Constructions of Identity

Constructions of Identity through Performances of Masculinity and Femininity: Images of Vesta Tilley and Claude Cahun

Author: Lindsay Royale

“Dear Vi, Thanks for the letter. I guess you never anticipated me ringing you up last night did you? Am sending herewith the note paper promised you last Sunday. Will send some more cards later this week, & also a letter to-morrow, which I think you will be glad to receive, as you say in your last. The photo on the other side is a bit of “class” eh! what. As Rosie what she thinks of it. Hope you like the note paper dear. Will write more to-morrow. So au revoir Any amount of love & kisses”
-Leeds, October 22, 1907.

The following correspondence was found inscribed on a postcard which now belongs to the Neil Richards fonds, in the University of Saskatchewan Special Collections Archives. The image, depicting “a bit of class,” features a full-length photograph of famous music hall entertainer Vesta Tilley. She is dressed as a clergyman and gazes stoically at the viewer, hands clasped loosely one in front of the other.

Vesta Tilley,
Vesta Tilley,
(image details)

Vesta Tilley was one of the greatly celebrated performers of the music hall during the early 1900’. Her success was founded on her portrayal of male personae—she was renowned for singing and dancing as a male impersonator. As curator Neil Richards reveals in Ambisextrous: Gender Impersonators of Music Hall and Vaudeville:

The greatest popularity of vaudeville and music hall coincided with the Golden Age of Picture Postcards (1900-1914). During this period many of the top impersonators were included in the enormous number of souvenir postcards that were produced featuring the leading lights of both British and American theatre.1

The form of the postcard speaks to the nature of performance that was associated with Tilley and other entertainers of the Music Hall: postcards were forms of communication stripped of envelopes, their messages and images intended as a quick (and public) anecdote meant to entertain the receiver. However, there was more to Tilley’s performance than entertainment: her act exposed barriers of class and gender, which, during the Victorian and Edwardian era, was strictly constrained.2 Vesta Tilley challenged the normative structures situated around gender by complicating the representation of male/female identity. She and other figures of the Victorian/Edwardian era employed images and performance to construct an identity that paved the way for gender to be understood as more complex and layered ideology in modern society. This will be discussed in the functioning of the Music Hall, Vesta Tilley as a performer, and Claude Cahun’s self portraits.

There is a long history of entertainers performing as the opposite sex. In classical English Renaissance theatre men played all gender roles, as women were not employed by the company. 3 In Britain during the Victorian and Edwardian era laws circulated around theatrical performances, forcing non-designated venues to differentiate themselves from such prestigious sites.4 This encouraged a more diverse arrangement of entertainment outside of these locations and allowed for all classes to be part of the audience. Women were able to function as both performers and spectators; however, as female performers did not have a legacy, they were often grouped into a disreputable association with prostitution: “Prostitutes, to the annoyance of professional actresses, were always euphemistically described as ‘actresses’ in the press.”5 Despite this stigma, Tilley managed to secure a level of professionalism within the theatre. Her reviews from the media often phrased her achievement as an authentic performer. The media coverage of her final performance by Telegraph paid tribute to this achievement:

She has come through with a record for healthy and generous fun-giving unfurnished by any concession to the vulgar or prurient. It was the public appreciation of her high ideals and delightful art which were poured out in the exuberant welcome and lingering farewell which the grand audience gave her tonight.6

Vesta Tilley’s impersonations were appreciated as both a humorous mockery/ touching homage of various (recognizable) male personae: soldiers, policemen, dandies. Tilley made the relation of gender as an execution by her ability to don masculinity for the stage—Judith Butler terms this concept, “performing gender” in her novel, ‘Gender Trouble’7: Tilley’s body became a site for multiple and varied gender performances defying the normative understanding of gender as fixed.

The male characters that Tilley embodied onstage in elaborate attire always remained very separate from her off-stage personae. Figure 2 exemplifies this distinction.

