Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #103b Sears 2015 - Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Ch 1)

Full citation: 

Sears, Clare. 2015. Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5758-2

Publication summary: 

A study of the intersections of gender and race.

Chapter 1: Instant and Peculiar

Sears' book is an excellent example of how the details of actual history can provide vast amounts of inspiration for fictional exploration. The image we have of the "wild west" and of the California Gold Rush is largely the product of popular media, and tends to elide some of the more interesting details, especially for marginalized people. One aspect that is regularly distorted is the rapid pace of social change. The Gold Rush, as such, lasted only two years. Similarly, I believe I've read that the era that most accurately corresponds to the "wild west" lasted at most a decade. Thus, a novel about a particular character in this historic setting could easily encompass both the initial anarchy of the Barbary Coast and the "morality campaigns" that sought to establish a model of white middle-class propriety in its place.

A great example of how this era can inspire fiction is Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory, for all that it's set in a fictionalized steam-punk mash-up of several Gold Rush era cities (and partakes much more of Seattle than San Francisco).

* * *

This chapter lays out the historic and cultural background of cross-gender behavior in mid-19th century California, and in San Francisco in particular. The demographic effects of the Gold Rush, with its sudden and overwhelming immigration of miners (primarily male) is the most obvious, but this came hard on the heels of the forcible transfer of California from Mexico to the United States, with resulting upheavals in the balance of power between various racial, economic, and religious groups.

The image of the Gold Rush as producing a nearly all-male population erases the continuing presence of Native and Mexican populations, but this erasure is not simply a phenomenon of modern myth-making but was part of the dynamic at the time. To a large extent, non-white women were defined out of the social category of “woman” for the now dominant population of European-American men (dominant both numerically and politically). “Woman” came to mean “the sort of woman you might marry”. The shift in land-ownership law after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was relevant here, as ownership by the established Mexican families became more tenuous. Previously, white men might marry into those families as a means of gaining property and political status.

In this gender-imbalanced Gold Rush context, cross-gender performances by white men functioned to enable and enforce binary gender norms, rather than necessarily being a sign of a loosening of gender categories. Men participating in the Gold Rush were introduced to these cross-gender performances as early as the voyage out to California, where ship-board dances followed the custom prevalent in gold towns (and elsewhere in the West) of some men taking temporary female roles, signified either by some simple visual token or sometimes by more extensive cross-dressing. Curiously enough, another common category of cross-dressing was done by prostitutes who wore male clothing to advertise their profession.

While looming large in myth, the initial social chaos of the Gold Rush lasted only a couple of years. By the time it was fading, San Francisco had become a major international port. The presence of women (that is, of women considered to “count”) went from 2% in 1849 to 15% in 1852, but for some years after this imbalance was perceived as a key “peculiarity” of the region. The social forces that eventually created anti-cross-dressing laws saw an increase in European-American women as essential to “civilizing” San Francisco. Woven all through this was the interaction of gender and ethnicity in the creation and perception of social and legal categories. With the rising influence and power of a white mercantile elite (replacing the previous Mexican agricultural elite), the law was a major tool in shaping expectations in the public sphere that reinforced and created social norms.

The chaos of the Gold Rush had allowed for more fluidity and experimentation in regard to the alignment of sex, gender, and sexuality (though, as noted above, also shaped by the colonial history of the region). All-male (or primarily-male) dances held in gold camps used arbitrary dress signifiers to assign a temporary female role for that social context. The sign might be as simple as a patch or a handkerchief tied about the arm. But the tradition could also entail a more complete female masquerade, especially in San Francisco dance halls, which sometimes included all-male cross-dressed entertainment staff. Masked balls attracted cross-dressing attendees of both sexes and were a venue where cross-dressing could be used as advertisement for commercial sex transactions.

The racial aspects of these gender performances are not only seen in the exclusion of Native women from European-American social rituals such as dances, but also in the ways that cross-gender performances operated in tandem with cross-racial performances (blackface/minstrel show) in entertainment venues. These entertainment venues also included a “freak show” aspect, not only in the cross-dressing and cross-racial aspects, but in the display of exoticized foreigners. A group of shipwrecked Japanese sailors were encouraged to attend one of the masked balls in “native dress” and found themselves put on display as part of the entertainment.

Even after the rise of anti-cross-dressing laws, many of these homosocial cross-gender activities (such as all-male dances) became part of the celebrated traditions of California, but in contexts where they could be framed as a performance distinct from everyday public life.

Although the primary focus of Gold Rush era cross-dressing is on men in women’s dress, the women who came with the Gold Rush and subsequent continuing immigration participated in the un-gendering of social and labor roles. The traditionally “female” roles of domestic labor had necessarily broken down and, although there was clearly anxiety about it, men regularly took both personal and commercial roles involving cooking, cleaning, and domestic service that would have been unthinkable back east. Women, in turn, regularly participated in “male” activities such as mining, sometimes passing entirely for men, sometimes openly wearing male clothing for practical purposes. Famous examples such as stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst are only the visible face of a larger phenomenon.

Some women wore male clothing temporarily or for particular activities, with no attempt to conceal their sex. Women in male or male-coded clothing were common in San Francisco but with a variety of motivations. These included dress reformers (e.g., Bloomer movement) or prostitutes using the clothing as advertising as a way to differentiate themselves from “proper ladies”. Objections to trouser-wearing by women included the claim that it was too similar to Chinese women’s styles, thus transgressing not only gender but racial categories.

Although geographical proximity meant that some of the earliest Gold Rush arrivals were Mexican, Chilean, and Chinese, the larger wave of European-American immigrants felt that the recent Californian political changes gave them a special claim to ownership of the land and its economic opportunities. Political leverage was soon used to disadvantage non-white miners via special taxes and legislation. Chinese immigrants, in addition to being pressured out of the prime economic opportunities, were pressured into “female” economic roles (domestic service and other service industry jobs) and there was a regular systemic “feminization” of the image of Chinese men, both in text and in visual caricatures. This was part of a system of using gendered race to construct racially categorized labor, but operated alongside the shifting of normative gender categories to exclude entire racial groups. Thus, at the same time that Chinese men were feminized, non-white women were being excluded from the category of “women” entirely.

Overall, there is a sense that the Gold Rush era was far from being an “anything goes” context in terms of dress and gender roles, but cross-dressing was common among both sexes for a variety of specific purposes and there was little legal interference at that time.

Time period: 
Event / person: 

Add new comment