This post was contributed by Emily Rutherford, a PhD candidate in History at Columbia University. She works on gender and education in modern Britain, and is writing a thesis about opposition to coeducation in British universities between 1860 and 1935. She has published articles in the Journal of British Studies and the Journal of the History of Ideas.
Follow her on Twitter @echomikeromeo.
While doing archival research on student life in early twentieth century British universities, I was struck by the central role of cross-dressing in student celebrations. Today, when we’re used to thinking about cross-dressing in the context of LGBTQ identities, a drag routine in a 1910 student performance might seem oddly out of its time—but in the early twentieth century drag entertainment was a ubiquitous aspect of male student life in universities across Britain (as well as on the other side of the Atlantic).
The annual student “rag” was an especially major site for cross-dressing. The “rag” in its modern form arose in the 1890s in Scotland and northwest England. On a designated day (e.g. Shrove Tuesday or Bonfire Night), hundreds of men students would don fancy dress and parade to a theater in the city center. After the performance, they would hit the city’s bars and nightclubs.
Rags were particularly popular at large urban universities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, and the London colleges. There, a lot of work went into maintaining the rag as a masculine space. In the early twentieth century, many aspects of student life were voluntarily gender-segregated, with separate common rooms and social calendars. Official policy made clear that these rules applied when student life spilled out onto the city streets, with women students advised to stay away from proceedings. Rags were dangerous and frightening places to be, with mass football matches or flour fights turning into punch-ups. The Manchester University men’s common room instituted a levy in 1921 for a fund to pay for the inevitable property damage that the rag occasioned. Rag rituals also sometimes enacted violence against women, through the ceremonial public execution of rag-doll mascots.
After the First World War, university administrators and student leaders sought to domesticate rags by associating them with collections in aid of local hospitals. In view of this, women students sought to participate in collecting efforts in fancy dress, but university administrators and police felt that this would be both undignified and unsafe. It was often determined that women could go out with collecting tins if they wore caps and gowns instead of fancy dress. At Manchester, after voting down women’s participation in the fancy dress procession several times, the women’s union decided in 1935 that women students could participate if they submitted their costumes for approval to a student committee. At other universities, women did not participate in parades and pageants until after the Second World War.
In the absence of women, men dressed in female drag played an important role in the iconography of rag celebrations. Stock fancy-dress characters included working-class women, suffragettes, and mothers and babies. Borrowing from the pantomime tradition, skits featured men playing roles such as a femme fatale in a Hollywood film shoot, Boadicea or Maid Marian, or a queen or lady mayoress who would award prizes for the best costumes. The first male same-sex kiss in British cinema is generally held to be in 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, but a 1922 Pathé newsreel records an amorous moment between two Durham students dressed as a knight and a damsel-in-distress.
Rag drag’s raucous mockery of femininity in coeducational universities was ubiquitous and unremarkable. It made a distinction between men’s risqué performances of femininity and the decorous, respectable appearance of the actual women students in academic dress. It also folded envelope-pushing around gender and sexuality into the general topsy-turvy carnival atmosphere of rag festivities. Behavior (such as two men kissing) that could have gotten men arrested for gross indecency in other contexts, could in a cinema newsreel shown to audiences around Britain be represented simply as student hijinks.
Thinking about rag drag tells us something about student life at universities around Britain in the early twentieth century, and about the growth of a national (albeit highly gendered) student culture that could unite the experiences of men studying, say, at Glasgow, Sheffield, and Cambridge. It also offers a different perspective on the stories we tell about the history of gender and sexuality in modern Britain. The Durham students’ kiss has forebears in Shakespearean comedy, and descendants in Monty Python and the generations of television sketch comedians inspired by them. Even as the British state and society have consistently marginalized and punished many forms of gender transgression, there are others that are at the heart of the national cultural heritage. What these traditions leave out—whether, in this case, they can be reconciled with the full participation of women in comedy, student life, or a perception of a unified national cultural identity—remains to be seen.