Vesta Tilley: Victorian Britain’s Most Famous Drag King

With the rise of Ru Paul and drag in mainstream media, many drag queens have ascended to celebrity status. Drag kings – female performers dressed in traditionally male clothing –, on the other hand, are pushed to the side, seen as a practice with less cultural or historical significance. But Vesta Tilley proves this to be false. At her height, Tilley was the highest earning woman in Britain, constantly pushing gender boundaries, influencing male fashion, and entertaining crowds across Europe and the United States. She also dabbled in war recruitment propaganda and playing the perfect Edwardian housewife, making her a fascinating and essential historical figure, simultaneously radical and conservative. Dive into the life of Vesta Tilley and discover how we must be careful not to valorise historical heroes without understanding the contradictions and complexities that make them human.

Born in 1864 in Worcester as Matilda Alice Powles, Tilley’s career started younger than most: her musical hall performer father placed her on stage at the tender age of three and, by six, she began impersonating the opposite gender. Even at an early stage, Elaine Aston argues that Tilley’s career set her apart from her peers – unlike male impersonators of the past, there was no hint of ‘woman’ in her performance. Tilley studied and mimicked the men around her to an astonishing degree of accuracy, from gait, body language, accents, behaviour, hair, and impeccable costumes. The result was an androgynous and stylish performer, switching characters from vicar to gentlemen as effortlessly as she switched from song to song. Tilley’s talent was obvious and her rise to fame – from local theatre to music hall to the Royal Variety Show – was meteoritic.

Two photo cards of Vesta Tilley, one showing her out of drag in a fancy dress with jewellery, and one card of her in a tuxedo.
Cards of Vesta Tilley in and out of drag ©Wikimedia Commons

To grasp the phenomenal impact that Tilley had on theatre and performance, it is necessary to understand what masculinity looked like during the height of Tilley’s career, from the 1890s to the 1910s. Two key archetypes defined the upper and middle classes: dandyism and ‘muscular Christianity’. Dandies followed a long tradition of aristocratic men, such as Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron, who emphasised clothes, hairstyle, and culture, tied together with a flourish of theatrically and leisurely pastimes. ‘Muscular Christianity’, Josephine Jobbins explains, was a newer and more middle class standard, which presented the ideal man as athletic, stoic, and religious, whose favourite hobbies were public school games and defending the British Empire. With the rise of the rational macho man, came increased class-based criticism of the dandy’s idleness and ostentatiousness, a symbol of an increasingly unpopular aristocracy. 

Tilley’s performances were part of such criticism. Using costume and song, she impersonated dandies and mocked their obsession with wealth and status, drinking, and disdain for marriage. Such impersonations became Tilley’s niche, making her extremely popular among middle- and working-class women for critiquing masculinity and class using arguments that they could identify with. Just as women of today love the TikTok comedians who parody the low-commitment emotionally barren dating style of modern men, Victorian women went wild for Tilley as she donned a short wig and velvet morning coat to sing songs about how excessive and foolish fat-cat dandies were. Their fandom even bordered on romantic infatuation, with Tilley writing that her post-box was filled with ‘piles of letters, varying from an impassioned declaration of undying love to a request for an autograph’.

A signed sepia picture of Tilley in drag, leaning back comfortably in a large, ornate chair.
An autographed photograph of Vesta Tilley ©Wikimedia Commons

But impersonating the group of people you’re criticising can be a double-edged sword: Tilley’s spotless style and androgynous looks elevated her performances beyond parody, presenting a sophisticated, refined man to her audience. Men were influenced by her feminine interpretation of masculinity, notably, in an episode in New York where her performance sparked a fashion trend of replacing cufflinks with ribbons. For a woman to have an impact on standards of ideal masculinity, particularly in rigid late Victorian society, subverted gender norms in a radical – and some would say dangerous – way.

If history was simple, Tilley’s career would have been a neat story of a highly successful male impersonator who travelled Europe and America, challenging men’s most toxic behaviours. But history is never so clean cut and people even less so. It is easy to assume that because of the radical and queer nature of much of Tilley’s work, that this permeated all aspects of her personal and professional life. But Tilley was full of contradictions. Off-stage, she was deeply conservative and, despite rising to fame by challenging gender stereotypes, she also conformed to them, in the name of wartime propaganda.

After the trials of Oscar Wilde, dandyism was on the down and so was satirisation of it. The outbreak of World War One only heightened Britain’s conservative culture and Tilley changed tack from dressing as a dashing dandy to a no-nonsense soldier. Aston points out that her impersonations of volunteer soldiers used retrogressive gender stereotypes to encourage enlistment: instead of poking fun at men’s behaviours, Tilley’s performances were some of the most on-the-nose wartime propaganda available. Her song ‘The Army of Today’s Alright’ sings the praises of the British Army and states that women ought only to be attracted to heroic soldiers of action. This analysis is by no means ahistorical either: those opposed to the futile violence of the First World War at the time were quick to critique her complicity.

A colourised photo card of Vesta Tilley sold to raise money for War Relief Funds.
A card with a photography of Vesta Tilley in an army uniform sold to raise money for War Relief Funds ©Digital Transgender Archive

For all of Tilley’s queerness on stage, she never dared transgress gender norms away from the limelight. Unlike other male impersonators of the time, such as Annie Hindle, Tilley rejected male clothing in her personal life, stating that: ‘I heartily detest anything mannish in a woman’s private life’. As well as for personal political reasons, maintaining the image of a modest, feminine woman off-stage was an act of self-preservation. Victorian audiences were all fine and dandy with gender being challenged on the physical and symbolic confines of the stage, but once it spilt out into the “real world”, such ideas were highly threatening indeed. Tilley wasn’t about to challenge this rhetoric either, even insisting in her autobiography that the only men who were influenced by her fashion sense and reinterpretation of masculinity were deranged murderers and Americans.

But I don’t share this conservative side of Tilley to discredit her legacy or argue that her performances were any less transgressive or exciting. Tilley made male impersonation, not just popular, but respectable. She made significant inroads for female musical comedians, such as Victoria Wood, and her iconic look even made it to the RuPaul’s Drag Race runway. But Tilley’s most significant influence by far was on drag king performers of today. While, as Ellie Medhurst argues, Tilley was ‘stylistically miles away’ from modern drag kings, her pioneering work is reflected in so much of theirs. We can see her swaggering attitude and love of fine-cut suits in Beau Jangles. Or her act of satirising masculine performances in LoUis CYfer’s comedic characters. Echoes of her musical comedy are found in almost every drag king act, not least this hilarious performance by CYRO and Richard Energy. Every time a drag king ascends the stage to dazzle a crowd, Vesta Tilley – and the many other male impersonation pioneers of history – are performing alongside them.

I want to illuminate the conservative of Tilley, rather, to argue that a vital part of finding historical figures who we love and connect to is understanding that they are not perfect people, that their inherent contradictions are part of what makes them human. In order to do this, we need to balance both holding them accountable for actions we find morally reprehensible but also understanding that they were products of their time. Tilley was, after all, pushing gender boundaries in a world where women could be arrested for wearing trousers.

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