> ‘Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers’ at The Photographers Gallery

Philomena Epps / ‘Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers’ at The Photographers Gallery

April 2018


“I have always been interested in communities and discourses that sit on the edge of History; those outside dominant moral, political or social powers and resistant to normative strictures,” writes Sébastien Lifshitz in his essay ‘No Dress Code’, which opens the latest issue of Loose Associations. “As a film-maker, I try to give voice and visibility to those figures that have most often been silenced; whose stories have been written out … As a photography collector, I am drawn to amateur photographs for similar reasons.”[1]

In collaboration with Karen McQuaid, Lifshitz has curated the Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressing exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, selecting various works from his extensive collection of found images related to the practice of cross-dressing. The exhibition spans an entire century, from 1880 to 1980, and encourages a varied and expansive reading of gender non-conformity and cross-dressing: ranging from popular cabaret clubs to more clandestine domestic affairs. The exhibition encourages a discourse that moves beyond the binary, in witnessing the different modes of experimentation by individuals across a century of history.

Given this anonymity of most of the photographs, the curatorial proposition about the lives of these individuals can only be speculative, however they do allude to a strong sense of self-expression and a mood of rebellious liberation. “Predominantly found in non-specialist places (flea markets, junk shops, garage sales, eBay) and generally anonymous, these abandoned images offer a very particular view into the private lives of ‘ordinary’ people and present a different version of societal mores,” Lifshitz contends. “As the collection grew, so did my understanding of the nuances therein. The activity or compulsion to ‘dress up’ is multifold and not necessarily related to sexual preference, or gender dysphoria. For some it can simply be a desire to experiment with differently gendered clothing; for many, dressing up is a way of expressing a ‘true’ self, an identity, different to one’s biological (cis) gender; for others it offers a way of resisting, even liberating, binary stereotypes.”[2]

The association between clothing and the human body is ready-made; their relationship is anthropomorphically intertwined. In studies of material culture, the semiotic perspective on the role of objects is that they are representative of our identity. However, body language and mannerisms are also integral to an understanding of the body as a cultural object, subject to gendered characteristics, and therefore enforcing similarly structural codes. The exhibition cites the emergence of increasingly binary concepts of gender in the 19th century as having a bearing on the higher societal value of masculinity. This intersected explicitly with notions of fashion and dress, with the more flamboyant, dandyish outfits of the previous centuries (silks, ribbons, ruffles) being eschewed in order to drive a less ambiguous wedge between what was deemed ‘male’ and ‘female’ clothing.

Deemed a criminal activity across Europe and the US from the early 1900s, cross-dressing was more or less universally banned. As a result, these photographs were often taken in private or domestic spaces, or as part of a more discreet or underground event. Although these images are exhibited without any contextual information regarding the identity of the individuals portrayed, or the circumstances in which they were taken, there are some strands of shared geography or collective cultural experience. One series of black and white photographs, taken between 1930 and 1950, depict a community of men in the suburbs of Washington DC. These images convey how the privacy of the home offered a safe environment in which these men could meet to dress up and photograph one another. The domestic sphere is echoed by their choice of clothing, often embodying the trappings of the conventional suburban housewife. In an album of colour photographs from 1980s Florida, we see a similar aesthetic being traced, with one individual photographing themselves in various guises throughout the house. There are different outfits for the kitchen, the living room, bedroom, and so on. These domestic images echo the ones published by the American transgender periodical Transvestia, founded in 1960 by Virginia Prince. Prince is also known for starting the ‘Hose and Heels’ club, one of the very first crossdressers’ clubs, in Los Angeles in 1961.

