Tag Archives: female impersonator

The Scotsman and the Lady of Doubtful Propriety: 1870

Francis Leon,  Harvard Theatre Collection



Some months ago, in Melbourne, when the noonday sun was at its height and the main thoroughfare of the city, Bourke street, thronged with its usual crowd of sight-seers, business people, and members of tho “upper ten doing the block,” no little sensation was created by the appearance of a more than ordinarily showily dressed lady, chignoned and panniered in the latest fashion, who threaded the busy and wondering crowd and disappeared through the portals of a well-known photographer’s doorway not a hundred miles from the gateway of the Theatre Royal. Arrived in the studio the lady’s portrait was taken, apparently satisfactorily, for she retired to an inner room, which was furnished among other surroundings, with articles of the toilet, provided for the convenience of “gentlemen only” awaiting a sitting. Seated in the further corner of the room, patiently biding his time, was an elderly gentleman of Scottish extraction, prim, sedate, adamantine of feature and sparing of speech. The lady of fashion, with but a passing glance at the staid old person, took her position opposite the cheval glass, and after an admiring gaze at the face reflected therein, proceeded to divest herself of the head appendage, yclept in the 19th century a bonnet, “Eh, but its a braw lassie, and a vera fine head o’ hair too!” said the Scot, surveying the flaxen ringlets and tail which reached far below the waist of the lady in question.

“‘Tis a braw lassie,” he repeated to himself with a chuckle, evidently enjoying his contemplation of the fair belle before him. But his delight gave way to surprise as he perceived the lady deliberately proceed to unbutton her dress, and shaking its folds from her, step forth from them to the centre of the room. The old gentleman was bewildered and highly distressed. He was a decent modest man, with a wife and “bairns at hame,” and here he found himself in the presence of a lady evidently of doubtful propriety. Coughing, sneezing, and loudly blowing his nose for the purpose of calling the attention of the damsel to the fact of his being in the room, only convinced him that she was already aware of that fact, for casting a slight glance over her left shoulder, she threw him a look which he at once interpreted as seductive and bold to a degree. Still further was the old man astonished when the fair creature proceeded to unhook and cast aside her (it must he said) stays, and audible mutterings arose from him. “Eh, but it’s right down immodest, it should na be allowed in a Christian country; it’s dreadfu immoral and I’ll no stay to see it.” Thus determined, the indignant and terrified Scot rose with the intention of leaving the room, but easier said than done, the flaxen-haired beauty had possession, and turning full round, she, to the intense horror of the immaculate man, proceeded to disencumber her legs of her—but this was too much: human nature in the shape of a virtuous and indignant Scotchman could stand no more, so with a smothered “Heaven a mercy me” and a frantic bound, he cleared the room and fled. But not so easy to escape; for the fair unknown, with lengthy agile strides, pursued, and was beside him ere he reached the outer door; one more gaze, and the now terrified man fairly shrieked and darted forth unto open air; whilst peal upon peal of laughter followed from the operator, his assistant, and the fair and frail one also, who turned out to be no other than Mr George Darrell, in his burlesque costume of the “Young Girl of the Day,”

Evening Star 9 August 1870: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mr Darrell was a well-regarded Australian actor, singer, and playwright. He was known as “Gentleman George,” and usually played male roles. However, in 1869 he took the part of “Marina” in the burlesque HMS Galatea and sang “The Young Girl of the Day”, and one of his own songs, “Doing the Block,” to much acclaim.

The illustration at the head of the post is of Francis Leon, one of the most acclaimed of 19th-century female impersonators.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


Selling Corsets Door to Door: 1890

He Arouses Intense Indignation Among the People in the Lower Part of the County.

Intense indignation has been caused of late among the people of Newport, Sayre’s Neck and neighboring localities, by the fact that a certain tall individual who has been selling corsets, &c., to the ladies and was supposed to be a woman has been found to be none other than a man in female attire.

He canvassed only the outskirts of the towns and in the course of his work gained access to the apartments of the ladies without difficulty, where with modesty skillfully assumed and with gentle touch skillfully acquired he adjusted to their forms the various articles of dress desired by them.

At the residence of Mr. John Fisher, near Newport, Mrs. Fisher had her suspicions awakened in regard to the supposed woman and hurriedly returned to her husband and paid for the article. After the canvasser had gone she told her husband of her belief. At another house a woman saw, as the “saleslady” stopped to fasten a shoe string, the bottom of his pantaloons. The various purchasers in that locality, having their attention called to it, are certain that the supposed woman was a man, and should the scoundrel make his appearance there again he will meet with a “warm reception.” Among other things a shower of scalding hot water is promised him by the indignant housewives.  

Bridgeton [NJ] Evening News 5 May 1890: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Ladies in the cities could apply to their corsetière to be fitted for intimate articles of apparel. Persons in the rural districts were forced to take “pot-luck” at the local dry-goods store or, in the hope of a better fit, submit to the gentle ministrations of a door-to-door canvasser.  To judge by the many reports of disguised corset “salesladies,” this was a startlingly nationwide problem.

The ladies of Cedar Falls, Iowa, are indignant over a report that a peddler who recently visited that town, selling corsets and fitting them on the bodies of customers, etc., has since turned out to be a man dressed in feminine apparel. The young ladies out there don’t like to have a young man give them fits.

