Significance of the Attire of Men and Women in the 18th Century
The attire of men and women in the eighteenth century cemented the roles they were supposed to play. The style of made dress belied his nature as somewhat more free from restrictions whereas the woman, bound by corsets and strict dress-codes found herself held back in clothing as in society. A sphere of influence, behavior and conduct was assigned to both sexes; each was valued for different qualities. These gender distinctions do not allow any overlap between the two sexes. (Marsden, 21) In light of this, society viewed cross-dressing (the practice of one gender dressing themselves in the attire of the other) as a threat to its own structure. For a woman to forsake the clothes and character of women for that of men sounded monstrous. Such a practice would create sexual ambiguity - a woman would assume the clothes of a man and thus the manner and actions of a man, yet her physical nature denied her that right. Cross-dressing creates monstrations - a woman ceases to be a woman after she has assumed male garb and can never hope to be a man.
An aversion to cross-dressing has its roots in the Bible: "The women shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God" (qtd. in Garber, 28). On August 13, 1597 Queen Elizabeth announced a sumptuary (dealing with attire) proclamation which defined the "separate categories for men's and women's apparel: each took the form of a long list of proscribed items of dress with an indication of who alone was permitted to wear them" (Garber, 26). This law sought to prohibit the rise in classes that was transpiring - ambitious individuals began to dress as finely as the upper class. Later on, this proclamation would be sighted in cases of dressing 'above' one's gender.
The theater had accepted male cross-dressing from Shakespeare's time as necessary. The sight of 'boys' (term used to describe the men who played the women's part) incited the wrath of Puritans and thus, women were allowed into theater. (Garber, 29) Few women were actually caught disguised in men's clothing. However, if caught in such an uncompromising situation without a valid excuse (types of excuses eighteenth century society deemed valid are included further down the page), women would expect severe punishments. In cases where women dressed in male attire for acting (as in the case of an actress playing the part of Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It or Viola in his Twelfth Night), for attaining the love of her husband, or for her country (as a soldier to go to war), society forgave the act, Several female saints of the Middle Ages poised as men, including St. Joan, St. Anna, St. Wilgefortis. (Garber, 213-214) St. Joan was put to trial by the Inquisition for her cross-dressing. If caught in men's clothing, the authorities "blinded [the women] in the pillory, displayed...