Men in skirts
Even before there was Boy George, cross-dressing had its place in performance, stretching back to when holy men dressed up as women to merger with an androgynous god. Spring-boarding from this spiritual precedent, dramatic gender-bending around the world has evolved, with interesting and often shocking variations.
Japanese kabuki Theater
Early kabuki theater was a forum for female eroticism and prostitution, which soon blurred the boundaries between women's onstage and "backstage" talents. After authorities forbade women to perform the theater style, men took over in 1629, performing the male and female parts. Both the Chinese and the Japanese dramatic cross-dressing traditions have developed highly refined techniques and detailed codes of movement, dress and makeup. The Peking Opera of China and the kabuki theater are the most popular classical theater forms in their respective countries today, and both have earned a global reputation.
Can you imagine watching Romeo profess his love to a boy in a wig on a balcony? In Shakespeare's time, even the most famous European dramatic traditions were initially performed by all-male casts. Sixteenth-century English society believed that the stage was no place for a woman, so all of the female Shakespearean roles were played by boys or young men. It wasn't until 1660 that the first woman, Margaret Hughes, appeared on a London stage, playing the role of Desdemona in Othello.
Paris Opera Ballet
Leave it to the French to throw a feminine twist into onstage gender-bending. The 19th-century danseur was a ballerina who impersonated male roles from the corps all the way to romantic leads. It turned out that the Paris Opera Ballet was actually a front for glorified prostitution during the 1830s, and women playing masculine roles became an erotic enticement, especially since the pas de deux (romantic duet) occurred between two women. The danseur usually exposed the most flesh onstage, with legs and buttocks revealed in tights or breeches instead of hidden beneath skirts. A splendid figure was a prerequisite for the position.
Adapted from Condensed Knowledge (HarperCollins), available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun visit MentalFloss.com and check out HYPERLINK "http://www.tuitiongiveaway.com" TuitionGiveaway.com for details on the mental_floss "College Ain't Cheap $50,000 Tuition Giveaway." Deadline for entries is Jan. 31.