The Library Company of Philadelphia



A good (example of a cross-dressing) man is hard to find. In 1865, numerous cartoonists portrayed Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) in a dress, fleeing Union troops. The artists gleefully were making the point that the vanquished president of the Confederacy behaved like a coward at the end of the Civil War – not that he had an interest in cross-dressing.


The accounts of cross-dressing women often stress the fact that their subjects dressed in men's clothing to be able to travel alone, serve in the military, or escape abuse. Some of these accounts are probably fictions, written primarily to thrill readers. In many ways, they reinforced the idea that women should conform to traditional roles. But they also could inspire a woman to imagine living as a man.


Cross-dressing was by definition a covert matter. Bloomers, however, sent shock waves through American culture when women started wearing them in 1851. At a time when prominent women's rights advocates were seeking suffrage for women, women wearing bloomers became a symbol of uppity women challenging male authority.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez. The Woman in Battle. Hartford: T. Belknap, 1876.


In order to serve in the Confederate army during the Civil War, Loreta Velazquez, who was born in Cuba in 1842, masqueraded as "Lieutenant Harry J. Buford." Thanks to a French tailor in New Orleans, she had clothing that effectively disguised her gender. According to Velazquez, the clothing was more important than the voice: "So many men have weak and feminine voices that, provided the clothing is properly constructed … a woman with even a very high-pitched voice need have very little fear on that score."


And, indeed, "carelessness" about her clothing eventually gave her away.


A Sketch of the Life of Elizabeth Emmons, or, The Female Sailor. Second edition. Boston: Graves & Bartlett, 1841.


Cross-dressing women sailors have been the heroines in many ballads and stories. In this one, the woman sailor also fights Indians in Florida. Elizabeth Emmons chooses to reveal to a man that she is female. Subsequently, he proposes and they marry. But, in the end, a crazed sailor kills her accidentally – leaving her husband in grief, both for his wife and for their unborn child.


Although not presented as a direct result of her gender-bending, Elizabeth Emmons's manner of death suggests the peril of living outside convention. Very early in the narrative, the reader learns details that suggest that the outcome will not be a good one. Not only is Emmons raised by her father, after the death of her mother, but she loses sight in one eye. The message is clear: without traditional training in gender norms, Emmons is at-risk – for all manner of negative consequences.


Matthias Keller. The New Costume Polka. Philadelphia: Lee & Walker, c1851. Gift of David Doret.


In 1851 American temperance activist Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894) popularized a new style of clothing for women: a short dress over loose trousers that were gathered at the ankle. Its advocates promoted bloomers as allowing more freedom of movement than full-length skirts while still preserving modesty.


"Bloomerism – An American Custom," in Punch (Oct. 29, 1851).


The virulent opposition to bloomers in the popular press associated them with the "radical" women who were then advocating voting rights for women. As a result, wearing bloomers was widely perceived as a challenge to male authority.


John W. De Forest. Playing the Mischief. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1875.


By 1860 the bloomer fad was largely over, but the word "Bloomer" soon became shorthand for a female sex radical. In the 1875 novel Playing the Mischief, the character Josephine Miller says she hates another woman for being a "man-woman": "You see a suit of clothes coming toward you; and you think that there is something which will like you, and protect you … and then you find a helpless, useless, harmless man-woman inside of it…. That is about the way a woman feels toward a Bloomer."


By creating a woman character to speak out against radical women (aka "Bloomers"), John De Forest (1826-1906) effectively masqueraded as a woman speaking ill of other women.