Friday, 5 September 2014

Military History Photo Friday: Vesta Tilley, Crossdresser for the Empire

As World War One raged in Europe, the home front in England mobilized to support the troops. Women played an especially important role. For the first time, large numbers of women were allowed to work in heavy industry, making ammunition and other tools of war. Others worked as doctors and nurses, and some even went to the front as drivers and mechanics.
One woman became famous helping the war effort in a different way. Vesta Tilley was a stage star, and when the war started she thought up a new act. Conservative England was shocked when she appeared onstage in uniform. Dressing as men was simply not something respectable women did. Not even many disreputable women did it! For such a famous entertainer to cross such a line was unheard of. Princess Mary and her ladies in waiting were said to hide their faces behind their fans in embarrassment when Tilley came on stage.
While her act raised eyebrows, she was still hugely popular as a singer and entertainer. Then as now, people flocked to see something controversial, and found themselves caught up in a recruitment drive. Tilley, dressed in her uniform, would sing a patriotic song about brave men joining up as she walked through the audience. She'd pick men not in uniform, hook them by the arm, and lead them down to a recruitment desk by the stage.
It's unknown how many men Tilley "conscripted" in this fashion, but I saw an interview with one old woman who remembered how Tilley led her husband away. She got really mad, not only for him signing up and leaving her alone with the children, but for being so obviously attracted to Tilley!

1 comment:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That last bit was funny!

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