The suburban images provide a counterpoint to the more public-facing displays of ‘transvestism’ that occurred on cabaret stages and within the café-concert or British music hall scene. These environments provided a sanctioned space for political and sexual dissidence, pleasure, and the disruption of cultural norms. Vaudeville and burlesque provided a fertile environment for drag queens, often impersonating Hollywood stars or performing well-known musical numbers. Some of these images are more professional, in groups, theatrical and posed, and include of signed headshots, which could have been sent to press or given to fans. Institutions such Finocchio’s Club in San Francisco and the Jewel Box in Miami, both opening in the late 1930s and 40s, are captured, along with La Carrousel de Paris, where the dancer and show-girl Bambi performed in the 1950s. Bambi was the stage-name of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, an Algerian born French trans woman, who was the subject of Lifshitz’s 2013 documentary about her life. Alternatively, in an example of a narrative that had been suppressed, there are series of photographs capturing groups of ‘drag-soldiers’, who organised performances in makeshift theatres in Prisoner of War camps during WWI and WWII. Most camps had at least one theatre group, often cultivating a sense of celebrity with their star performers. For example, Emmerich Laschitz, a German POW in Russia’s Ashinsk camp during the Great War, was known as ‘the most famous cross-dresser in Siberia’.

The exhibition finishes with a selection of photographs depicting examples of women cross-dressing as men. A series of twenty postcards titled ‘Les Femmes de l’Avenir’ (Women of the Future) produced in Nancy in 1900–02, reflected the contemporary attitude towards equality between the sexes as the ‘masculinisation’ of women. The postcards were designed in order to both ridicule and discredit a feminist desire for emancipation. Other images show groups of students at women’s colleges in America. Despite their daily androgynous outfits, here they are wearing borrowed men’s clothes for dance and theatre performances. Posing in groups, these images are playful and humorous, with women wearing large borrowed suits, peak caps, and with cigars stuck jauntily in their mouths. These images feel less subterranean, particularly in comparison to something like the Washington group, due to the sense of general acceptance by the community and lack of personal risk. It also identifies the level of range within Lifshitz’s collection, and the nuances of gender, identity, and personal choice.

By making these private images now public, Lifshitz is seeking to construct a “legitimate memory” as a way to undo the historical erasure of queer culture by the mainstream. Photography itself is a medium deeply entangled with notions of documentary, remembrance, and witnessing, often used in the contemporary sphere to rupture the coherence of traditional historical narratives, due to its consistent reception as the most ‘reliable’ medium of fact and reportage. As Roland Barthes notably writes in Camera Lucida, “every photograph is a certificate of presence.” The environment of spectatorship within an exhibition allows for a compelling layering of narratives to be staged for the viewing audience. The gallery space is used to introduce the memory of these individuals into collective consciousness. Similarly, for those who cross-dressed, these images provided talismanic evidence of their own selfhood, a tangible object that represented who they felt they were inside. There is real pleasure to be found too, by showing these often joyful and genuine images, their rebellious spirit can be conveyed and cemented within history – expanding our horizons of both gender fluidity and the authenticity of self-expression.

 by Philomena Epps



[1] Sébastien Lifshitz, ‘No Dress Code,’ in Loose Associations, Vol 4, Issue 1, The Photographers Gallery, London, 2018, pp 9-10

[2] ibid


Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers’ is drawn from Sébastien Lifshitz’s personal archives and is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London until 3 June 2018. All images are reproduced here courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery. Full captions to images at right are as follows:

  1. Man in makeup wearing ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.
  2. Woman in tuxedo. Albumen print, England, circa 1890.
  3. Guilda, [one of a triptych]. New York, United States, circa 1950.
  4. French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück. Written on verso ‘Kriegsgefangenen- Sendung’. Germany, circa 1915.
  5. Five performers on a platform. Handwritten on verso ‘Haris Fifi, Zerneck Joe, Gaby Zerkovitz, Stasik Ficzin Mehelyi Mimi’. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900.
  6. Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900.
  7. Fairground performer, region of Washington, United States, circa 1940.
  8. Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, circa 1960.
  9. English prisoners of war in the German camp, Frankfurt. Handwritten on verso ‘Artists, Jude “& J. Lewis, second lieutenant, Welsh Regiment, 1st the King’s own”. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1915.