Since the wenches had so much to say about the "chick-in-pants" trope last week, I've broken it into two parts, and this week it's Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Joanna Bourne and me, talking about it. We've included a few more excerpts, too. Also here's another 19th century portrait of a man who could easily be a woman in disguise. (Sir William Cornwallis Harris by Ramsay Richard Reinagle (attributed to), c.1823.)
Mary Jo says: Much as I loved Heyer's The Masqueraders, the story requires major suspension of disbelief. Which I do willingly, but she was writing in the age before pheromones had been discovered, which may help with that suspension. (Actually, an even bigger question in my mind is how Prudence could pour a glass of claret into her sleeve to conceal the fact she wasn't drinking much. Sure, the shirts were ruffled, but wouldn't there be wine dripping from the sleeve? But I digress.)
Like Pat, my heroines wear trousers when it's practical and convenient. The longest stint in britches belongs to the heroine of my Angel Rogue, where the American, half-Mohawk Maxie Collins decides to go to London to discover the truth of her father's death. She has very little money, so she chooses to walk–not a stretch for her since she and her father were book peddlers in New England and she was used to a roving life.
Since Maxie is petite, she figures that loose, shabby rural clothing will allow her to pass for a nondescript young boy. Which works until she trips over the hero while bird watching. He's napping in the woods, and when she lands full on top of him, he has no doubt about her gender:
It wasn't until she stepped away that she realized he was the handsomest man she had ever seen. His longish hair shimmered with every blond shade from gilt to dark gold, and the bone structure of his face would make angels weep with envy.
A fairy ring in the center of the circle gave her the wild thought that she had stumbled over Oberon, legendary King of Faerie. No, he was too young, and surely a fairy would not be wearing such mundane clothing.
The blond man sat up and leaned back against the tree trunk. "Females have thrown themselves into my arms a time or two before, but not usually quite so hard," he said, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkling humorously. "However, I'm sure we can work something out if you make a polite request."
I've had other heroines wear trousers when necessary. Alys Weston, heroine of THE RAKE, was a land steward on an estate so she dressed for supervising laborers and fixing farm equipment. Catherine Melbourne was similarly attired when a homicidal madman was hunting her and the hero down on a remote island. And I believe that the heroine of my work in progress is about to acquire riding culottes for similarly practical reasons. But they aren't fooling anyone about their gender, least of all their heroes!
Jo Beverly says: I think I've only done this once, but that was in a major way in My Lady Notorious. Like others I've enjoyed the device as a reader, but had my doubts, especially in Regency clothing, with the breeches or pantaloons fairly tight and the coats cropped at the waist in front. Even in Georgian costume, Cyn Malloren quickly notices the shape of the young lad is more feminine than masculine. Of course that can be true of a man, but Cyn later suggests that Chastity "put a sock in it" to make the look a bit more convincing.
My candidate for man most likely to have been a woman in disguise is Banestre Tarleton, despite him being a very active military officer and definitely male. But look at his portrait!(on the right) So soft of thigh and gentle of feature. The hat doesn't help.
My Lady Notorious is Georgian, and 18th century clothes help, especially as it's a double twist story with the hero dressing as a woman for part of the time. I made that plausible by having him slender and quite pretty. "He alone of the family had been gifted with the full glory of his mother's delicate bones, green-gold eyes, russet-red hair, and lush lashes…. As a boy he'd believed age would toughen his looks, but at twenty-five, a veteran of Quebec and Louisbourg, he was still disgustingly pretty. He had to fight duels with nearly every new officer in the regiment to establish his manhood."
When he dresses as a woman in order to throw their pursuers off the scent it gives an opportunity for a gender-bending kiss.
"Horrible Henry was looming over them.
Cyn gave a shriek and clutched Charles face-down to his bosom. "Adrian! We are discovered! No, dear boy, stay safe in my arms. They shall not hurt you." He fixed Henry Vernham with what he hoped were tragically intense eyes, and declared, "Only death shall part us, sir!"
"Zounds, woman. We have no interest in you and your paramour. Did a young woman pass by here? A young woman with very short hair.""
Yes, Chastity has very short hair, which helps with the deception. Chastity's head was shaved by her father, and though it's grown out a bit she can wear a man's wig, and pass for a man without it. Hair becomes a significant element of the book, as does her femininity. She doesn't want to be a man or dress as one. When she gets to wear women's clothing, "She twirled, laughing for the pleasure of fine things, for the rustling, slithering feel of silk."
