Arresting Dress (Blog Post #3)

Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, written by Clare Sears, discussed the interconnection between the illegalization of cross-dressing “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex”(pg. 2), prostitution and immigration, specifically asian cultures, in San Francisco during the 19th century.

The established “gender norms” that are still commonly followed today, wasn’t always as common. Sears begins the book with a historical chapter documenting the gold-rush in San Francisco as well as an influx of Chinese immigration. In this chapter Sears discusses how due to the major lack of women, men used to wear dresses, usually with patches that indicate that they are a man dressing like a female, and attend dances without much judgement. This form of cross dressing was most popular in gold mining camps, masquerade balls, domestic labour, circulating photograph. Cross-dressing was actually used as a way to maintain and establish racial and social status.

Men and women were equally targeted for cross-dressing, with a maximum sentence of six months, however, the fines and time served were considerably inconsistent. “… five days for John Wilson in 1878, but forty days for Jeanne Bonnet in 1876, fifty days. for Edward Livernash in 1891, sixty days for Milton Matson in 1903, and the maximum six-month sentence for Bettie Portel in 1890” (pg. 74). I’m curious as to why these sentences are so drastically different in length, as well as why are the sentences increasing as the years go on. I am also curious if the birth gender has anything to do with the severity of the sentence because of the gender norms placed upon men and women. It is more understandable for a women to want to wear pants even though it may not be deemed socially acceptable, however for men it is not as understandable, especially when placed in front of a cis-white judge and jury.

Not only does Sears place an emphasis on cross-dressing, but she also has a very large emphasis on prostitution, specifically the cross-dressing part of prostitution. In the book, Sears mentions many times about men who were arrested wearing the “uniform” of a specific type of waitress, one that wears a dress with red stripes and a hat with artificial flowers or a veil. Sears also talks about women who dress as men who are able to get into places where they are normally not allowed to sell their services. Sears discusses prostitution a lot and attempts to bring a normalcy to the topic which I feel as though she achieved when she said, “Cross-dressing and prostitution, then, were connected not only conceptually, as two sides of the same gender-transgressive coin, but also materially in the public presentations of midcentury sex workers” (pg. 43). During the nineteenth-century, sex workers had an even worse reputation than they do now, but had to resort to cross dressing in order for both men and women to be aware of their services because of how seperated the genders were seen. Women often times couldn’t go to where men gathered and men often times couldn’t go to where women gathered, so by cross-dressing they were able to blend in and hopefully not be seen.

I think it’s heartbreaking how San Francisco handled cross-dressers. First of all, there is nothing to be “handled”. A person is able to express themselves however they want and I am so thankful to live in such a progressive time, and it is so unfortunate that men and women alike had to suffer because the way that they wanted to express themselves was deemed wrong and inappropriate. The book also opened my eyes to a world that I never really knew existed, a I knew cross-dressing wasn’t always allowed due to social standards and stigmas, but I never knew to what extent is was policed to.

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