Vesta, Stella and more: Revealing the iconic drag performers of 19th century Britain.

Jack Dradey

19th century Britain can be characterised by the reign of Queen Victorian who reigned from 1837-1901

In this century we can see the rapid increase and evolution of technology leading to the industrial revolution. Plus, the expansion of the British Empire, shaping Britain into a global power. However, what many seem to neglect is that 19th century Britain can also be characterised by the fierce drag culture which was constantly evolving. In the 18th century we see drag culture leaving the theatres and forming into its own subculture and the same can be said for the 19th century, however, drag started to become a fully-fledged career for some individuals and started to put itself more prominently into the public eye. In my first article discussing drag culture in the 16th and 17th centuries we saw male actors portraying female roles which acted as the first form of drag that Britain saw. However, towards the end of the 17th century and start of the 18th century, women were permitted to perform in theatre shows. This meant that there was a lesser need for male actors to play female roles, thus ending a key part of drag culture in Britain. However, even though the theatre seemed no longer a place for drag queens, 19th century British theatre saw male impersonation. These were called ‘trouser roles’ or ‘breeches roles’. These roles would include women dressing up in male clothing and performing as men. These roles definitely defied gender norms of the 1800s. Male impersonation came with controversy, but the vast majority of audience members commended the actresses on their artistry and skill to convey to man. Similarly, to drag queens, the theatre was a key part in laying the foundation for Britain’s drag kings. However, there have been some discrepancies about whether or not ‘breeches roles’ were indicative of Britain’s drag queens. This is because these roles where male impersonation was needed was to act as a man in disguise and their identity would be revealed at a certain point in the play, similar to the role of Viola in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, these actresses may or may not identified as drag kings, but they were still defying gender norms and partaking in gender bending activities which are two major parts of drag culture. Male impersonation in plays, which contributed to the evolution of drag kings in Britain, sadly declined throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s as female and male clothing become less drastically different. However, it was still prominent in the burlesque scene. Burlesque could come in many forms; in this case it was musical theatre which was satirical and treated serious manners in a comedic way. Breeches roles were a perfect way to make the audience focus on the comedy and joy of the performance rather than the serious manner they were mocking.
Vesta, Stella and more: Revealing the iconic drag performers of 19th century Britain.
Queen Victoria

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Vesta, Stella and more: Revealing the iconic drag performers of 19th century Britain.
Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park

Now it’s time to talk about some of Britain’s most iconic drag performers of the 19th century.

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park are remembered to be some of the most famous drag queens of the Victorian Era. Park’s drag name was Fanny and Boulton’s drag name was Stella and they were known as a legendary duo called…I’m sure you’ve guessed it, Fanny and Stella. Boulton was known for dressing up as a child and having dreams of working in a theatre, a vision that his father disapproved of. Nevertheless, Boulton was still known to his friends as Stella. Similarly, to Boulton, Park also wore women’s attire throughout his life and his homosexual brother Harry referred to Park as Fan or Fanny which was a name that remained for Park either alone or with certain variations such as Fanny Winifred Park or Fanny Graham. As mentioned before in my previous article, in the late 18th century drag performers were making a social statement by wearing attire that was not assigned to their gender and the same can be said for 19th century drag performers, especially Fanny and Stella. Fanny and Stella would often go out in public dressed in drag and sometimes get mistaken for women. From observing photographs of the double act, you can see that they have really mastered the art of female impersonation. However, this was not the only gender bending activities they performed. Even when Boulton and Park were out of drag and living their day to day life presenting male, they would wear very tight trousers, unbuttoned shirt at the collar and wear makeup. Whilst Boulton and Park was experimenting with their male attire as a form of gender expression whilst making it more bright and less boring, members of the public were outraged. Historian Laurence Senelick argues that altering the stereotypical male attire was ‘more disturbing and offensive to passers-by than their drag’. This can tell us a lot about Victorian views surrounding flamboyancy and gender norms. The reason why this would be more offensive to passers-by was because it was a direct attack on what it meant to be masculine. Also, it shows signs of change within society and traditionalists that would condemn Boulton and Park’s actions would be afraid of change. However, Boulton and Park’s choice to enter the public eye as Fanny and Stella soon led to consequences as in 1870, they were arrested for buggery and attempting to induce men for the same crime. This got a lot of media coverage at the time with big name newspapers such as The Times reporting on the trial. There were also penny pamphlets produced which commented on the trial. The media coverage was mostly derogatory and contained many homophobic and anti-drag language. The penny pamphlets in particular altered the images used to portray Fanny and Stella making them look grotesque, Morris Kaplan notes that these pamphlets contained ‘ritual condemnation’ for Boulton and Park’s acts.
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Another memorable drag performer from the Victorian era is the ravishing drag king Vesta Tilley

Another memorable drag performer from the Victorian era is the ravishing drag king Vesta Tilley, whose name out of drag was Matilda Alice Powles. Her career spanned the late 19th century and early 20th century. It has been argued that by the end of the century Tilley was one of the highest earning women in Britain, as she toured the country performing normally as dandy or a character whose main priority is their appearance. Powles was unknowingly exposed to drag from an early age whereby by the age of six she was performing male roles in theatres. An element of Powles story which I think is quite heart-warming is that Powles was encouraged by her father to take up these roles. A family who supported male or female impersonation was hard to come by in the Victorian era as it defied gender norms, this can be see with Boulton and Park’s family where both of their fathers tried to get their sons jobs in finance or law, which was a male dominated field of work. Nevertheless, Tilley’s success grew as her career went on, and with this came the opportunity to increase fees for her performances and she became her family’s main provider. Drag performers such as Vesta Tilley are great examples in illustrating that drag was a substantial career and a career you a can live off, a view that is still debated today. Another example of this is another iconic drag king, Bessie Bonehill. Bonehill was not just a national hit, she was known globally as she toured the United States in the 1890s. She has been credited for her art and with this she was one of the wealthiest entertainers of her day. We can observe that drag culture in 19th century Britain was becoming more and more popular and became a sturdy job for some. The lives of Fanny and Stella shows that drag was starting to become more outrageous in the best way possible. What differs 19th century drag culture to 18th century drag culture is that more and more drag performers were putting themselves in the public eye and wearing their drag couture out of a private setting. Unlike the 18th century drag scene where drag, for most of the century, was confined to private areas such as Molly Houses. The ridicule of drag performers, sadly stayed the same with media outlets using disgusting language to describe these gender bending artists. We can also see a fast increase of the amount of drag kings and male impersonators. I would argue that the iconic drag kings of the Victorian period, such as Vesta Tilley and Bessie Bonehill, show that you can make a living off drag. Drag culture constantly evolved and you’ll be able to see that in my next article where I discus (you’ve guessed it) drag culture in the 20th century.
Vesta, Stella and more: Revealing the iconic drag performers of 19th century Britain.
Vesta Tilley
Vesta, Stella and more: Revealing the iconic drag performers of 19th 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.
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