King's College London
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Stories of Strand-Aldwych

Fanny and Stella

While costumed actors may have taken the stage in the Royal Strand Theatre one night during April 1870, two individuals were arrested for wearing makeup and dresses offstage in the same theatre (Joyce, 2018, p. 83). Fanny and Stella, the names assumed by Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park when they dressed as women, were arrested at the Strand Theatre for their gender performance that night (Joyce, 2018, p. 83). I argue that their arrest demonstrates the ways in which gender performance was policed on the Strand and in London during the time period, which relied on biological notions of gender. This undoubtedly impacted the ways individuals presented themselves as they walked along the Strand. Still, the support and livelihood that Fanny and Stella were able to achieve as cross-dressers indicates a non-negligible level of tolerance for different gender expressions that is not often associated with the rigid gender structures of the Victorian era.

Fanny and Stella photographed. [1]Fanny and Stella photographed. [1]

The performance of gender and the idea of passing as a particular gender are crucial elements of this story. Fanny and Stella’s gendered transgressions had to be forcibly uncovered in order to be legally considered transgressions. They often got away with cross-dressing, each passing sufficiently to passersby that they were not questioned (Clarke, 2021). When they finally were arrested, it was the culmination of a year-long police investigation into their cross-dressing behavior (Clarke, 2021). Even after their arrest, police initiated an invasive medical procedure to determine Fanny and Stella’s genders and, ostensibly, to prove their deviance from their genders assigned at birth (Joyce, 2018, p. 83). Paradoxically, Fanny and Stella must have demonstrated some deviance from their gender assigned at birth, but not enough to arrest them without an invasive medical procedure to confirm. This suggests the importance of performance on the Strand – if you performed a particular gender well enough to avoid rousing suspicion, you were free to move about the Strand unhindered.

Fanny and Stella leaving Bow Magistrates Court.[2]Fanny and Stella leaving Bow Magistrates Court.[2]

This brings us to the question of what performance of gender was expected of individuals in Victorian London. During the 19th century in England, as men traveled to factories or offices for work, women were expected to stay at home, a process justified by the ‘natural’ differences between men and women (Hughes, 2014). These strict gender roles were reflected in the gender performance expected of both men and women. Women’s fashion during this era involved elaborate skirts and undergarments, such as the corset, the crinoline, and the bustle (V&A, n.d.). This is in diametric opposition to men’s fashion, which experienced relatively subtle changes with the onset of the Victorian era (Victorian Era Men’s Fashion, 2020). Similar to the strict roles men and women were expected to embody in their daily lives – the breadwinner and the homemaker, respectively – the outward appearance of the sexes was similarly categorically policed. Within this context, an individual appearing to cross strict gender boundaries with their clothing was controversial in part because of the all-encompassing nature of the era’s gender roles. Not only were clothes policed, but the actions an individual was able to take in their daily lives was limited by their biological sex. Against this black-and-white background, cross-dressing was understood as going against nature.

However, despite the prevailing gender roles of the Victorian era, in their experiences cross-dressing, Fanny and Stella received support from their community as well. There is evidence that Fanny and Stella were ‘part of a Victorian queer culture, with newspaper reports and transcripts describing the immense cheers that echoed throughout the court following their acquittal’ (Clarke, 2021). This level of support may be surprising within the context of the era’s gender roles, as established previously.

Written by Taylor Targioni


[1] Fanny and Stella. Photograph by Frederick Spalding. Restored. Essex Record Office D/F 269/1/3712, Public domain. c. 1869.

[2] Fanny and Stella leaving Bow Magistrates Court on 9 April 1870. The Illustrated Police News, Public domain.

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