Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco by Clare Sears (review)
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Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. By Clare Sears. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014. Pp. 216. $79.95 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

This important study provides a fresh approach to the topic of cross-dressing. The author aspires to transcend conceptual limitations of previous work on cross-dressing histories of the nineteenth century that all too readily embrace contemporary categories or language. Informed by queer theory and transgender studies, the analysis considers a broad range of cross-dressing practices alongside each other and avoids judgmental distinctions “between normative and nonnormative gender” practices (9). Sears deploys the concept of “trans-ing” to shift our attention “away from the recognizable cross-dressing figure to multiple forms of cross-dressing practices” (9). The result is a thoughtful, sophisticated exploration of people who challenged, [End Page 536] rejected, and played with gender in a wide range of circumstances to varied ends.

This study is well anchored in a particular place and time: San Francisco between 1848 and 1900. The periodization of the study is crucial and is described by the author as a time when the city was transformed from “a small, coastal village in recently Mexican territory into an epicenter of US capitalist investment, urban development, and imperial expansion” (5). As men flocked to the region during the gold rush, numerous cultural practices emerged that produced the “temporary fantasy of the gender binary” as men transformed themselves into women for dances in mining camps and dance halls. The gold rush also attracted countless passing men, some who were women donning male attire for ease of movement and others who identified or lived as men.

In the 1850s merchants and wealthy citizens worked to assert moral and social order on city life. The Board of Supervisors led racist attacks on Mexican and Chinese sex workers while largely looking past white women engaged in the trade. Cross-dressing practices were conflated with prostitution and lumped into a broad category of indecent acts. The Vigilance Committee sought to “purify” the city by celebrating the white middle-class family and restricting saloons, gambling, cross-dressing, and prostitution. Laws against indecency were passed in 1863, marking an important turning point in the social and cultural life of the city and formally criminalizing cross-dressing.

Arresting Dress charts the criminalization of cross-dressing and argues that this was foundational “to the project of modern municipal government” (3). The arrest, interrogation, and humiliation of cross-dressers at the hands of the police was real. While the adoption of specific laws against cross-dressing was new (and spread across the country in the 1850s and 1860s), the detention of certain suspected cross-dressers by police was in fact not. Throughout the eighteenth century, people turned their neighbors, coworkers, and strangers over to the local authorities when they suspected they were not the gender they claimed to be. Policing practices varied (depending on the circumstances), but it was not uncommon for police to hold the person in jail on a charge of vagrancy. In this study of San Francisco, we learn that over a forty-year period, only about one hundred people were arrested (62). While the very existence of the law would have deterred many people from cross-dressing, others blatantly ignored the law, to little consequence. The real impact of the anti-cross-dressing laws is answered not by the fact or rate of arrest, however, but by the power it gave to the medical establishment to further discipline cross-dressers. Sears presents numerous cases of judges ordering people committed to the asylum for insisting on their need or right to cross-dress in public (74–75). Public health officials used the law against patients to substantiate claims of insanity and justify institutionalization. [End Page 537]

The analysis of anti-Chinese racism provides an important dimension to Sears’s study and helps illuminate how race, gender, and sexuality were regulated together as part of a broader plan for municipal growth. Sears describes the common arguments that Chinese women were hypersexualized and Chinese men effeminate as evidence of the power of ideals of sex and gender to advance...


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