Arresting Dress Post

Clare Sears’ monograph Arresting Dress studies a mid-1800s San Francisco, California cross-dressing law and its implications for gender norms, the construction of social and physical settings, as well as how it intersected with race. The 1863 law was enforced by police into the 1970s and served to moderate the appearance of citizens, constrict the “undesirables” to certain parts of the city, and discriminate against Chinese immigrants by effeminizing them. Sears begins by framing the San Francisco at the height of the gold rush before the law was passed. Cross-dressing was common among the mostly male population. Men would often fill in for women at local dances. However, Sears also points out that the white miners often overlooked non-white women and preferred to cross-dress rather than associate with non-white women. The dances also “provided the temporary fantasy of binary gender, which facilitated–if somewhat ironically–the appearance of heteronormative relations” (31).

Leading up to the 1863 law, cross-dressing began to be conflated with prostitution. Anti-vice crusaders began having more influence and ‘good morals and decency’ laws were passed (44). The end of the gold rush as well as the entrance of “respectable” white women into the scene also influenced the morals laws as the distinction between “ladies” and “non-ladies” began to be made (49). However, white prostitution was still held in higher regard than non-white prostitution which was dehumanized and described in almost animalistic terms. The rise of the Committee of Vigilance set off a more conservative governmental rule in San Francisco as they staged a successful coup. The merchants of the committee “pursued a vision of political and social stability, rooted in fiscal conservatism and family life, which would attract outside investors and enable their commercial success” (55). The idea of the “upstanding family man” was also created along with the “ladies” to usher in the comforting ideals of heteronormative, upstanding society.

Another main concern of the decency laws was “problem bodies.” These could range from any physical disfigurement and undesirable races to gender non-conforming dress. These problem bodies were framed as the Others compared to middle-class white, cisgender, heterosexual families. The city leaders used strategies of ‘spatial governmentality’ to construct the city so as to exclude the “offensive purposes” from the public sphere thus maintaining the separation of public and private spheres (69). The cross-dressing law was enforced when the violator was deemed a threat to the social norms and ideals of the majority. This would be the case with feminists who wore male clothing as a form of protest against their social station, but it would also be enforced if the individual did not have a “good purpose” for their actions whereas female tourists who just wanted to experience the slums did have a good purpose and would not have the charges pursued.

The difference in public response to vaudeville shows versus freak shows was an interesting chapter as it highlighted the hypocrisy and ironic fascination that the public had for those they deemed less-than. Female impersonators at vaudeville shows were praised for their “magical” transformations while those who did the same thing on the street in public could get arrested for it. However, at freak shows, those who had “problem bodies” were gawked at and utilized as money-makers. At freak shows, “the social distance between cross-dressing performers and cross-dressing offenders evaporated” (102). This hypocritical arrangement put cross-dressing individuals into a double-bind in which either choice was a detrimental choice, for either they could risk arrest or deny who they really are or dehumanize themselves for public amusement but still be able to be somewhat true to themselves.

1 Comment

  1. Nice job! I’m glad that you talked about the variety of places and spaces where cross dressing might happen and the variety of reasons for it.

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