Now it’s time for us to look at 18th century British drag where we can start to see this iconic art form leave the theatrical stage and start to make its way into certain areas of society and forming as a subculture.
18th century Britain was quite similar to 16th and 17th Britain in terms of social landscape and societal expectations. Gender roles failed to change, and they were still built upon dominant male and submissive female relationship. We can still see that in 18th century Britain, there were strict social codes impacting how men and women should behave, speak, and dress. This reinforced gender norms and limited the possibility of gender expression. Similarly, to Tudor and Stuart England, 18th century Britain did not formally acknowledge homosexuality, as the concept of one’s sexual orientation was not widely understood. Nevertheless, homosexuality was still frowned upon and condemned which led to same sex relationships being kept in the dark and behind closed doors due to the stigmatism and public harassment. However, in this century we do see queer communities and refuges appear in underground venues away from the public eye to avoid the harsh ridicule from society. Cross-dressing was impacted through the condemning of homosexuality. Men dressing up as women for a theatrical purpose still somewhat existed even though women were now allowed to perform in stage productions. However, cross-dressing outside the theatre was widely disapproved by many, linking it back to homosexuality.
In the 18th century, Britain saw a rise in spaces known as ‘molly houses’. The emergence of molly houses in the 18th century was rife in places such as London. Its name comes from housing ‘mollies’, which was a term used for homosexual men. These spaces were for men to drink, dance and even form sexual relations with other men. These spaces also formed as the first venues for Britain’s drag performers. A famous molly house was Margaret Clap’s (also referred to as Mother Clap) molly house in Middlesex. Clap ran a coffee house which was also a molly house, where she would cater and care for, at times, up to forty and fifty men. Clap’s molly house even had beds in the back for more intimate activities that men could partake in. Up until the venue got raided in 1726, Mother Clap’s molly House was refuge for homosexual men and gender expression. In the safe walls of a molly houses men could be themselves without the ridicule of traditional society. If you look at a testimony from Samuel Stevens at the trial of Margaret Clap, he states ‘I found between forty and fifty men making love to one another…sometimes they’d be sitting on one another laps, kissing in a leud manner…then they’d get up, dance and make curtsies and mimic the voices of women…’. This shows that molly houses allowed men to explore their gender identity with other like-minded people who were accepting of them.