Miss Vesta Tilley
Miss Vesta Tilley
(image details)

The center panel of the postcard centers on a headshot of Tilley in elaborate feminine dress. She is adorned in lace and jewels, her chest accentuated by a sweetheart neckline. Her hair is a piled up top her head in an elaborate coif and decorated with a dramatic star-shaped pin. Sara Maitland, author of “Vesta Tilley” discloses that Tilley often appeared in public in such decadence: “she demonstrated her love of feminine frills, and particularly for jewellery, whenever possible; she refused—at first sight an improbable lapse of her vaunted professionalism—to cut her hair.”8 Off to the right and left side of this image are shots of Tilley performing in male attire. Both male personae seem to be “entertaining”—the left armed with a cane to dance and sing for the viewer, the right leaning in with a serving tray, obliged to meet every beck and call. As they are both offside and feature head to foot detail, they almost feel as though they are assisting the central image, who commands the gaze. In positioning the images in juxtaposition to one another under the title ‘Miss Vesta Tilley,’ it is easy to make the connection that they are all indeed the same person. This in itself demonstrates how Tilley complicated the understanding of gender as being static and predetermined.

The act of male impersonation is often criticized for enforcing notions of patriarchy by what Sara Maitland describes as, “appearing to be the superior sex that women can only imitate.”9 During Tilley’s time era, Psychoanalytic feminist Joan Riviere discussed this possession of masculinity in her renowned essay, ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ (1929). Her view on femininity was that it functions as a mask to conceal masculine tendencies. One particular example Riviere highlights is of an academic woman who, when in the company of male peers, plays down her intellect: “She has to treat the situation of displaying her masculinity to men as a ‘game’, as something not real, as a ‘joke.’ She cannot treat herself and her subject seriously, cannot seriously contemplate herself on equal terms with men.”10 This passage aligns with how Tilley used her stage performance to parade her masculinity, while her everyday life resided in traditional feminine deportment (being a wife, wearing dresses, refusing to cut her long hair)11. While it may appear as though Tilley is much like the woman Riviere discusses, her motives for highlighting feminine attributes which reinforce gender stereotypes were strongly related to distancing herself from onstage and offstage social stigmas related to the music hall industry.

During the Victorian/Edwardian era was it possible to escape the strict limits that were imposed on gender and sexuality? Male and female impersonators were able to poke and prod at the existing boundaries, but how did one seep past those lines? Claude Cahun was an artist, photographer, actress and writer who lived across the English Channel in France. She was born in 1894, 30 years after Vesta Tilley. Though this age difference may seem large, one should remember that Tilley performed for 49 years retiring in 1920 and passing on at the age of 88. Claude Cahun died shortly after Tilley, in 1954. Cahun’s identity was based on the opposites of the everyday, socially constructed normality of life: She not only seeped outside of the lines—she erased them. Laurie J. Monahan lists the pieces of Cahun’s self that caused her to be seen as an ‘outsider’: “As a woman, a lesbian, a Jew, her own identity was particularly circumscribed by existing social labels and stereotypes. Yet while these categories imposed constraints, the fact that they were themselves somewhat unstable and ambiguous provided the possibility of imagining an identity radically reconfigured.”12

Cahun, like Tilley, was born under a different name. Around the age of 24, Lucy Schwob took on the more ambiguous title of Claude Cahun.13 She was both photographer and subject of her picture, drastically altering her image from one photograph to the next for an overall effect of a fragmented identity. Self-Portrait from Bifur, No. 5 (April 1930) features Cahun in profile (turned 3/4th to the camera).

Self-Portrait from Bifur, No. 5

Self-Portrait from Bifur, No. 5
[1930], Claude Cahun.
Illus: in Laurie P. Monahan,
‘Radical Transformations: Claude Cahun and the Masquerade of Womanliness.’ In Inside the Visible:
An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Artists in, of, and from the Feminine, ed. by M. Catherine de Zegher, (Cambridge, Mass:.: The MIT Press, 1996), 127.

