Researching for my next-book-but-one (Sex and Sexuality in the Georgian era) my mind wandered into the territory of what was considered physically attractive by men in the eighteenth century. It ties in with a chapter on cross dressing – all those ridottos and masquerades where men could dress as women, and vice versa.
It also involves looking at Chevalier d’Eon – perhaps the first openly transvestite person in Britain. He was a French diplomat, spy and social butterfly who came to live in London, first as a man and then, for some 22 years, as a woman. He deserves a separate post of his own.
Instead: a few thoughts about breeches parts – the name given where operas and plays required the part of the man to be played by a woman. It is a device used by Mozart in the Marriage of Figaro – and it still survives to this day with the tradition of the pantomime dame being played by a man – and the principle boy played by a young woman in trousers. The device had first come to prominence in Restoration dramas where males in the audience were delighted to see women show so much shapely leg. If they were lucky, the denouement included the actress shaking off her tight-cropped wig to reveal her flowing locks, and whipping off her top to reveal that ‘she’ was very definitely not a ‘he’. Gosh, I wonder if any in the audiences had guessed….
By the eighteenth century it was a popular device, even if it was slightly toned down – but even without bare breasts the breeches role had many male admirers, no doubt weary of looking at women in voluminous full-length gowns, with not even a well-turned ankle on view.
I particularly like the story of the rake Charles James Fox, who had the hots for the actress Elizabeth Farren. She was considered a real beauty and when Fox heard that the object of his lust was appearing in a breeches part as Nancy Lovel in Colman’s The Suicide, off he rushed to the theatre. It was the night of 11 July 1778 – exactly 241 years ago, when the Whig rake took his seat, eagerly anticipating a close look at Ms. Farren. The role required her to be disguised as Dick Rattler, a “breeches part,” but horror of horrors, it showed that she had no shapely posterior at all! The costume may have revealed her very slender figure, but without the right curves in the right places Fox was utterly disappointed, and turned his lustful thoughts elsewhere. She was declared to be “all in one straight line from head to foot” but somehow she managed to get over the disappointment of losing one admirer, and instead managed to ensnare Edward Smith-Stanley, the Twelfth Earl of Derby. Her last appearance on stage was in April 1797, two months before her marriage which elevated her to the title of Countess of Derby. Maybe she wasn’t a Foxy lady, but I reckon she made the best choice….