Sigmund Freud stated, in 1933, 'When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is "male or female", and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty.' My dissertation, completed at part of my BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History at the University of Brighton, explored the role played by clothing in the construction of a visible masculine identity by some lesbian women in the early twentieth century; that is, those who made the distinction before male and female hesitatingly uncertain.
The most effective way to manipulate gender is through clothing, which as dress historian Valerie Steele noted, in 1989, has historically served to separate men and women. The potential to subvert and transgress heteronormative gender codes through the masculinised styles adopted by lesbian women such as author, Radclyffe Hall and artist, Hannah 'Gluck' Gluckstein was a key part of my critical analysis.
When reading Hall's semi-autobiographical 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, it struck me how the cross-dressing protagonist 'Stephen' was deeply dependent on her financial security. Hall describes Stephen's discomfort at the stares her cross-dressing causes while she is shopping in London's West End, but notes that Stephen reaches into her pocket for the comforting feel of her chequebook. I wanted to explore what it was like for women identifying as what was then known as 'invert' or 'third sex' to explore their masculinity when they didn't have the luxury of a comforting chequebook or a substantial private income which would allow them to live freely on the margins of society.
My dissertation employed the case study of Vera 'Jack' Holme to confront these issues. Holme, daughter to a timber merchant, was born in Lancashire in 1881. As a young woman, she began performing with touring acting companies, most often as a male impersonator, and in 1908 joined the Women's Social & Political Union as Britain's first female chauffeur. Holme regularly alternated between masculine and feminine dress, depending upon the social situation, demonstrating a conscious negotiation of her surroundings.
Through archival research into garments, letters and photographs held in the Women's Library, my dissertation considered Holme's social and economic standing in order explore the contrast in social and financial freedom between wealthy masculine lesbians and less-privileged masculine lesbian women such as Holme. I argued that Holme used liminal spaces such as the stage, foreign travel and uniformed roles in order to engage with her masculinity free from the disapproval of conservative society. In exploring why 'boyish' fashions or cross-dressing during the early decades of the twentieth century was so shocking to conservative society, I argued that cultural anxieties following post-war disparities of the sexes contributed to the panic aroused by female masculinity. The majority of lesbian dress historiography is focused on an elite group of wealthy and upper class women whose financial independence allowed them to live freely on the margins of society. I believe my research into the Holme archive is of importance to lesbian dress studies as it offers a unique insight into the implications of a woman displaying a masculine identity from a less socially and economically-privileged background. I therefore intend to continue my research into this under-researched field during my MA History of Design and Material Culture at the University of Brighton over the next two years.