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Vintage photos of Estonian frat students that participated in drag shows, 1870-1910


At the University of Tartu in Estonia, there was a tradition of holding a "pledge theatre" in late autumn for students which soon included staging plays as a rite of initiation for the members.

The all-male vows were expected to play both male and female roles and really committed themselves to costumes and makeup with a serious focus.

The actors visited local photographers in costume, and the images were created as memorabilia and cartes de visits that could be purchased by students and spectators. Since these were all male groups, female characters were especially popular.


Many societies forbade women from performing on stage, so boys and men took on female roles. In ancient Greek theatre, men played the roles of women, as they did in English Renaissance theater and continue to do so in Japanese kabuki theater (see onagata).

Chinese opera was traditionally all male, which led to the ride of the female-led Yu or Shaoxing Opera. In the Victorian period, English actresses impersonated men in the theatre, and in America actresses such as Anne Hindle also impersonated men in their performances. She had a low voice and regularly shaved her facial hair making it a stubble.


Cross-dressing in motion pictures began in the early days of silent films. Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel brought the tradition of female impersonations to English music halls when they came to America in 1910 with the comedy troupe of Fred Carno.

Both Chaplin and Laurel sometimes dressed as women in their films. Even the muscular American actor Wallace Berry appeared in a series of silent films as a Swedish woman. The Three Stooges, notably Curly (Jerry Howard), occasionally appeared in drag in their short films.

This tradition has been going on for many years, usually played for laughs. Only in recent decades have there been dramatic films that included cross-dressing, possibly due to the strict censorship of American films until the mid-1960s.



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