A Cross Dressing Story
They were the “volunteers” enlisted into the various concert parties which were used to keep up morale amongst the troops. Many of them were probably closet trannies anyway, glad of a chance to slip into a frock, but even those who weren’t at least learned a trade they could use in civilian life. One far more useful than killing people.
And use it they did, taking their feminine tricks of the trade onto theatre stages throughout the country in all-male revues that were highly successful into the 1920’s and beyond.
One of the most celebrated wartime concert parties had been called Les Rouges et Noir in France, but changed its name back to splinters back in Britain. The cast of cross-dressed ex-soldiers played to full houses in Shaftesbury Avenue and the London Coliseum before launching a provincial tour that ran with various changes of company for another twenty years.
The success of another concert party has been uncovered by researcher Peter Farrer for a recently published book. He found a review of their show in the British Army newspaper The Balkin News, which listed seven men playing girls’ parts. The star part of Lizzie was played by Private T Wardle who “has a future to be envied”, the paper reported, “with charming manners and soprano voice.” The paper continued to gush: “The costumes must have been one of the many surprises. One hardly expects to find these things in a troupe from “up the line”, but they were splendid, espacially Lizzie’s who had to reveal the contents of her boudoir more than once.” On the whole, it sounds like Private Wardle had a bad war.
As well as a third-party review of the concert party, we have a first hand account of what it was like to be a male actress in those days. For luckily one member of the cast wrote to the newspaper “Bits of Fun”, which Peter Farrer has used as reference for his collection “Confidential Correspondence Part II 1916-1920”
Regular readers will remember that the first part of this collection was reviewed in our last issue. Peter Farrer has now followed it up with another batch of letters, almost 300 in total, which provide further fascinating information about cross-dressing in that period. The writer of the letter was a sergeant in the Mechanical Transport section, who had been a closet TV since he was a small boy. Suddenly, the war had given him the opportunity to wear his fantasy clothes in public for the very first time.
“For the past 18 months I have shown almost every night ….dressed up in women’s clothes”, he wrote. “I wear the tightest of corsets (23ins), high heeled boots and shoes, long, tight fitting black or white kid gloves, silk stockings, ladies’ undies, a wig and above all, long heavy earrings, for which I had my ears pierced.”
Signing himself simply as JEH, the sergeant follows up his letter with a second a month later when he writes about attending a weekend houseparty as a girl, and staying undiscovered throughout.
Peter Farrer’s research identified the writer through a review in The Balkan News as a Sergeant Howard. He was in the same party as “Lizzie” Wardle playing a fairy called Fifi.
It’s such attention to detail that makes Peter Farrer’s collection so interesting. These are real men writing of their experiences in dresses at home and at war, some voluntary and some forced to take on female roles that nature never intended.