We have the idea that trousers give freedom and long skirts are an encumbrance, but there are societies where men wear long skirts and dresses and are physically active, so it's interesting to consider how true that is.
Joanna Bourne says: I'm of the party that says some young women, not overly endowed in the breast department, could pass as boys. Sometimes I look around the restaurant or library or checkout line at the supermarket and pick out teen girls who could pass as boys and teen boys who could, with a bit of makeup, pass as women.
Gender, as they say, is a social construct.
I had one heroine who dressed as a boy. it doesn't happen in the story itself, but in her past. That's my Annique in Spymaster's Lady. What made it even slightly plausible was she's still in her teens. I drop little hints throughout the text that she's athletic, small, thin and — may I be indelicate? — has tiny breasts. The passing-as-a-boy trope is most plausible, in my opinion, when the female is one of those thin and boyish types I am so teeth-gnashingly envious of and she's passing as a fellow too young to shave.
Or it's dark. Very dark.
Anne here. I do find the chick-in-pants thing quite plausible — depending on the situation. But I believe that people in the past were more prone than we are today to take others at face value. If they saw a person dressed in men's clothes, they would have assumed it was a man. I well remember my grand-parents exclaiming crossly (and often) "Is that a boy or a girl? I can't tell!" about some slender person with long hair wearing jeans. Because to them, long hair signaled a girl but jeans were for boys. But I could almost always tell.
Today we are very accustomed to seeing all kinds of cross-dressing, on TV, in movies and in life, so we are educated in looking for and noticing the subtleties — the Adam's apple — or lack of it, the subtle curves of a woman's body, and so on. But in the days where it was unthinkable— even scandalous — for a woman to dress as a man, there was little reason to wonder. Effeminate men have been around for ever. And as a number of commenters last week mentioned, there are many well-documented historical examples of women who passed quite successfully as men, and whose gender was only discovered in death or when they were wounded.
But we are writing for a modern readership, so we need to take our modern gender awareness into account when we're writing our stories.
I've written chick-in-pants at least three times — once in An Honorable Thief, in which the heroine, as The Chinese Burglar dressed in baggy, black Chinese-style clothing — at night. And the hero did encounter her, but she defeated him with a tricky kung-fu type move and got away. Here's that scene in the Japanese Manga version (which I love.)
In Bride By Mistake, the heroine had been dressed as a boy by her father, when she was a very young girl, and later during the war, as an adolescent. But when the hero sees her for the first time in pants, he's in no doubt of her femininity.
In To Catch a Bride, set largely in 19th century Cairo, the hero first encounters the heroine dressed as a shabby Arab street boy — in loose clothing. He doesn't recognize her gender – not until he's knocked her out. And gets a closer look.
Rafe grimaced. He must have hit harder than he intended. He'd meant to subdue the little devil, not knock him out.
He sat back on his haunches, kneeling astride the youth's supine body and regarded his young assailant. In the soft light from the other room all he could see was an urchin face smeared with dirt. He looked about fifteen, thin and raggedly dressed. His turban had come off in the struggle and his hair was very short, chopped jaggedly in a cut that Rafe decided the boy had done without benefit of mirror or scissors. It wasn't unattractive, he decided. Might even take off — the Urchin Cut. He favored the Windswept, himself.
The youth's features, under all that dirt, were quite delicate . . .
Good God. If he didn't know better . . .
He thought of the lad's lack of muscle. The way he'd succumbed to the merest tap on the jaw.
He stared at the youth's chest. Flat as a pancake.
He shifted his position back, till he was sitting on the boy's legs. He peered at the place where the legs joined the torso. The pants were very baggy, but . . .
There was only one way to tell. He brushed down over the base of his prisoner's stomach and between his legs. Nothing. Or rather not nothing, but nothing that would have been there if his youth had been a youth.
He was a girl. And, he thought, staring at the girl's features in the dim light, not just any girl.
Her eyes fluttered open. "Filthy pervert!" she snapped in French and in the same moment that Rafe recalled just where his hand was resting— and removed it — she exploded under him.
You can read the full excerpt here.
I do so enjoy that moment where the hero discovers the gender of the "boy." What's your favorite moment?
We've talked a bit about "chick-in-pants", but what about "guy-in-a-dress" — does that hold any appeal to you? I did enjoy that old B&W movie "I was a Male War Bride" with Cary Grant dressed as a woman — but really, Cary Grant dressed in anything would still do it for me. Any others you can think of? Any that weren't comedies? I'll send a book to someone who leaves a comment.