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1884, december 12 Writing as Cross-Dressing In which Rachilde applies for permission to cross-dress and become a writer That Rachilde cross-dressed is one of the most well-known and oftenrepeated facts about her life. The precise form of her cross-dressing, along with its meaning for her life and writing, however, is a much more cloudy issue. A gossip item in the first issue of La Plume (15 April 1889) noted that, on Wednesday, March 27, 1889, Rachilde had been spotted at the Bal des Incohérents dressed “en petit abbé” (8). In an article in Le Décadent, Anatole Baju described Rachilde as “l’auteur qui, on le sait, porte le jupon non sans beaucoup de grâce” (3). At first, these two reports of Rachilde’s sartorial choices seem not incompatible : a woman who dresses up for a costume ball would nevertheless be expected to respect social convention and wear skirts the rest of the time. In Rachilde’s case, however, Baju’s reassurance that she wears skirts gracefully is offered to a readership who no doubt knew of Rachilde’s reputation for cross-dressing, while the disguise of an “abbé” is only one of the many male identities that Rachilde would assume. In pursuing the topic of her disguises, this chapter treats Rachilde as a paradigmatic example of cross-dressing at the fin de siècle in order to suggest that cross-dressing was not a single, monolithic, and univocal phenomenon but rather a more fragmented practice. For many, it suffices to state that Rachilde cross-dressed. Without pressing the issue further, this simple fact serves to place her in a constellation of figures and categories that are superficially self-explanatory even as they resist deeper analysis. Rachilde joins company with (in no particular order) George Sand, the woman writer par excellence; Mademoiselle de Maupin, the cross-dressing heroine of Gautier’s novel; la chevalière d’Eon, a sexually ambiguous eighteenth-century aristocrat and diplomat; Madame Dieulafoy, Rachilde’s contemporary and also a novelist, who cross-dressed in order to accompany her archaeologist husband and hence was often invoked as the archetypal bluestocking; the animal painter Rosa Bonheur; and Rachilde’s contemporary Colette .1 Although these figures each represented something slightly different , they all signaled a social challenge through sartorial style. As Marjorie Garber has suggested, cross-dressing is always “a category cri- sis” looking for a place to happen (16). But in Rachilde’s case, as in others , the degree of sartorial nonconformity has been exaggerated in order to represent the degree of perceived nonconformity, and nuances of meaning have been lost in the process. There is no doubt that cross-dressing conveyed transgressive connotations for both men and women. Codes regulating dress had originated in Europe as sumptuary laws intended to patrol class borders (Garber 21–32; P. Perrot 15–16). In order to preserve visible class differences, the wearing of certain items (such as ermine) was declared the privilege of those who enjoyed a certain status. No matter how much wealth an individual accumulated, and no matter what he or she could afford to buy, wear, or display to advertise that wealth (and here I stress the connection between clothing and advertisement), the old distinctions of rank based on blood line and family were maintained through the regulation of outward appearance. Although such beliefs in class difference were challenged, most notably in France through the Revolution, the class distinction was preserved in vestigial form through the gender system. In a structure in which maleness confers privilege (suffrage, the right to own and inherit property, the right to enter into legal contracts, in short, full legal personhood), presenting oneself as a man signified a claim to certain rights, just as wearing certain fabrics had done. For a woman to appear as a man was to make claims above her station. Although there is much that goes into self-presentation (including, not only clothing and other fashions such as hairstyles, but also body language and other nonverbal cues), the claim to the privileges of manhood has come down to a metonymy, the wearing of pants. The regulation of dress has often boiled down to proscriptions against women wearing trousers, as in the case of the French decree against cross-dressing of 16 Brumaire IX (November 7, 1800), promulgated (as no one will be surprised to learn) by the misogynistic Napoleon. This act formed the core of legislation regulating the...


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