She is wearing a black tank top which contrasts heavily with the paleness of her skin. This severity is mirrored in the hard shadow reflected on the wall and the sharp angles of her face. Her mouth and eye are turned downward, lined in heavy black; her eyebrows blend in with the white of her skin. Her head is shaved, with a faint shadow of re-growth appearing. The viewer is made to search for visual clues of traditional femininity (hair, breasts, makeup or clothing) but because this is not supplied, is inclined to associate the image with a masculine presence.14 However, Cahun’s image does not provide any set notion of male appearance, and thus, the viewer is let in a state of uncertainty. While Vesta Tilley employed cross-dressing to construct masculinity and represent male gender in addition to her own femininity, Cahun uses her absence of either to dismantle gender--Tilley uses clothing to function as accoutrements; Cahun uses it to blur distinctions. In a time where such strict limitations were imposed on sexuality, Cahun used her image and artwork to speak to the absences. Her abstraction of gender was another mode of how she broke through the barriers in life that appeared black and white: this is noted in her involvement with surrealism (a male-dominated movement), her writings for a forward-thinking homosexual journal, and her political activity in the Resistance during Nazi occupation.15

Claude Cahun and Vesta Tilley are two individuals (of many) who were able to obscure the normative structures situated around gender by complicating the representation of male/female identity. Uncovering the likes of Tilley and Cahun enables our society to understand that gender has not always been represented as a straightforward and uncomplicated ideology: by placing Vesta Tilley in relation to other male/female impersonators under the ‘history of theatrical tranvestism and gender impersonation’ Neil Richards creates an archive which speaks to the images and performance of pastime, illustrating a history of attempts to separate oneself from the standard narrative of society. Similarly, without the materialization of feminist art in the 1970s, Claude Cahun would not have been uncovered from history, where she was often misrepresented as a male.16 Both women help to bear witness that there was an effort to bend the boundaries of gender even in the strictest of times; their images assist as evidence to how far society has come in acknowledging and recovering those voices which have been muted in history.


1 Neil Richards (curator), University of Saskatchewan Archives, Ambisextrous: Gender Impersonators of Music Hall and Vaudeville, May 2008.

2 Sara Maitland, Vesta Tilley, (London: Viargo Press Limited, 1986), 11.

3 Michael F. Moore, Drag! Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen and Television, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1994), 30.

4 Maitland, Vesta Tilley, 11.

5 Maitland, Vesta Tilley, 77.

6 Telegraph, 7 June 1920, quoted in Sara Maitland, Vesta Tilley, 50.

7Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (NY: Routledge, 1990).

8 Maitland, Vesta Tilley, 73.

9 Maitland, Vesta Tilley, 84.

10 Joan Riviere, ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ in Gender: Readers in Cultural Criticism, ed. Anna Tripp (New York: Palgrave), 134.

11 Maitland, Vesta Tilley, 79.

12 Laura Cottingham, “Considering Claude Cahun,” in Seeing Through the Seventies: Essay’s on Feminism and Art, (London: Routledge, 2003), 207.

13 Laurie J. Monahan, “Radical Transformations: Claude Cahun and the Masquerade of Womanliness,” in Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Artists in, of, and from the Feminine ed. Catherine de Zegher,(Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston & MIT Press, 1996), 126.

14 Monahan, Inside the Visible, 128.

15 Monahan, Inside the Visible, 126.

16 Laura Cottingham, Seeing Through the Seventies, 200.


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. NY : Routledge, 1990.

Cottingham, Laura, ‘Considering Claude Cahun’ in Seeing Through the Seventies: Essay’s on Feminism and Art, London: Routledge, 2003, 189-213.

Kuhn, Annette, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality,
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc, 1985.

Maitland, Sara, Vesta Tilley, London: Virago Press Limited, 1986.

Miss Vesta Tilley, [ca. 1900]. University of Saskatchewan Archives. Neil Richards
Fonds, 2- Postcards. Database ID: 34090.

Monahan, J Laurie, ‘Radical Transformations: Claude Cahun and the Masquerade
of Womanliness’ in Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Artists in, of, and from the Feminine, ed. by Catherine de Zegher, Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 1996,

Moore F. Michael, Drag! Male and Female Impersonators on Stage, Screen and Television, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1994.

Richards, Neil (curator), Ambisextrous: Gender Impersonators of Music Hall and Vaudeville,,
University of Saskatchewan Archives, May 2008, Retrieved 20 February 2010.

Riviere, Joan, ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ in Gender: Readers in Cultural Criticism, ed. by Anna Tripp, New York: Palgrave, 130-138.

Vesta Tilley, [1907]. University of Saskatchewan Achives. Neil
Richards fonds, 2. Postcards. Database ID: 34092.