Allow me to introduce you, Dear Readers, to Vesta Tilley, nee Matilda Alice Powles. Born in 1864, she would adopt the stage name Vesta Tilley and would become one of the most famous male impersonators of the Victorian stage. Her father was a comedian, songwriter, and music hall chairman and introduced her to the stage at age 3. She first appeared in drag at the age of six, impersonating the famous opera singer Sims Reeves. This would serve as the catalyst for the rest of her successful career. From Wiki: “She would come to prefer doing male roles exclusively, saying that “I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy”, which is fascinating not only for its honest appraisal of the difficulties women face being heard in the world of men, but how pertinent it remains today.
She traveled with her male performance act from Nottingham to Birmingham and all the way to Liverpool and by age 11, was successfully supporting her family with her income. She used the name Vesta Tilley for the first time (Vesta for the Roman goddess of the hearth and Tilley as a nickname for Matilda, her given name) in 1878 at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn, London (which is home to Bea’s of Bloomsbury, which makes THE best scones of all time for real. But I digress.) so as to (ironically) eliminate audience confusion with the ambiguous gender of her original stage name “The Great Little Tilley”.
She would sing, dance and perform various male characters and pantomimes. Some recordings of her songs can be found here, courtesy of the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara Department of Special Collections library. Her career flourished until her husband, whom she married in 1890, wanted to become an MP and well, having a wife with a performing career of any kind wouldn’t be respectable. She retired in a farewell tour between 1919 and 1920, after her popularity reached a high in WWI, donating all proceeds to charity.
She worked hard to separate her performance from her off-stage identity to protect herself and fend off criticism; in a way, she had to perform her femininity as Matilda just as much when she wasn’t in character as Vesta, reinforcing her status as a woman and wife through the trappings of female fashion (i.e., by wearing fur and jewelry in public). With all its potential difficulties, gender performance seems to have been en vogue at the time, with other women performing in drag as men included Bessie Bellwood, Ella Shields, Hetty King, Fanny Robina, and Millie Hylton. I hope to cover some of their careers and lives in later posts. Until then, I’ll leave you with this remarkable poster of a remarkable woman and her remarkable creation: “the latest chap on Earth”.