Reading #3 – Arresting Dress

Clare Sears in Arresting Dress details the arrests and coverage of cross-dressing in 19th century San Francisco. She talks about not only people who, in today’s language, may have identified as trans, but people like Eliza DeWolf, a feminist dress reformer, who wanted to change the clothing that women were allowed to wear into something less restrictive. The wording in San Francisco’s laws of appearing in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex” exemplifies not only the limitations of 19th century language, but efforts to police the public sector, particularly when, post-Gold Rush, mothers, wives, and daughters of miners began moving to San Francisco (2). An interesting sentence on page 3, that I actually glossed over in my initial read of Arresting Dress, is “Although cross-dressing laws are rarely, if ever, enforced in US cities today” (3). It surprised me that these laws would even still be on the books, so to speak, and that they hadn’t been challenged to the point where they would be ruled unconstitutional on some basis (most likely Equal Protection).

I found this to be an absolutely fascinating read! So rarely do we think about things like this in contexts other than our own modern one, with all the knowledge and language we have available today that weren’t available in the 19th century. The way cross-dressing was irregularly enforced among races, and in some instances sexes (as defined at the time), as well as the differences between how cross-dressing was treated between people dressing in whatever way they wanted to and people cross-dressing for the purposes of mass entertainment (freak shows), is interesting and baffling; while I am unfortunately used to irregular enforcement of laws today, it’s not in this particular sphere that I usually hear about it. I would be interested to see a more national look at this issue; my curiosity has been sparked and I want to know more, which speaks to how well Sears frames her topic, covering a serious topic that not many know about in an interesting way that makes you want to learn more about the niche she discusses and the broader context surrounding it.

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