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Letters on Cross Dressing.

Peter Farrer Writer.

Writer and Publisher. Karn Publications, Garston
Gendys Conference, 1996

 

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Introduction.

I am going to begin by explaining how I discovered the various newspapers and periodicals which contain correspondence on cross dressing. I shall then describe some of the different types of situation in which boys or men wore female clothes, giving one example of each type. Finally I shall say something about where I have got up to and what remains to be done.
 

Discovery.

There were four main stages in my discovery of these papers. The first stage was when I came across Doris Langley Moore's The Woman in Fashion published in August 1949. In that book she described the correspondence columns of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in these terms:

"Male correspondents constantly wrote voluminous letters to this highly feminine magazine, and their favourite topics were tight-lacing, high heels, the use of spurs by lady riders, and the whipping of children - particularly young girls. . . . Many of the men confessed to wearing corsets themselves and experiencing 'most pleasurable sensations in being laced tight.' Robin Adair went to the trouble of having 'fashionable ladies' boots with high heels made for his own feet so that he could feel what it was like to wear them. . . . Witnesses of this type, spending their leisure gloating over these unmanly topics in a ladies' paper, are surely not to be relied on when they tell us of the sixteen- or even fourteen-inch waists achieved by their sisters and nieces . . . "(pp. 17-8)

When I first read those words 49 years ago I was browsing in Smiths' bookshop in Oxford, so I went straight to the Bodleian to read the original letters myself.

The E. D. M. is of course famous for letters on corporal punishment, especially of girls. I learnt that other magazines contained such correspondence, in particular, Town Talk, The Family Doctor and Society. The next step was to see whether the latter three periodicals, in their turn, contained letters about corsets, and more precisely about corsets for men. This proved to be the case, and, in fact, some of these correspondents wore the complete garb, not just corsets.

The third stage was to follow up certain references in volume 7 of Havelock Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex of 1928, in the section dealing with what he called "Eonism." One of his cases, "D.S.", reported:

"One evening at the tea table my sister read from a periodical called MODERN SOCIETY about a young man dressed as a girl. I at once went rigid with excitement, and I am sure turned pale. Until then I had thought I was unique in my thoughts. Later I had the paper to myself, and, enjoying tremendous excitement, read a page or two of readers' correspondence on 'effeminate men.' My excitement was so great I had sexual sensations almost involuntarily. From that time my inner desire was to live as a girl. No thought of love or affection entered my head. If I had had a supply of lingerie, corsets, and high-heeled footwear I would have been happy. By the time I was fourteen I had got hold of another periodical, PHOTO BITS, which devoted itself almost entirely to encouraging this trait and the pleasures of birching. The latter never made the slightest appeal to me." (1936 edition: vol. III, pt. ii, p. 54)

That man's revelations about his private reading matter introduced me to the fascinating and hitherto unexplored periodicals Modern Society and Photo Bits. Both are mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses, which shows that Joyce was aware of them as a contemporary reader.

The final stage was to investigate the possibility of there being other periodicals of this type, described in the current Press Directories as comic papers. In this way I discovered the paper known successively as Photo Fun, New Photo Fun, New Fun, Funand Bits of Fun.

Types of Situation.

I have chosen eight types of situation in which to place quotations from the letters:

  • The Continuation of the Petticoats of Childhood;
  • The Resumption of Petticoats by an older boy;
  • Girls' Clothes as Punishment;
  • The School Play;
  • Experiments with Women's Clothes;
  • Making a Pretty Boy;
  • Masquerade;
  • Under Petticoat Rule.

I shall now read out some extracts from the letters, just mentioning the type of situation and the year of the letter.

1) The Continuation of Petticoats:

Costume historians have not yet fully appreciated that in the 19th century some boys were not breeched until much later than the usual age of five or six.

In criticizing the idea that boys should be dressed as girls Alec A. Northwick wrote this in 1909: "Speaking from experience, I can only say that I consider corseting or petticoating boys, apart from its palpable unreasonableness, a grave danger. I am a victim of parental vanity in that direction, having been dressed as a girl until I reached the age of fourteen, and well can I remember the reluctance and regret with which I gave it up or rather was forced to give it up."
(MS 11.12.1909, BP 66)

2) The Resumption of Petticoats.

Some boys were put back into petticoats after an earlier breeching (1890).

". . . I was early left an orphan, and up to my fifteenth year lived with an uncle who then decided to go out to Australia, and consequently I was transferred to the care of my mother's youngest sister, a young lady of about twenty-five, living in the South of France. Although I was nearly fifteen when I went to live with her, I was small for my age and being fair and girlish-looking would more readily have passed or twelve or thirteen than my right age, and I was, I must admit, a rough, untidy boy.

