Chris Mowat

This past year I’ve had the pleasure of being part of a group helping to put together the “Proud! Telling LGBT+ Stories in Sheffield” project at Weston Park Museum, Sheffield. It was initiated when one of the curators, Clara Morgan, noticed there were no objects in the collections categorised as LGBT+ beyond a few leaflets about sexual health from the early 2000s, meaning the wider stories of queer lives in Sheffield past and present were not being represented. The ensuing community-led project has resulted in an exhibition at the entrance to the “Sheffield Life and Times” gallery, as well as queer-focused events planned for throughout the next year.

One item in the museum’s collections that gave us all pause for thought was a pair of shoes that had once belonged to Vesta Tilley. Vesta Tilley was a male impersonator of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, gaining popularity in both British Music Halls and, later, American Vaudeville. Originally from Worcester, she performed in men’s clothing with her father from the age of six, quickly gaining popularity as a solo act and touring around cities in the north of England, including Sheffield where she performed at the Gaity Hall owned by her future father-in-law Henry de Frece. She is perhaps best remembered for one of the most famous Music Hall songs, “Following in Father’s Footsteps” (1902), a song whose blend of naivety and vulgarity brings particular humour in conjunction with the identity of the singer.

Vesta Tilley’s shoes, worn as part of her male impersonation costume, now on display in the ‘Proud!’ exhibition at Weston Park Museum. Copyright Museums Sheffield.

Cross-dressing and drag have always had a close connection to queer communities and identities. More than just parody or performance, drag can serve as a critique of the gender norms that bind us all and become, in the words of Alok K. Menon, “a political, comedic, and aesthetic sensibility which has been practiced by people of all genders for ages“. Female impersonators and drag queens are perhaps more widely seen and discussed (in both academia and mainstream media) but male impersonation and drag kings have just as important a place, and perhaps Vesta Tilley’s shoes gave us the opportunity to represent that in the exhibition and in the Steel City’s queer history more broadly.

It may not, however, be as simple as that, and Tilley herself seems to be a complicated figure in respect of queerness. Though she cross-dressed professionally throughout her career, she was always careful to make it known it was just a career for her, and offstage she made sure to keep up with the latest women’s fashions and always presented very feminine. One thing that could have held her back in her career was the fact that she always kept her hair long (and traditionally feminine for the period), instead favouring a complex wig on stage. In her autobiography, she writes:

One of my most successful features in my “make-up” as a boy was my wig. It was indeed a work of art and it took me half an hour to fix it in my head. […] I had long wavy hair, one of the few things female vanity would not allow me to sacrifice, and before I fitted on the “skull cap,” I had to twist my own hair into innumerable small plaits, which I wound and pinned carefully around my head, a delicate job. (pp 147-8)

The masculine shaping the skull cap and wig gave her, as she describes it, was part of the performance, and part of the art, but not part of her own identity.

Similarly, the sexual overtones – and indeed tones – normally associated with the Music Halls can be seen to have allowed queer expressions to flourish, but Tilley always kept herself apart from these. In a biography of Tilley, Sara Maitland writes that “by the 1890s she had already thrown her lot in with the ‘respectables’ […] who, for reasons of profit and social advancement, wanted to create a ‘high-class Variety’, free from all taint of vulgarity” (p.28). This group of ‘respectables’ also included her husband, Walter de Frece, whose father owned a series of Music Halls in the north of England in which Tilley performed. Their courtship and marriage was very public, which again served to distance Tilley from the unrestrained sexuality and the potential queerness of her profession. Indeed, at her first performance after her marriage and honeymoon in 1890, the Music Hall played wedding music for her, and the audience gave their congratulations through raucous applause. Although the performer was impersonating masculinity before them, there was no misunderstanding that the audience viewed her as a cisgender heterosexual woman.

The de Freces’ respectability continued to rise, and Walter’s knighthood in 1919 and election to the House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1920 coincided with Tilley’s retirement. This retirement was almost certainly motivated by the fact that a profession in the Music Halls was not particularly becoming for her new station as Lady de Frece, though we must also remember that Tilley was at this point 56 years old, having had a career that spanned five decades and two continents.

