Who Wears The Trousers - RSC

Capsule were invited to curate an exhibition for the Royal Shakespeare Company in response to the Roaring Girl Season, we worked with the Girls Who Draw, a group of female illustrators from across the UK. Inspired by the Swan Theatre production, they playfully explored the tradition of cross-dressing in theatre and how clothes are used to express identity, the exhibition was aimed at a family audience and was titled ‘Who Wears The Trousers.


The Roaring Girl was written in 1612 by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton. It features Moll Cutpurse, a character based on the real life Mary Frith. The term ‘Roaring Girl’ comes from the much more common phrase ‘Roaring Boy’. ‘Roaring Boy’ was used to describe wild, outspoken men who committed petty crime and brawled on the streets. Moll was a notorious ‘Roaring Girl’ who publically shocked and challenged the authorities by wearing men’s clothing while performing on stage, both were illegal at the time.

Theatre has used cross-dressing throughout history to challenge norms of femininity and shock audiences. What does clothing mean today in a world where women wear trousers, men have long hair and clothing is often gender neutral? Throughout history and in almost every culture, disguising one’s gender has been a common plotline in folklore, literature and theatre.

Single-sex theatrical troupes often have some performers who cross-dress to play roles written for members of the opposite sex.  Cross-dressed female actors are referred to as playing ‘trouser roles’. In ancient Greek theatre, the rites carried out traditionally by women were banned when they evolved into theatre and the parts given to men.  The Greeks believed that allowing women to perform publically would be too dangerous.  This had become part of Christian beliefs in the 1600s at the time when Shakespeare was writing.

About a fifth of Shakespeare’s plays include the use of cross-dressing for female characters.  Cross-dressing is often essential in complicating and resolving the plot.  It also allows female characters to carry out actions considered difficult or inappropriate for women as well as for comic effect, such as in As You Like It.

Here the character Rosalind dresses in disguise as a man called Ganymede who, at one point in the play, pretends to be a woman.  As it was illegal for women to be onstage when Shakespeare wrote the play, the male actor would have been dressed as a woman, disguised as a man, dressing as a woman!

Who Wears the Trousers Now?

Since the adoption of trousers in Western Europe, they had been largely worn by men.  Trousers were not commonly worn by women until the early 20th century. During World War I, women wore their husbands’ (properly altered) trousers while they took on jobs previously reserved for men.  They increasingly wore trousers as leisurewear in the 1920s and 30s. During World War II, due to the rationing of clothing, many women took to wearing their husbands’ civilian clothes to work while their husbands were away. This was partly because these clothes were seen as work garments, and partly to allow women to keep their clothing allowance for other uses. In the post-war era, trousers were still common casual wear for gardening, socialising, and other leisure activities.  They have continued to gain in popularity ever since. In the 1960s, André Courréges introduced jeans for women, leading to a huge fashion for designer jeans. Wearing trousers today is no longer seen as cross-dressing in Western culture as the lines between clothing and gender stereotypes continue to be blurred.

Challenging the Tradition

As societies are becoming more global in nature, both men’s and women’s clothing are adopting styles of dress associated with other cultures. Traditional gender stereotypes have been challenged and reset in recent years.  Popular culture is full of examples where lines have been crossed. One of the earliest celebrities to challenge gender stereotypes was Elvis Presley in the 1950s.  His wardrobe and use of makeup led traditionalists to riot. Presley inspired other artists in the 1960s, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to experiment with long hair and neutral costumes. Many musicians challenged gender stereotypes, for example Jimi Hendrix who wore women’s shirts, scarves, and high-heeled boots. These trends have arguably gone on to reshape fashion. In contemporary society, we are less bound by ‘dress’ as a way of defining what is male or female.  Gender can have ambiguity and fluidity as demonstrated by the characters created by the Girls Who Draw.

Girls Who Draw

Girls Who Draw is an all-girl group of illustrators from around the UK. Over the last few years they have grown from a small group to a larger network of contributors. They collaborate in order to publish a postcard book once a year and each new book is accompanied by an exhibition.

Many of the group have been bought together through their involvement in printmaking, self-publishing and creating their own fanzines, artists’ books, comics and graphic novels. All of those involved work independently and design, make and sell their own range of products be it stationery, prints, textiles, jewellery or even ceramics. Each illustrator also works in their own unique way, the styles and techniques they use range from intricately detailed drawings to multi-layered paintings and from colourful patterned screen prints to bold digital illustrations.

Artists – Anke Weckmann, Elle Donlon, Jane McGuinness, Karoline Rerrie, Kristyna Baczynski, Laura Kate Chapman, Mina Braun, Ruth Green