"The second day after my arrival, in the middle of the summer, my aunt called me into her room and said she had decided to alter the style of my dress (I wore a knickerbocker suit), and handing me a blue serge sailor dress and a pair of richly-trimmed closed linen drawers, told me to go up to my room and put them on instead of my cloth jacket and knickerbockers. I was so astonished that I could only stammer out something about not wishing to be dressed like a girl, when my aunt took out of a drawer a very thin gutta-percha ladies' riding whip, and said she would be sorry to have to use it, but that she should if I did not obey her at once. Terrified at the sight of the whip, I went up to my room and made the required change, and I found that the skirt just hid the lace on the drawers, but that every movement displayed more or less of them. The same afternoon my aunt told me she was going to give me a lesson in deportment, and, ringing the bell told her maid to fetch my corset. In a few minutes Mary brought in a stout corset, and into this I was tightly laced by the two after, I should think, at least a quarter of an hour's work. The feeling at first was dreadful, but I was made to walk up and down the room holding myself perfectly erect, and getting a smart cut across my calves with the whip every time I slouched in the least. After an hour's drilling I had to put on a pair of my aunt's white kid gloves, and was told if I soiled them I should have some cuts with the whip over my palms. . . " (S27.9.1890, RSL 80)

3) Girls' Clothes as Punishment.

This is a classic Victorian punishment, referred to here as "taking sterner measures. MFC wrote in 1900. "Perhaps my experience of corset discipline may be of value to the readers of your interesting paper. When I was thirteen years old, I was left in the care of a maiden aunt. Though I was a slim, good-looking boy, of rather effeminate appearance, I had been at a rough boarding school, and had become ill-mannered, noisy and wild. I was never tidy, and always getting into some scrape or other. My aunt was at first very lenient to me, but I became so troublesome that she resolved to take sterner measures. She consulted with a friend, and went out for a long afternoon's shopping.
The next morning she came into my room, and told me I was to wear girl's underclothing beneath my knickerbockers and jacket. Accordingly, in spite of my protests, I was forthwith initiated into the mysteries of dainty lace lingerie, which I confess, felt very soft and comfortable. I was then very tightly laced into a pair of well-cut, firmly-boned stays. These produced a strange feeling of restraint, compression and support, which I afterwards grew to like. When I looked at myself in the glass, I could hardly recognise my straight, shapely figure, and pretty, rounded girlish waist. I also had to wear openwork silk hosiery, and force my feet into smart patent leather shoes, with high heels and pointed toes.
Of course, dressed like this, I could no longer romp or run wild, and at first I constantly rebelled. I soon thought better of it, however, as my aunt instantly punished any outbreak by making me wear a pair of shoes I could only just squeeze on, with the most extravagantly-high heels, and by lacing me relentlessly into a pair of 16-inch corsets, which caused me considerable pain.
I soon learnt to behave myself, and in a few weeks began quite to like the sensation of wearing stays, and to look forward to putting on the new and smaller pair with which my aunt provided me every two months. I found it advisable to keep my stays on at night, and then I did not have to do so much pulling-in in the morning, and at the end of a year, a fashionable French girl, with an up-to-date maid, would have envied my perfect figure and waist, which was never allowed to exceed seventeen inches, night or day. I was disciplined in this way until I was nearly sixteen, with the most beneficial result to my character and manners, and my health was excellent the whole time. . . . "

(S 3.2.1900, RSL 117-8)

The editor added this revealing, and to us amusing, comment. It provides some evidence that he had actually received the letter, and suggests that the experience described was not uncommon:

"This is one of many other letters which I have received of a similar nature. The writer seems to be as unmanly and effeminate as his aunt is idiotic. What a pity it is there is no conscription, if only to get MFC sent to the front to do a little healthy fighting."

4) The School Play.

This boy's mother saw to it that he was well trained for his performance in the school theatricals (1892): ". . . Perhaps it may interest some of your readers to know how I came to adopt it [the corset]. At the annual speech day of the school where I finished my education it was usual to give a scene from one of Moliere's plays, the parts being taken by the boys most proficient in the language, and in my last year my turn came to take a part, and being fair and slight I was selected to take a female part. My mother, on hearing of the part I was to take, insisted on my wearing girl's attire during the evenings for about a fortnight before in order to get accustomed to it, and I well remember the first evening, when, on my return from school, she took me to her room and made me change everything, lacing me up in a nice firmly-fitting corset, with petticoats and dress down to my ankles. After a few evenings the strangeness wore off, and I got quite to like it, and won considerable applause in the performance. . . . "
(FD 16.4.1892, MIP 15)

5) Experiments with Women's Clothes.

