Posts Tagged ‘Vesta Tilley’

Amber the cross-dressing actor

November 25, 2019
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Amber the Actor is a man who has adventures dressed as a woman

The Victorians are often regarded as a frigid lot, but some their magazines took on topics such as cross-dressing and gender fluidity, though they were very niche areas.

These themes developed in magazines such as Photo-Bits, with Amber the Actor by Derk Fortescue being one example. The hero dresses as a woman and has a series of adventures in stories that ran in 1910 and 1911. .

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Amber, left, dressed as a maid

And there were real-life precedents. Vesta Tilley was one of the most famous male impersonators of her era and a star in both Britain and the United States for 30 years. Her real name was Matilda Alice Powles (1864-1952) who had taken Vesta Tilley as her stage name at the age of just 11.

In 1912 she performed as ‘The Piccadilly Johnny with the Little Glass Eye’ at the first Royal Variety Performance. A Victoria and Albert Museum article about the music halls describes how the Queen reacted:

The only embarrassment occurred when Queen Mary saw the male impersonator act by Vesta Tilley appear on stage in trousers and apparently buried her face in her programme. At that time it would have been considered most immodest for a woman to be seen in public wearing trousers. It was only with the onset of the First World War that women ‘were allowed’ to wear them.

Her fame led her to take part in recruiting drives in the First World War, singing the patriotic song, ‘In Dear Old England’s Name‘.