Arresting Dress Blog Post

Clare Sears, author of “Arresting Dress,” began her research for the novel as a doctoral student. Sears mentions that strict adherence to gender norms was common practice through the enforcement of gendered clothing. Here, cross dressing laws prohibited men ‘dressing as women’ and ‘women dressing as men.’

One example includes Eliza Dewolf who was arrested in 1866 following an incident in public where she was caught wearing men’s clothing. Additionally, men such as John Roberts in 1874 were arrested for wearing women’s clothing. The purpose of these laws were to encourage ‘normative’ gender expression and make it clear that “rules and assumptions that dictate how men and women” act, think, and dress must be policed at all times (5). Sears makes a note that this was not always the case, and explores how things changed overtime—starting with the Gold Rush in San Francisco.  

During the “eve of the Gold Rush” in 1848, a complete lack of women paired with cultural differences due to mass immigration resulted in a change of normative ideas regarding masculinity and femininity (page 27-29). At the time, opportunities to explore gender expression occurred frequently because men-only mining groups were common. In fact, men would engage in cross dressing practices to settle the “gender imbalance” and dance together at balls. Sear includes an interesting distinction between southern and northern mining group dances, claiming men who “temporarily transform[ed]” into women wore patches in the south and handkerchiefs in the north as identity markers (29). This way, men would be able to play out their fantasies in a productive way. 

Similarly, men at masquerade balls would dress as women and have sex with other men. They would hide under the “anonymity of masking” as a means to explore gender expression and again appeal to the gender imbalance (30). However, Sears makes it clear that these types of events “challenged normative gender boundaries and provided spaces of possibly for people to experiment with cross dress and presentation,” highlighting how temporary gender switches during gender imbalances challenged gender norms and adhered to gender norms, often in conflicting (but similar) ways (30). By performing traditional feminine duties and roles during sex and dancing, cross dressing men enforced heteronormativity while actively challenging it.

One example of this is how “same sex dancing” continued to be valued by high society after the Gold Rush, many men and women who cross dressed were severely punished under the law (32-48). Additionally, actions like these were captured through political cartoons in the late 19th century, revered as “cultural symbols of the state’s economic and political development” (32-33).

I found the numerous cross dressing laws interesting again because of the language used to describe indecent behavior related to cross dressing specifically, and how these laws became more intense over time (which I’ll get to more later). For example, a 1863 order prohibited cross dressing and even went as far as to threaten imprisonment and fines up to $500 (42). The same to relate to the good morals and decency laws that were prevalent throughout the 1800’s throughout San Francisco.

As mentioned, two major themes present in Sear’s novel focused on the ideas of gender norms and laws prohibiting cross dressing but Sears also included refrences to sex work and race. 

The most notable theme throughout the book was how race was used as a weapon to perpetuate bigotry especially with immigrants. Many examples include freak shows, the use of black face in general and during cross dressing performances, and encouraging feminine aspects of Chinese culture on cross-dressing Chinese men among others. White Europeans were racist in general of course and punished immigrant sex workers or BIPOC sex workers more severely, often “polic[ing] prostitution” through a racial used lens (31, 34, 45, 102).

This tied into how prostitutes were treated rather differently under the law. It seems as though not only was cross dressing acceptable, it was encouraged as a means to demonstrate they were sexually available. On pages 38 and 42-43, Sears concludes that sex workers who wore men’s clothing were “ two sides of the same gender transgressive coin” that may have contributed to cross dressing laws in the future. What is interesting is how the language changed and “non ladies,” who were women that wore men’s clothing and engaged in prostitution,  were no longer held in high regard (49). 


While I enjoyed this reading overall, I had a lot of moments where I got distracted thinking about parallels to information I learned in other classes and general questions or comments I had. 

