Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco

Clare Sears’ Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco addresses the relationships between gender-identities, racial tensions, sex work, and the law. In the early days of San Francisco’s existence, it was very common for men to cross-dress because the population of women was only 2% of the total population. Sears asserts that part of the reason this was so common in the area was because they “did not count indigenous women as women” (27) which is interesting. They were more interested in maintaining their racist standards than upholding the gender binary, which later on they also try to maintain at the same time.

The concept of a “problem body” transcends just one identity, but is inclusive of all identities that were seen an “unseemly” in the public eye. This includes queer and disabled persons and people of color. Although the earlier years of San Francisco were filled with men cross-dressing the tune of these arguments changed. The author addresses the use of the term “cross-dress” by saying, “cross-dressing does not refer to one specific style of dress but to a wide range of clothing worn by multiple people for many different reasons. The specificities of these different practices are obscured when all are grouped under the concept of cross-dressing. Second, the term cross-dressing erroneously assumes that the type of clothing that ‘belongs’ to each sex is easily agreed upon, when in fact such determinations are subject to fierce social debate as well as to change over time” (21). Although this is a long quote I think it is important to include as many of the people who are being discussed in topics such as these may have had different gender identities than what are prescribed to them by historians, such as a “cross-dressing man” may have actually been a trans-woman who is just trying do what she is most comfortable with. I think that is something I wrestled with reading this book a little bit as I felt kind of uncomfortable discussing people we might not know the true identity of, however, this passage helps to ease that discomfort some.

The author also asserts that “republican notions of masculinity and virtue required men to respond to slurs on their characters with deadly violence” (54). This suggestion provides a reason for the shift from being less stringent on the policies that revolve around clothing and sex work to having a much more strict and controlling way of running the city. This is further asserted on page 65 where Sears suggests that feminist dress-reformers were a threat to the male power that existed in this time period. I find this very interesting as we are able to see over and over again in this book (and in books such as Angry White Men) how men feel threatened by advancement and the equality of minorities and oppressed people.

Chapter three’s discussions of state insane asylums, and how many people who were convicted of cross-dressing received insanity verdicts is very alarming. Insane asylums have been known to be even worse for the human psyche and this means that these people may have been hurt even more by the asylums than by the law. The conviction of people to asylums tended to have been a lifelong sentence that there was no escape from the horrors that they were most likely subjected to. The separations of public and private spaces further worsened these conditions as there was less public interest in a private space to hold them accountable. The “intimate surveillance of suspects’ bodies” (81) also reveals an alarming disrespect of the privacy of these individuals. Time and again, the author shows stories and suggests events that were regular occurrences for these people that are violations of their privacy and personal identity. This can be seen in figure 4.1 where Jenny O was photographed nude or in the image of Geraldine Portica on page 89.

Freak shows used the manipulation of these “problem bodies” to make profits from the general public, which I find extremely discomforting. Not only is the profiting off of marginalized bodies troubling, but it also shows a disconnect between the what the law was truly being used for and what it was. As these laws were used as a way for freak show owners to find new acts and then hold these acts within their power, they became almost essential in building these freak shows in the first place. The defining of Chinese people as problem bodies made way for more racism and prejudice to run rampant in San Francisco. The connection between immigration and cross-dressing stems from racist stereotypes which both defined peoples opinions and defined people’s opinions.

I never really thought about what varying gender expression was like in previous time periods, which is obviously something that was important. Gender identity and expression is hard for people now when it has become more acceptable to experiment with physical and aesthetic presentation. However, in times like the nineteenth-century it was obviously way harder for people to dress how they felt most comfortable. Sears did an impressive job connecting different pieces of research and primary sources together to show all facets of anti cross-dressing law and how cross-dressing developed and changed along with San Francisco in the nineteenth century.

1 Comment

  1. Very thorough discussion of the text. I hope that you bring some of these issues to today’s discussion.

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