Viewed from the liberal-minded 21st century, it is interesting to look at the stifling attitudes of the past, particularly relating to clothing. Men have shed the waistcoats and stiff collars required at the beginning of the twentieth century and women have cast out the corset and voluminous underwear. Some schools today are moving towards non-gender specific uniforms and allowing their students to wear whatever style they are comfortable with.
Today it is common for women to wear trousers, but a little over a hundred years ago a woman wearing trousers in public was scandalous, unless it was for a breeches role, in which case it was hilarious. Following the tradition of a young man playing the female roles in Shakespearean theatres, a breeches role involved a woman playing the role of a young man.
This developed into male impersonation, which became a popular music hall entertainment from the mid-nineteenth century. Female actors would dress in masculine clothes and act in an exaggeratedly stereotypical male fashion. They would perform scenes, tell stories and jokes, and sing and dance, either on their own or as part of a group.
The Museum holds a collection of postcards sent to the Nixon daughters of Whanganui, which contains a number of collectible postcards of famous male impersonators of the time.
Miss Vesta Tilley is dressed as a dandy gentleman. Born Matilda Alice Powles in 1864 in England, she made her stage debut at age three and performed her first male character at age six. She preferred male roles, stating she felt she could express herself better in male clothing. She adopted the stage name Vesta Tilley at age 11, by which time she was so successful that she was solely supporting her family. She married Walter de Frece in 1890 and died in 1952 aged 88. The sender of this postcard has written on the back, “How do you like this style? This girl is the highest paid actress in England. What a well-fitting coat she is wearing.”
Miss Tittell Brune is wearing a military uniform. Born Minnie Tittell in 1875 in San Francisco, she had her first acting role as Little Jim in Lights of London at age four. Following this her mother placed her in a convent for a year but she continued acting afterwards, taking both male and female roles. She married Clarence Marion Brune in 1899. Although not well known in America she was a major figure in Australian theatres with her career peaking between 1904 and 1909. Minnie often claimed she felt conflicted working as an actress, while maintaining her devout Catholic faith. When she was widowed in 1935, she joined the Order of St Francis and lived a quiet life until her death in 1974 aged 99.
Miss Gabrielle Ray is dressed as a sailor. Born Gabrielle Elizabeth Clifford Cook in 1883 in England, she had her first role at age 10 in London’s West End where her acting, dancing and beauty were quickly noticed. After experiencing great success in male and female roles, Miss Ray retired from the stage and married Eric Loder in 1912, but divorced in 1914 after his unfaithfulness. She briefly returned to the West End in 1915 before opting for provincial theatres, retiring again in 1924. She suffered from depression and alcohol abuse that lead to a breakdown in 1936 when she was institutionalised. She died in 1973 aged 90.
Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.