Sanctuary or cissy? Female impersonation as entertainment in the British Armed Forces, 1939-1945

Presenter: Dr Emma Vickers

Presenter: Dr Emma Vickers

In June 1945, the first official naval production of the Second World War, Pacific Showboat, opened at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. Some of the revue’s performers were men, specifically naval personnel performing as women. The producer of the show called it ‘a sensation’ and claimed that ‘People fought for tickets, especially the queers who were mad about us.’ This popular enthusiasm was not confined to Pacific Showboat. Following the end of the war there were countless glowing newspaper reports that detailed revues performed by ex-service personnel in drag. In Hull and Derby for example, the local press extolled the ‘clever,’ ‘deceptive,’ ‘seductive… [and] realistic’ performers and called the shows ‘good fun’. At the Stoll theatre in London in July 1945, a group of airmen who were all former inmates of Stalag Luft III delivered ‘quality’ impersonations, with two of the men being described by a reviewer writing for the Observer as ‘especially persuasive in their maiden meditation.’

Following the end of the Second World War, revues like Pacific Showboat, Soldiers in Skirts, Forces Showboat, Misleading Ladies and Ralph Reader’s Gang Show capitalised on the appetite of audiences for ex-servicemen in drag. In an attempt to explain this popular fervour, Lawrence Senelick emphasised the British public’s insatiable appetite for drag shows populated by servicemen, in part because they ‘borrowed from the prestige of patriotic war work…[and] combined nostalgia for the camaraderie of the conflict with an avidity for glamour in a grey, heavily rationed world.’ This paper will consider how the populace of post-war Britain acquired their affection for ex-servicemen in drag through an examination of men in the British Armed Forces who informally cross dressed to entertain their colleagues during the Second World War. It will focus in particular on how those performances were decoded by those who viewed them.