Saturday, 13 April 2013

Burlington Bertie and Friends

Julie Andrews did it, Marlene Dietrich did it, even Barbara Streisand did it, so let’s do it, let’s dress like men… 

Call it experimentation, call it transgenderism, call it transvestisism, it can even be music hall act, women have been dressing as men since Egyptian times, perhaps even before. Maybe Mrs.Ugg tried on Mr.Ugg's fur and paraded round the cave, swinging a club and pretending to hunt. Women dress this way for many   reasons, some to fulfil a sexual desire, some to promote their sexuality, some even to fight and some simply for old fashioned entertainment, and during the 20th Century, when medical science was advancing at a rate of knots, for some dressing as men was just the first step.

As the 1900's ended and the 20th century was born, the music hall male impersonator was king - or queen - of the show. Male audience members respected them, and women saw them as a symbol of independence. Acts like Vesta Tilley, whose dedicated portrayal of dandies and fops such as her character 'Burlington Bertie', were the talk of the town. Her characterisation was so impeccable that she actually became a fashion icon for men.  Her response to this admiration - and to protect herself from criticism - was to swathe herself  in furs and decadent jewellery, which would be used assert her femininity when she was off stage, a little like a male drag act swigging pints and growing a beard between acts. Sadly by the end of the 20’s the art of the male impersonator had all but disappeared, and Tilley settled down with her M.P. husband and continued her life, dressing solely as a woman until she died aged 88. Her last performance as a man was in 1920, aged 56.

Vesta Tilley, like most documented cases of music hall male impersonators, was a heterosexual woman who entertained in ‘drag’. Their sexual leanings were never examined; proof of their heterosexuality was that they had a husband and offspring, but as we now know, this doesn't prove squat.

One morning in 1923, Surrey-born Valerie Baker left her home and her husband to start a new, and very different life. Armed with a full new wardrobe of suits, shirts, ties and collars, she - along with Elfrida Haward - checked into the Grand Hotel in Brighton as Sir Victor Barker Bart DSO and fiancĂ©e.  The two ‘married’ in 1932 and enjoyed an affluent life of good food, clothes and entertainment, until inevitably this new life was to catch up with them and Victor was arrested for bankruptcy. Held in a jail and forced to strip, he knew the game was up and his true gender was disclosed. He was eventually convicted of “knowingly and wilfully causing a false statement to be entered into a register of marriage”, and imprisoned in a women's jail. 

Sadly after this his life span out of control. He suffered from depression, was arrested for petty theft, took menial jobs, even appeared as a half-man, half-woman in a side show, but he never became Valerie again, and finally after a sad lonely existence he died aged 65, calling himself Geoffrey Norton, and was buried in an unmarked grave at his own request.

But not everyone was discovered and not everyone had it all bad. Undoubtedly the most famous half-man, half-woman circus sideshow act has to be the legendary Josephine Joseph. Cast in Tod Browning's classic 1932 film ‘Freaks’, she made her name by appearing as a human marvel, one side woman, the other man. Although she (or he) always claimed to be a hermaphrodite, the wide belief is that she was indeed a woman, as most of these attractions were. Their unusual physical appearance was achieved by shaving and tanning, but most effectively by toning up one side of the body, leaving the other side flabby, thus giving the appearance of fuller breasts and a more 'womanly silhouette'. It was a dedicated process, one that Josephine Joseph kept up her whole life, but it was an effective one,  and it is as a result of this dedication that - to this day - her true gender is still questioned.

During wartime many courageous women disguised themselves as men to fight for their country. Notably English war correspondent, Dorothy Lawrence, who bound her chest, dyed her skin with furniture polish and - with the help of some English and Scottish soldiers - became Private Denis Smith and fought alongside the chaps in World War 1. Wow... what a gal!

And then there is the incredible story of American Jazz musician Billy Tipton. This icon of the jazz scene was actually born Dorothy Lucille. Tipton would bind her breasts and appear as her alter ego ‘Billy’, but by 1940 she was living permanently as a man.

To cover his tracks and protect his 'lie', Tipton invented a story of a serious car accident that had damaged and disfigured his genitals, and said that he had to protect his bruised ribs by binding them thus allowing him to constrict and cover his breasts. He had many ‘heterosexual’ romances, eventually settling down with a nightclub dancer by the name of Kitty Kelly. The couple were very happy and, although never marrying, they adopted three sons and became the epitome of the model family. Involved with their local scouts and PTA, the pair lived a seemingly perfect life, until things went sour that is and in 1970 they parted ways. Tipton moved into a caravan, living in near poverty with a female former lover and his three sons.

It was only on his deathbed that anyone, most notably Kitty and his kids, discovered Billy's true gender. Kitty tried to keep the secret out of the papers and arranged for the body to be cremated, unluckily one of his sons - although dedicated and loving - was not so shy and went public with his father’s true identity causing a public outcry. 

So it is that sadly this great man, who entertained thousands during his career, is not remembered for his musical talent, his song writing or his piano playing, but for his choice of attire and what was in his trousers.

Amazingly in 1945, long before the first successful male to female transition, the first female to male sex change was performed over a period of 4 years, on a young aristocrat named Laura Maud Dillon. Although it was never disclosed how convincing the physical change was, Laura - who later went by the name of Michael - never had sexual relationships with women after his operations as he was too scared of being exposed, even going as far as to develope a misogynistic personality to keep the women away. "One must not lead a girl on if one could not give her children," he was quoted as saying.

So there we have it; a brief history of girls who like to dress as men for the thrill, for the fun, for compulsion or just because their brain is wired that way. Whatever the reason, these woman were brave, they broke down barriers and sometimes managed to fool the world, which just goes to show how narrow the gap between men and women is. A gap that is - on average - about 3 and a half inches... apparently... 


  1. What a wonderful essay. I've just stumbled upon this by accident, please write more. Your writing style's unique and filled with wit. I'll be tuning in and sharing this forthwith!
    Chorlton Wheelie

  2. Recent research into Josephine at my blog: