Jul 112019

‘An actress at her toilet, or Miss Brazen just breecht ‘(i.e. putting on breeches), by John Colley.

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….

Portrait of Elizabeth Farren, by Thomas Lawrence. Underneath all that drapery was a sadly unimpressive posterior ….


  One Response to “Once more into your breeches, dear friends….”


    Interesting post on the “breeches role” and relevant to my novel in progress. I appreciate it and always enjoy the accompanying images of your posts.

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