Cross-dressing has played a vital role in both the literary modernist period as well as the Elizabethan Era. The act of cross-dressing seemed to mean different things to both the sexes. To women, cross-dressing was considered to be a way of rebelling against the social norms of the time and also an exploration into one’s sexuality.
In Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando, she explores the idea of cross-dressing and what the act of cross-dressing means to men and to women. Orlando, a character crafted by Virginia Woolf, one night, went to his bed as a man but woke up the next day with the body of woman. He feels no actual difference in himself other than his physical change into a woman, so, he continues in his male attire. He is a timeless character that changes himself to fit into the century he lives in. Throughout his journey from the 16th to the 19th century, Orlando learns the many things of love, art, poetry and also both how he is treated as a man and as a woman. He starts out as a young man in the 16th century, dressing in the rich apparel of the time, serving the Queen as her courtier.
Tilda Swinton in the movie adaptation of the book
But by the 19th century, Orlando who is now a ‘she’, adorns herself in feminine clothing, not because she wants to suit the time but because she feels that ‘she’ is at her best self.
Virginia Woolf forces her audience to see through the character of Orlando, that ones’ gender and sexual orientation are not merely biological but mainly societal. Orlando, even after his sex-change, keeps switching between the apparel of a man and that of a woman, according to what he/she wants to experience at the time – either the dominance and privilege that comes from being a man or the lack of responsibility or the sexual experience that comes from being a woman. Even after Orlando later identifies as a woman, she still secretly longs for the freedom and privilege she had as a man. Woolf here suggests that underneath all the clothing, be it man or woman, both sexes are more or less the same and it is society that forces rigid gender roles on both.
On seeing the rigidity behind the gender roles during the Victorian Era, cross-dressing was a way of escaping from the responsibilities or expectations that came along with a person’s sex. In the Elizabethan Era too, cross-dressing was quite prominent in the theatre, particularly of men dressing up as women because women were not allowed to take part in plays. But when it came to cross-dressing on the streets it was considered to be quite scandalous and against the popular Christian values.
Women often cross-dressed in order to take advantage of the privilege the male gender had in almost all aspects of life. In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the characters Portia and Nerissa knowing that women weren’t allowed in a court of law during that time, dressed as men just so that they could attend the trial. Portia, in the end, saves the life Antonio but had to do it as a man. She got credit for the enterprising act of finding loopholes in the bond to save Antonio but would only be appreciated for it as a man.
But cross-dressing was considered humiliating for men and for women, was an abomination to ‘God’s divine design’. When women cross-dressed, it seemed to be as an act of rebellion against to the social norms of the time but those women were always accused of prostitution. This was also another way to keep in the norm of male dominance and superiority over women.
So, when looking at the evidence in a few literary works, we see that cross-dressing is a revolt against the standards of gender roles in both the Elizabethan and Victorian Era, particularly for women. But as for men, it seemed like they didn’t have the need to dress-up like women because they already had many privileges offered to their own gender.