Classic Women Authors in Men’s Clothing: Expressing the Masculine

Colette in suit

A number of classic women authors were known for their penchant for wearing men’s clothing. And in some, if not most of the instances presented here, it’s not merely cross-dressing for fun and comfort, but an expression of the duality of the writer’s nature.

It’s no longer unusual for women to wear pants or man-tailored jackets,. But in the context of the time and place in which the following authors lived, it was an act of rebellion and occasionally a statement of more fluid identity.

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George Sand

george sand in suit

One of the earliest and best-known adopters of male garb, George Sand (1804 – 1876) did so for comfort and to make a statement. She loved traveling, and trousers were more practical than crinolines. Similarly, she was famed — and mocked — for her public cigar-smoking, and never went far without her hookah.

Those who knew her well admired her dual nature: Victor Hugo said of her: “George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female. I entertain a high regard for all my colleagues, but it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.” (Cited in George Sand: A Biography of the First Modern, Liberated Woman by Samuel Edwards, 1972). 

And her contemporary, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tribute, “To George Sand: A Desire” begins: “Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man …” 

Sand’s habits and attire were mocked in cartoons, but she gave back as good as she got from her critics. Whether it was smoking, traveling solo, or wearing breeches, if she wanted to do so, she needed no one’s permission or approval.

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Willa Cather

Willa Cather in confederate cap

Willa Cather (1873 – 1947) grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she was considered a bit of an oddball by the townspeople. She enjoyed dissecting small animals, as she had hopes of becoming a doctor, wore her hair shorn shorter than a boy’s, and donned boyish shirts, ties, and hats. Her family called her Willie, but she also asked to be called William.

Though the photo of her with her buzzed hair and confederate cap seems unusual, masculinized fashions were in vogue at that time and place. Her mode of boyish dress continued into her college years. Cather dropped her ambitions to be a doctor when the writing bug bit, and this talented wordsmith never looked back.

Though it’s widely accepted that she was a lesbian (she and Edith Lewis were partners for forty years), she was discreet about it, as she felt befit social mores of the time, as well as her literary reputation.

As she grew older, Cather’s photos reflect a preference for simple yet elegant clothing that might be described as tailored rather than mannish.

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Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall, around 1930, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Radclyffe Hall (1880 – 1943) is often categorized with the literary lesbians of the early 20th century, and Well of Loneliness is considered a classic of gay literature. Perhaps because the concept and language weren’t prevalent at the time, Hall might more accurately be considered a transgender man from today’s perspective.

Self-described as an “invert,” Hall not only dropped the feminine first name Marguerite from the full name Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, but preferred throughout life to be called John. Consistently garbed in male attire, and adopting maleness completely, it could be argued that the clothing was not simply about exploring a masculine side, but was intrinsic to this author’s very identity.

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Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962), the novelist and masterful gardener, enjoyed an unconventional marriage to Harold Nicolson. Though both preferred members of their own sex, they had two sons and were deeply devoted to one another within their open relationship.

Vita had love affairs with a succession of women, most famously, Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s gender-shifting character in Orlando was inspired by Vita. She seemed to relish the challenge of seducing straight women, leaving several lives and marriages in emotional wreckage.

Though Vita didn’t dress in men’s clothing with as much regularity as Radclyffe Hall (above), she openly acknowledged the duality of her gender identity. Today, she might be considered nonbinary. Her male persona, whom she called Julian, fully emerged when she fell in passionately in love with Violet Trefusis in 1918.

Changing into breeches and other items of male attire, Vita wrote, “I went into wild spirits; I ran, I shouted, I jumped, I climbed, I vaulted over gated; I felt like a schoolboy let out on a holiday … It was one of the most vibrant days of my life.”

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Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay in suit and tie3

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950) had her portrait done wearing suit and tie on several occasions. The iconic poet blossomed when she graduated from Vassar in 1917, the same year in which her first book, Renascence and Other Poems, was published.

She moved to Greenwich Village in New York to explore the Bohemian lifestyle, and a full love life as an openly bisexual woman, enjoying numerous affairs with women and men.

In 1923, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, a widower. Theirs was an open marriage, with security rather than intimacy as the priority, as Millay once wrote that they lived like “two bachelors.” It’s difficult to overstate how far ahead of her time Millay was as an openly bisexual woman living in an open marriage.

As far as her occasional forays in male attire, it’s not clear just what her motivation was or how it made her feel, so we can tentatively speculate that as with Vita Sackville-West, she was exploring the masculine side of her nature. 

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Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers the Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers (1917 – 1967) was bisexual, and as a Southern woman in the mid-twentieth, she struggled with it. Her conflicted feelings were channeled into her female characters, including Frankie (The Member of the Wedding), Miss Amelia (The Ballad of the Sad Café) and Mick (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter).

Her ambivalence may have impacted her unhappy marriage to Reeves McCullers (or rather marriages, for the couple married twice). She preferred going by her more masculine middle name, Carson, rather than her given first name, Lula — a choice also having been made for the sake of being taken more seriously as a writer.

Carson’s usual attire included trousers, collar shirts, and tailored jackets. The clothing she wore doesn’t necessarily look excessively male from today’s standards. 

But remember, this is how she dressed in the 40s and 50s, when women wore fitted dresses, shirtwaists, and colorful hats — clothing that by any standard was ultra-feminine. Perhaps Carson was wearing clothes that suited her ambiguous sexuality; or equally likely, she preferred being comfortable.

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A few more

Here are a few more classic authors who didn’t wear mens clothes as habitually as those above, but posed in them for a photo op or two:

colette en pantalon (colette in a suit)

French author Colette in male attire and smoking, circa 1925 

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Anais Nin in tux smoking

Feminist icon Anaïs Nin most often looked super feminine, but here she is in a tux.

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Margaret Mitchell young in boys clothing

Even Southern belle Margaret Mitchell struck a pose in boy’s attire in her teens.

4 Responses to “Classic Women Authors in Men’s Clothing: Expressing the Masculine”

  1. Hello, thanks for this list of women.
    Isabelle Eberhardt, as I’m sure you know, is well deserving of a place in the list.
    I found her so inspiring that I had to mention her.

    • Thanks for your comment, Al. Coincidentally, someone just offered to do a biography of her for the site, so when that gets posted, I’ll add her to this list!

  2. Hello,

    Can you please tell me your source for the Victor Hugo quote about George Sand? The only other place I have found it is George Sand’s English Wikipedia article, which cites this page as its source.

    Thank you,

    xo Charlie

    • Charlie, sorry for the delay. This quote is cited in George Sand: A Biography of the First Modern, Liberated Woman by Samuel Edwards; 1972. I’ll add that to the post!

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