This youth was caught by his aunt trying on her clothes, but, to his surprise, she encouraged him in his experiments (1914): ". . . My passion for female attire commenced some sixteen years ago, when, as a lad of fourteen, I went to live with an aunt, and as I was mostly her sole companion, on special occasions I used to help her dress, and her dainty corsets and other attire so attracted me, that whenever I had the chance to be alone, I couldn't resist the desire to get into them myself. After doing this some time quite secretly, my aunt one day came home unexpectedly and found me playing my violin and dressed in almost complete female attire. To my surprise, she was quite pleased with me, and as it was wet weather and a bank holiday, she persuaded me to wear the clothes all day, and after dinner she changed her corsets for her best and smallest pair and I was dressed in a quite complete outfit, finishing with a pretty evening frock and a dainty little Swiss apron and high-heeled shoes. I shall never forget the sensation; it was simply superb. After that I very often had a full evening with my aunt in her attire, and on two or three occasions went for a little work out with her after dark. . . ." (NF 20.6.1914, CCI 69)

6) Making a Pretty Boy.

Even at the turn of the century it was not unusual to celebrate the breeching of a boy by having a "breeching party", which the boy would attend, first in skirts, then in his new breeches or trousers. The following situation is a sort of reverse or negative breeching, where the boy is converted back into skirts. It is stated that this was done "for the benefit of the ladies."

Surprisingly, the war did not interrupt this sort of thing (1915). "You remarked the other week that you thought the sexes were turning round. I thoroughly agree with you. I detest to see effeminate men. My husband is a big strong man, and I have a boy fighting in France. Only the other day a friend took me out for tea, and I was disgusted to see that my hostess's son, a boy of fourteen or fifteen, was dressed entirely in girls' clothes except a skirt. He had a very girlish face, and was very tightly laced in corsets; his lace-collared jacket, which was of velvet, was buckled in at his waist with a black patent leather belt; his velvet breeches were extra tight, and came to about five inches above his knees. This exposed his black silk openwork stockings, which were evidently very tight. He also wore a pair of black kid boots reaching to his knees. The toes were very narrow and pointed, and the heels four inches high. It was very obvious that the boots were laced up very tightly, and that the toes pinched him a great deal. The sleeves of his tight little jacket barely reached his elbows, and nearly up to his shoulders he was very tightly gloved in biscuit coloured gloves. To crown all, he was very heavily pencilled, painted and powdered. Several ladies present gushed over him, and his adoring mother proudly produced a tape in order that his admirers might measure his pinched in waist, which proved to be 16 inches. But this wasn't the end. After tea, for the benefit of the ladies, Harold was taken upstairs and dressed entirely as a girl. Everything was put on, but his skirt was left undone at the back. He was then brought downstairs, and I noticed that his corsets were loose and the laces hanging down. There was nothing for him to grasp, so one lady stood up, and he then clasped her round the waist. His mother then commenced to lace him in. She pulled him so tightly that he nearly fainted. The laces were eventually fastened, and his waist was measured and found to be 15 inches. I was then disgusted with such remarks as 'Doesn't he make a lovely girl?' 'His corsets squeeze him beautifully,' or 'Isn't his waist delightfully pinched in?' Needless to add that I was glad to go home. I believe in manly men and womanly women. . . " (NF 3.7.1915, CCI 118)

7) Masquerade.

For some the war did cut short their activities, perhaps fatally. This man, however, did not need conscription to get sent to the front and do some "healthy fighting" (1915). "I am just writing this to say good-bye to you. I have always enjoyed your 'Correspondence' page very much indeed. I have been home on four days' leave, and am tomorrow rejoining my regiment and very soon proceeding to France. I have always been very fond of dressing in girls' things, and I am indulging my desire for perhaps the last time. My cousin, who is exactly my own age, 22, and who lives with us, is leaning over me as I write. Without her I should not have had half such a good time as I have. She buys all my things for me. I am very lucky in being able to wear 6's in lady's shoes and 6 1/4 in gloves. I am completely dressed in girl's clothes as I write. I have a wig and a false bust, a white blouse, a purple skirt, very tight, purple silk stockings, and black patent leather Court shoes with fairly high heels.

"My corsets are laced in to 23 inches. I do not care for them to be too tight, but have my suspenders very tight, as I find the sensation most pleasing. I always wear a lace petticoat under even very tight skirts - of course not a full one, as I like the effect when one crosses one's legs or otherwise raises one's skirt. My cousin, whom I hope to marry, is very smart. As she stands before me now her waist is 20 inches, and her shoes have 4-inch heels. We often go out together dressed as we are now when my people are out or away, and have had many adventures together.