In regards to codifying bigotry, I was under the impression there were sodomy laws previously but I had no idea that dress was policied so heavily. It saddens me to think about the ways in which homophobia and transphobia, though not defined as such at the time, ran rampant and caused many people like me to hide their true selves. This brings me to the issue of terminology which was lacking at the time. I took another class called Early Modern European Women previously at UMW and we discussed how trans women have existed for centuries, but they never had labels to define themselves. Some women were cross dressers but did not identify as men, while others did. The previous knowledge I gained from this course reminded me that we cannot ignore modern impositions on our understanding of gender and gender expression throughout history as this clouds the reality of the situation. It is entirely possible that without the language to do so, individuals found their place, but calling people transgender, non-binary, gender nonconformity, etc is not an accurate reflection of who these men and women were. Sears does make a great point to address “feminist dress reformers” who simply stood up against gender norms and refused to comply with sexist laws, which is where my mind was going most of the time (62). Furthermore, I was intrigued that many people took a rather ‘liberationist’ approach towards challenging cross dressing laws instead of ‘assimilationist.’ Essentially, that means that most cross dressers (who were not feminist dress reformers) did not want to always fit in and conform to their assigned biological sex at birth and related expectations surrounding gender norms but rather do what they wish, and express themselves according to their own ideas of masculinity and femininity. Very interesting research!!!

I also noticed how the language surrounding cross dressing changed when it was used as means to benefit men or provide entertainment/resulted in profit versus when sex workers or revaluation individuals engaged in cross dressing. Even the language surrounding crossdressing within the legislature changed to ideas of ‘indecency‘ and ‘immorality’ specifically and eventually ‘undesirable.’ This was shown through laws but also through language surrounding sex work with Europeans VS immigrant/non-white sex workers and how their treated differed based on race. 

In my opinion, it appears that by trying to police people’s bodies and enforce the gender binary, this gave room for further discrimination that could have resulted into widespread bigotry imbedded into law. In fact, I know based on research that racial hierarchies were formed based on gender expectations. Racial hierarchical thinking that has shaped America for centuries developed after importing enslaved individuals from Barbados, which was one of the last places to abolish slavery. Prior to the Barbados Slave Codes, enslaved individuals actually had many rights (though obviously not everyone respected them) and were often equated to indentured servants. However, The Barbados Slave Codes in particular provided a loophole for ‘slave masters’ to deny enslaved individuals basic human rights and enforce harsher punishments as PROTECTED by law. 

I also couldn’t believe how much these laws enforced the gender binary through normalizing the enforcement of gender expectations. As cross dressing was deemed as a public threat, it was pushed on the public to essentially perpetuate gender norms and become numb to the invasion of privacy. When Sears mentioned how people had their clothes ripped off and weird medical examinations performed on them I was disgusted and felt heartbroken that their bodily autonomy was stripped from them simply because of how they wanted to dress, whether genuinely cross dressing as a means to express their idea of gender, rebelling as feminist dress reformers or simply looking differently than other people. This reminded me of the debate surrounding gender neutral bathrooms or how transgender youth are often punished for trying to use the correct bathrooms. Though we have different words for how we describe these issues, trans rights and trying to police those who hold trans identities or more masculine identities (such as studs or butch lesbians) continue to be punished and threatened. 

Another comment I had was in regards to the treatment of the disabled community. I knew that disabled people were taken advantage of and exploited in freak shows, often exploited, overworked, underplayed (if at all)…but I was appalled how ableism was present throughout the legislature that provided bigots with the ability to discriminate against those with “problem bodies.” Physical abnormalities
and other physical disabilities were mentioned in particular again, as part of this category of difference that was deemed as a public threat. Unfortunately that is how many people still think today all over the world about disabled people but mainly the disabled unhoused population (whether from war or otherwise) that suffer BOTH hidden and visible disabilities. 

As someone who is ethnically mixed, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, and a member of the disabled community, it was very disheartening to read these chapters and find similarities to my own experiences and others in a contemporary context. 

My comments are crazy long but I had a lot to say and think about!!!

1 Comment

  1. Nice job, and very thorough. You can probably condense some of your comments in the future, but I don’t mind if you decided to go on the longer side.

Comments are closed.