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.