Colour tinted photographic postcard of music hall performer and male impersonator Miss Vesta Tilley. Reproduced with the permission of the National Fairground and Circus Archive, The University of Sheffield.

Tilley’s separation of art and life suggests she would not have necessarily identified with the gender and sexual minorities we were trying to represent in the museum exhibition. Although her individual success as a woman able to direct her own career and retain respectability at a time when this was not always possible, were we just giving more space in this LGBT+ space for a person who was (arguably) cis and straight? By comparison, her slightly-earlier contemporary, Annie Hindle, gained similar success in America as a male impersonator but also seems to have presented butch in all aspects of her life; when she married Anna Ryan in 1886, giving the name ‘Charles’ at the registry office, the revelation of the offstage activity caused quite a scandal, though did not damage her onstage career. (Unfortunately, Museums Sheffield doesn’t have any objects that belonged to Hindle to include in the exhibition!)

But Vesta Tilley’s shoes, and indeed Vesta Tilley’s shows, represent more than just the woman herself. Variety Shows were an opportunity for performers to play with the boundaries of normalcy, but in much the same way they were an opportunity for audiences to witness and be a part of the queer conversation, too. Indeed in her autobiography, Tilley relates how, in the year of her retirement she was sent a diary by a fan, who “record[ed] the first time she saw me, her journeys to see me in various towns at which I appeared, her opinions of the many new songs I had introduced during the time, all punctuated with expressions of lasting love and devotion” (p. 233-4). Tilley alludes, 13 years later, to still having contact with this fan, and cryptically concludes that, for this fan at least, “clearly it is not a case of girlish infatuation”. The continued correspondence beyond Tilley’s retirement suggests a desire that ran beyond the stage, and, though perhaps not reciprocated in the way the fan may have wanted, was at least acknowledged and accepted.

Tilley didn’t, however, defend the “infatuation” of all her women fans, and follows this anecdote with another of a fan whom she noticed following her to all her shows on one tour. This particular fan sent masses of flowers and requests to meet her in her dressing room, to which the performer finally acquiesced but prepared for the meeting by partially removing her plaits and make-up, leaving her appearance in an unmade state befitting neither a man nor a woman. With this, she hoped to “cure” the infatuation, but the fan replied “oh no! I know you have only made yourself look like that on purpose, and I love the real you more than ever!” (p. 235). Again, the fan was clearly not misunderstanding Tilley for a man offstage, but instead found in the performer an opportunity to experience and acknowledge her queer/homoerotic desires.

Different audiences can take different things from watching a drag show. For some, it is merely a good rib of the otherwise rigid gender roles that pervade in the ‘real’ world. For others, they are a chance to experience sights, but also feelings and emotions that the ‘real’ world won’t otherwise allow. In Sarah Waters’ modern novelisation of Victorian queerness, Tipping the Velvet (1998), the protagonist Nan Astley first discovers her own queer desires when watching a Music Hall performance by a male impersonator, Kitty Butler. In this way, the performer’s own identity becomes less important for LGBT+ history than what she can have been for audiences across the spectra of gender and sexual minorities. Vesta Tilley’s shoes, then, as much as they represent the long history of drag and Music Halls in Sheffield, also allow us to open the representation of the people who attended, and the long history of queer desire in the Steel City.

The rest of our exhibition has a varied range of objects from Sheffield’s LGBT+ history. Sitting alongside these shoes are objects such as a wedding dress from a same-sex civil partnership celebrated in Sheffield and a diary of a queer man on the day he “told the world and parents I’m bi”. Each of these objects holds a personal story of queer experience, and together they allow us to acknowledge Sheffield’s LGBT+ history. “Proud! Telling LGBT+ Stories in Sheffield” is on display at Weston Park Museum until summer 2020.

Chris Mowat is a Teaching Associate in Ancient History at the University of Sheffield, where they teach and research on the intersections of religion and gender in the ancient Mediterranean. They are particularly interested in public interactions with queer history, and have worked with the LGBT History Project NE and the forthcoming Steel City Queer History, as well as writing for NOTCHES and History MattersThey tweet at @chrismologos.

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