Daily National Republican [Washington DC] 19 July 1866: p. 2

For more tales of 19th century corsetry, please look under the “Corsetry” subject heading.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.





“Madame says your waist is ready, sir.” A Modiste Serves a Gentleman: 1891

The female impersonator, Julian Eltinge.

The female impersonator, Julian Eltinge, best known for his role as “The Fascinating Widow.”


A Society Belle Shocked by a Man Who Was Fitted to a Dress

A young lady who was waiting in the reception-room of a New York modiste experienced a surprise recently that was rather amusing, thought she was somewhat shocked. The modiste was busy when she arrived and begged her to be seated a few minutes. No one being in waiting but a gentleman, who, she supposed, had accompanied his wife, the young belle sat down, and picking up a fashion plate concluded that she would not be kept waiting very long. She had scarcely glanced at the gentleman, and would probably never have remembered him, had not a maid come in and, going up to him, said:

“Madame says your waist is ready, sir.”

His waist ready! The young lady could hardly believe she had heard correctly. But when she saw him follow the maid out just a unconcernedly as if a waist was a common every-day garment for him she dropped the fashion-plate and for a moment was overcome with astonishment. The first thought that entered her mind was to leave. But she finally determined to stay until she had found out a little more.

“Fit! My dear madam, it is splendid,” the gentleman said as he returned, accompanied by the modiste. “You are perfect. Now don’t forget the trimmings on my dress.”

“Oh, let me show you a new pattern, sir?” the modiste interrupted. Don’t forget the trimmings on this dress! The young belle needed no more proof that her modiste, her own modiste whom she had patronized from girlhood up, was making dresses for a man. Shocking! Should she stay and have her feelings hurt? Never! She would go, and what was more, she would tell her friends.

“Your dress will be the prettiest I have ever made for you,” the modiste assured the gentleman, as, with a bow, he left.

Turning, the experience woman saw at a glance what was troubling the mind of her young patron and making her pretty eyes flash fire.

“Why, my dear Miss___, I know what you are thinking about,” the modiste said, smiling. “That gentleman is Herbert Crowley, the female impersonator, and a regular customer. My dear, if you could only see him! He makes the prettiest girl you ever saw.” Washington Herald.

The Morning Call [San Francisco, CA] 4 May 1891: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Female impersonators were a staple novelty act of the British and the United States stages. Astonishingly, for someone who was so very well-known in his time, there is very little biographical material about Herbert Crowley [1865-1932], possibly because he may be conflated with Herbert Charles Jerome Pollitt, another female impersonator linked with Aleister Crowley or confused with Herbert Crowley, an artist and cartoonist of the same time period. The few snippets Mrs Daffodil has been able to glean come only from newspapers and advertisements for Crowley’s performances. He was described as “The Male Patti” and readers were advised that “The Costumes worn by this gentleman are made by Worth, of Paris.” [1889] Alas, Mrs Daffodil could not find a photograph, but this article gives an idea of his fascination:

“Bet wine for the party that it is a girl,” said one of a group of tourists in the Merchants rotunda last evening, “and to prove it let’s go to the Bodega.”

This remark attracted the attention of the Globe’s representative, and he accompanied the party for the point of attraction.

They had not long to wait ere a symmetrically proportioned blonde in a well-fitting black toilette appeared, long black silk gloves covering the arms, while at the wrists gleamed two rows of brilliants and in the center of a black velvet band around the throat gleamed a diamond cluster pin.

A carefully and tastefully arranged blonde wing complete the make-up of the prima donna, and the deception was complete when the first bars of “Let Me Dream Again” floated out into the crowded hall.

“Tell me that is a man,” chuckled the man who had bet the wine, “It is all nonsense.” But his triumph was short lived for upon the beginning of the second verse of the popular air the singer in decidedly masculine accents exclaimed, “Let her go, Gallagher,” accompanying it with a decidedly male expectoration; and the laugh was on the wine wagerer.

It was the unanimous opinion, however, that Herbert Crowley, the female impersonator, was one calculated to deceive even an expert, and it is pretty hard to make a casual observer and listener believe that he is not in the presence of an attractive young woman.

The St. Paul [MN] Daily Globe, 3 March 1888: p. 5

Later in life Crowley started an act called “Herbert Crowley and his Six Sailors.”

The Orpheum Theatre presents on the stage today, tomorrow, a revue with broad travesty that gives a hint of the fads and foibles of the gentle sex. Herbert Crowley and his six Allied Sailors—all husky gobs who saw service during the war, have fashioned an odd stage conception. It is called “Herbert Crowley’s Different Revue,” and is all that the name implies, for the seven youths [Crowley, by this time was no longer a youth!] made up as pretty girls give a touch of real novelty to the offering. They make no attempt to fool their audience for even though they impersonate women they let it be known that they are men. Beautiful gowns, bright comedy and many novelty songs and dances make the revue an unusual treat.

The Daily Courier [Connellsville, PA] 6 April 1927: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil has previously written about gentlemen who wear corsets, cross-dressing fancy dress, and a gentleman’s plea for short skirts on both sexes.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.