"However, I must close now. I hope you will print this letter. My cousin is going to send up my 'New Fun' every week, and I hope they will reach me. I hope to come safe back before very long, and when I do I will write again.
With best wishes to all readers,

Yours truly,
SUBALTERN"
(NF 21.11.1914, CCI 83)

8) Under Petticoat Rule.

In the Victorian age not all husbands retained their trousers in the privacy of the home, especially if you were a kept man (1894). "I cannot tell you how interested I was in the letter signed 'Ruled by the Lace' in your issue of August 11th. I think your correspondent will find he is by no means the only one of his sex who is compelled to don 'frills, flounces, and fal-lals, and French shoes with heels of preposterous height' not to mention the concomitant of eighteen-inch stays. May I give my experiences of the same, which, incredible though they may read, are absolutely true?

"I was married - now seven years ago - when I was only twenty-two, to a lady considerably my senior, but whose exquisitely slender waist and pretty stilted shoes engaged my fancy. I may add that she was extremely rich, and before settling on me the sum I now enjoy annually, she obliged me to sign a document making its payment dependent on my satisfying her in every respect in my manner of dress. This I willingly did, never dreaming what it would lead to.

"Almost immediately after our marriage my wife explained that, having been obliged to undergo a most complete course of tight-lacing herself, she was determined that her husband should do the same. Despite my attempts at ridicule, she insisted on my constantly wearing a pair of long-waisted satin corsets which she provided, and which she plainly took the keenest pleasure in lacing to the utmost tightness. After a few weeks I was obliged to don high-heeled shoes in the evening, and to make the story short, before long she compelled me to dress from head to foot in female dress every night, when we were in no expectation of receiving visits. And this is not all: not satisfied with obliging me to wear skirts and laces and frills in the evenings, she insists on my continuing my corsets, and chemise also, under my ordinary day garments; so that now for some years I have gone about laced as tightly as any professional beauty, while I have to spend my evenings in an avalanche of lace skirts, the most extravagantly high-heeled and pointed shoes, and corsets so tiny that even to sit down is almost an impossibility.

"And no remonstrance of mine regarding the effeminacy or unmanliness of my array is of any avail, as my imperious wife seems to delight in nothing more than the idea that she has forced one of the 'ugly' sex to conform to the dainty restraint of corsets, heels, and petticoats, which every pretty woman soon learns causes the helplessness that proves in the end to be her strength.

"For similar reasons to those of 'Ruled by the Lace' I venture to hope for publication of this letter, although I have not enclosed a card. SATIN STAYS"
(S 18.8.1894, MIP 33)

Conclusion - Future Progress.

I will now say something about the present state of play. I have completed collections of letters up to the end of 1920. There remain three newspapers which catered for the general public as well as publishing letters about clothes and punishment of what I may call a cryptic-erotic nature. These are London Life, The Sunday Chronicle and the Canadian Justice Weekly. The correspondence columns of L.L. start in 1923 and continue without a break until October 1941, when I think there must have been a change of owner. There was a sudden burst of interest in cross dressing in the Sunday Chronicle in 1927. I have made a selection of the letters up to 1933, but thereafter many of the letters are of doubtful validity particularly those signed "Modiste" from 14 October 1939, i.e. during the war, who claimed to be a children's dressmaker with two models, a boy and a girl, who modelled clothes for either sex.

Justice Weekly is perhaps the most bizarre of all these newspapers or periodicals. It was started in Toronto by an ex-serviceman, Philip Daniels, on 5 January 1946, and he continued it until 15 April 1972, when I believe he died. The main theme was crime and punishment, so he published news of crime, especially sexual crime, but he also gave space to financial, mining and racing news. He ran a problem page and printed readers' letters from the first. Here the essential subjects were corporal punishment of all kinds, and the male in female attire for any reason. The trouble is that many of the letters are obvious fantasy.

"Petticoated Billy" of 26 May 1956, for example, aged 19, who at the age of twenty becomes the twelve-year old girl, "Betty," is one of the most extreme. So I end with this question: are such letters worth reproducing?

Abbreviations:

  • BP Borrowed Plumes.
  • CCI Confidential Correspondence 1911-1915.
  • FD The Family Doctor.
  • MIP Men in Petticoats
  • MS Modern Society
  • NF New Fun.
  • RSL The Regime of the Stay-Lace.
  • S Society

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Citation: Farrar, P., (1998), Letters on Cross Dressing. GENDYS '98, The Fifth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
 
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 09.03.02