19, 2016 11:01 AM   Subscribe

My brother recently showed me some old family photos that show my great-grandfather wearing a dress. My question is: was this a light-hearted thing to do in the times or was my great-grandfather a cross-dresser?

Here's a link to the photos: https://goo.gl/photos/YLLVZDtyhvXJr1s18

What do you think? Are there other examples of vintage photos like this? I'd like some more cultural context before I jump to any conclusions. I don't have exact dates or places for these, but my guess is around the turn of the century, in Illinois.
posted by moonroof to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have photos like this of my great-grandparents right around 1900-1910 too, with a bunch of their friends. It seems like it was part of putting on skits/plays at home or in smallish community venues.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:05 AM on April 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

And yeah, these would have been in smalltown Ohio, so similar region.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:06 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

If he was a cross-dresser at that time, I don't think he'd be posing for photographs out in the open as casually as that. My family's scrapbooks contain many images of men dressed in women's clothing, and it's always been for some sort of lark.
posted by xingcat at 11:13 AM on April 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

It was definitely very common for people to dress in costume and put on little plays, musicales, tableaux vivants as evening entertainment.

However, I wouldn't underestimate Victorian sexuality. They were a little freakier than they get credit for in popular culture, and queerness was pretty well tolerated. Here's an interesting summary of Victorian sexual expressions from the V&A.
posted by witchen at 11:13 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

More context would be helpful. I tend to agree with xingcat that, back then, if you were a "crossdresser", you probably wouldn't be openly walking around in public and posing for photos out in the open in women's clothes. But if your great-grandfather lived in Paris or Greenwich Village, that wouldn't in any way be the case and photos like these might really signify that he was part of some kind of out queer subculture.

I've seen a lot of photos of people around this time wearing gender-nonconforming clothing. A lot of it seems to have been for plays/costume/as a lark, or sometimes same-sex boarding school formals or the like where it's an inside joke among people who go there. But, yes, of course, queer people definitely existed and had certain spaces where they could be relatively open. So knowing whether this is a picture from Andover or rural Ohio or Provincetown would be helpful.
posted by Sara C. at 11:28 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a bit in one of the Anne of Green Gables books about when they go to college, and Gilbert spends the day out in the main district of town in full womens' clothing as part of his fraternity initiation. So I don't know about your grandpop but I do think it was a light-hearted jokey thing at the time.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:34 AM on April 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I'm going to guess that this was some sort of joke or prank. Along with what everyone else has noted about it being unlikely he'd be crossdressing in public in Illinois at the turn of the century (based on the clothing and the hat, btw, I'm gonna put the date of the pics between 1912-1918), note that he's still wearing men's trousers under the dress. If he was actually cross-dressing I'd expect he'd go for the ladies stockings and shoes. Nor does he appear to be wearing a corset, or any of the appropriate undergarments (petticoat or slip). I almost guarantee it's a joke or a dare or something.
posted by katyggls at 12:41 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've seen multiple vintage photographs with men in dresses and shawls and women in suits and men's hats. The context definitely seems to be cheeky fun, but not anything much more than that. (The cheeky fun extends to other photos with female "peeping Toms", but there are also some of men doing traditional "women's chores" that may or may not fall into that category.)
posted by PussKillian at 12:54 PM on April 19, 2016

FWIW, I'm trans and I read these as "man in a dress" and not "trans woman expressing herself." They don't make my trans sensors go ping. He looks uncomfortable but also amused.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:14 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe the fuzzy photo, but he seems to be wearing pants *under* the dress. That combined with the incomplete feeling of the outfit suggests playful costume and not cross-dressing to this clothing historian (although I'm not a specialist of the era in question).
posted by AliceBlue at 5:38 PM on April 19, 2016

As I employ the term, "crossdressing" means putting on clothing of a gender with which you do not identify. So your grandfather was most likely crossdressing in this photo (though it's possible your grandparent actually identified as a woman, but that's not the most likely explanation, since many more people crossdress at some point than trans-identify). Does this make your grandfather "a crossdresser"? If by that you mean "someone who is thrilled by crossdressing," then there's no way to tell by looking at a photograph. People have been crossdressing for a million reasons as long as there have been people. It's certainly not some recent phenomenon, and I have photos of both my grandmother and my grandfather crossdressing in the 1920s. They did it because it was transgressive, and fun. It's nice to see photos of our ancestors being fully human, and playing with gender, so enjoy your find!
posted by DrMew at 8:48 PM on April 19, 2016

Men cross dressing for Purim used to be a thing - I have a photo like that of my grandfather.
posted by Salamandrous at 3:37 PM on April 20, 2016

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