Uncovering the Hidden Allure: Uncovering the Queer Drag Scenes of 18th Century Britain

Jack Dradey

In my first article, we explored drag in 16th and 17th century England where we saw how the first form of British drag consisted of men playing female roles on stage.

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.
Uncovering the Hidden Allure: Uncovering the Queer Drag Scenes of 18th Century Britain
William Hogarth's 'The Small Masquerade Ticket'.

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As the culture of drag become more popular, we can see that there are more trials of drag performers being persecuted.

We even see the media such newspapers commenting on drag culture, obviously in negative way because most of society disapproved of this form of art and clearly lacked taste when it came to entertainment. Rictor Norton, a historian who often comments on the history of homosexuality and drag throughout history, argues that in the 18th century there was a strong LGBTQIA+ community. In his collection of sources, he includes a series of newspaper reports from the late 18th century. In reports from 1792-1793, it is discussed that eighteen men were arrested at a drag party and papers use derogatory names such as ‘wretches’ to describe gay men. These reports are an interesting read and really display the first proclaimed drag performers who defied the societal expectations of Britain. Throughout these reports you can see some very iconic drag names such as Miss Conveniency and Blood-bold Nan. Also, these drag performers made it even more iconic and allowed themselves to be called their drag name when not in drag, which is quite similar to drag culture today. This showed that they were not afraid to be authentically themselves despite the consequences that could have come along with it. It is also important to note that many of these drag performers could have actually been transgender and identified as women but were restricted due to public disapproval, therefore, being called their ‘drag name’ or female presenting name could have given them a sense of gender euphoria in their daily lives. Another place where drag culture flourished was at masquerade balls. Masquerade balls were popular in the 18th century throughout mainland Europe in places such as France and Sweden and these elaborate and decadent events were soon adopted by Britain. As many of you can guess, the word masquerade is a French word deriving from the Italian word of Maschera, meaning mask. These events were the perfect place for gender exploration and gender bending activities, as it weakened the strict code of male and female attire. People might often think of masquerade balls as these elegant upper class events with extravagant gowns and artistic French inspired masks, but masquerade was for everyone. In some masquerade balls, men were often seen dressed as witches and nursing maids. I would also argue that it was at the masquerade where we saw the first glimpse of drag kings as even women would dress up in gender bending costumes such as sailors or opera boys. These events allowed women to explore their gender identity and their sexuality. Society was very good at keeping hidden the positive nature of sex and sexual intimately away from women, so these gender bending events allowed women to explore their sexuality. Overall, going to masquerade and being dressed in masks and costumes allowed for a safe space. Wherever it was held, a theatre or even a brothel, men and women could dress up in outfits that weren’t assigned to their gender, drink, entertain and meet other like-minded individuals.
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What we saw in the 18th century is an increase of drag culture, fully proclaimed drag performers and cross dressers.

Unlike the 16th and 17th century whereby men who performed as women on the stage had not the faintest idea that they were taking up a form of drag, these individuals knew that they were defying societal norms and were proud of it. The popularity of molly houses really made drag culture flourish and allowed drag performers, especially, drag queens to be able to perform and have intimate relationships without the fear of ridicule from the outside world. Drag was also becoming more popular and was known to many outside the four walls of the molly houses with newspapers reporting on the culture at the time and certain members of the public referring to drag performs by their drag name even when not in drag. On top of this, masquerade balls were a catalyst in allowing women to explore their gender identity giving Britain its first taste of an iconic new form of drag. Drag kings.
Uncovering the Hidden Allure: Uncovering the Queer Drag Scenes of 18th Century Britain

Jack Dradey

Hello, my name is Jack and I’m currently studying History at Royal Holloway University of London. My interests include medieval history and fashion history. I am the writer of a historic fashion blog called Historic Fashionista. I enjoy investigating parts of history and the changes of continuities of certain periods. When I’m not up to my neck in essays and books I am normally found in museums finding out new information…or you’ll find me in the museum gift shop looking for a new tote bag. You can find me on Instagram: jack.dradey or on tiktok as jack_.4455
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