All the hubbub about Brian Bedford’s spectacular performance as Lady Bracknell in the recent Broadway revival of The Importance of Being Earnest has gotten us thinking. So much media in our culture revolves around, or at least includes, elements of cross-dressing or gender confusion, whether to comic or dramatic effect. Is this an evolution towards greater acceptance and understanding of all, or just, in some way, a deeply ingrained human impulse? Of course, cross-dressing is no new trend. The phenomenon is evident in everything from Norse and Hindu mythology to figures that shaped actual historical events (usually in the form of women dressing up as men to fight wars or be pirates, for some reason) to literature, theater, film and every kind of media in between. There are hundreds of examples, so there’s no way to document them all here, but the trajectory of our favorites still has some bearing on the largeness of the phenomenon. Click through for out brief history of cross-dressing in media.
1592 – First performance of Henry VI, Part 1, Shakespeare’s first play
Shakespeare did not invent the custom of cross-dressing in theater. After all, everyone learned in their 9th grade English classes that it was illegal for women to perform in Renaissance theaters, and so all of Shakespeare’s plays were performed by men in ever role. Since a good story always involves a lady in one way or another, every play in the period would have been an instance of theatrical cross-dressing. However, Shakespeare was perhaps more interested in or more clever with this tradition than most, working cross-dressing into many of his plays to achieve a meta comedy: a man dressing up as a woman dressing up as a man, sometimes again dressing up as a woman. Even in Henry VI, his first produced play, he depicts Joan of Arc, an important historical cross-dresser, and he went on to chase the trope in plays like Twelfth Night or What You Will, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice.