Reader Davida sent us this message (and thus wins a book): "I would love to read a book where the heroine is forced to dress like a man. Georgette Heyer's The Masqueraders is one of my favorites but just picturing one of the Wenches writing a book with a Masquerade in the storyline would be thrilling. I think the feeling when the hero doesn't understand why he is having feelings for his "friend" is very sexy and exciting."
We're expanding this question to explore the whole idea of the "chick-in-pants" trope — which seems to have gone a little out of fashion, possibly because readers feel it's not very believable. But is that the case? The portrait on the right is of a young man — William Fraser in 1801. Could he not be a woman in disguise?
Over to the wenches.
Pat Rice kicks off, saying: It’s very hard, in romance, to create a situation where the hero is such a blockhead that he doesn’t guess our trouser-wearing heroine is female within a chapter or two. But I like the notion of him playing along with her for a while, if the situation calls for it. I tend to write about women who wear trousers because they’re the most practical clothing for the tasks they have to do. In DENIM AND LACE, Samantha has had to be the man of the family on a cross-country trip. Wrangling horses and shooting dinner just can’t be done properly in skirts. The hero isn’t fooled by her name or her trousers and eventually wagers her out of her unladylike garb and into skirts, which was a lot more fun for me to write. (*Note from Anne, Denim and Lace was the first Patricia Rice book I ever read, and I became an instant fan.)
Or in REBEL DREAMS, the heroine’s father has died, leaving her in charge of a seaside warehouse. Climbing on and off ships, digging into barrels, and dealing with men all day just comes more naturally in trousers, although she’s perfectly capable of donning an evening gown for dinner. Again, the hero is only briefly fooled, however. Once that leather apron is off, she’s all female.
That’s what makes the wonderful variety of romances—I think I find it sexier and more exciting when the hero accepts the heroine as she is!
Nicola Cornick says:
The very first time I read a story with a trouser-wearing heroine was when we studied Twelfth Night at school and I thought it was loads of fun and started seeking out other stories where the heroines dressed as a man. It seemed a pretty popular theme when I was first reading romance books back in the 1970s but you don’t see so much of it now. It is a hard plot to make convincing and that’s maybe why I have never tried to write it myself.
In the few cases where I have had a woman wearing breeches it’s been for practical reasons. In Whisper of Scandal, Joanna is travelling on horseback through the Arctic and it is far more sensible for her to ride astride so she dons a riding jacket, breeches and boots, much to the shock (and secret approval) of her husband. In Desired, the heroine Tess wears male attire to attend radical political meetings in order to blend in with the crowd and when the hero comes looking for her quickly slips out of the trousers and into a ball gown! It’s a fun theme to play with!
Susan King says: Heroines in hero's clothing–I love that story element and have used it several times either in passing or as a continuing story thread. A girl in guy's clothing can set up all sorts of fun challenges and surprises for plot and character. It's not just the male clothing that creates interesting possibilities, but what goes with that that. I'm often writing an adventure romance, where the heroine is skilled at something considered typically male in a historical context–like archery, swordplay, riding, highway thieving, Border rieving, and so on. I love playing with the challenges that these elements can add to a story, taking it out of a predictable historical context and adding something unexpected but historically plausible.
So far, I've written at least six heroines who have a strong purpose to dress in male gear. In Raven's Wish, the heroine wears a kilted plaid and linen shirt like her male Highland cousins; in Raven's Moon she rides as a highwayman to avenge her brother — and this heroine even appeared in pants and puffy shirt on the original stepback cover! In Heather Moon, the heroine wears breeches and armor to ride with her Border reiving kinsmen. The heroine of The Swan Maiden is a forest rebel and master archer; in The Sword Maiden, she is skilled with a sword. And in Lady Macbeth, the Scottish queen trains with weapons and dons armor to ride into battle, something completely possible for her time and culture.
In historical fiction, a woman in male clothing breaks convention–and it shows that the character can take a risk, think for herself, be independent, courageous, determined. A lady in trousers, trews, kilt or breeches can bewilder the hero and make him see a woman in a new light, with new respect. This woman is not predictable.
In my stories, the hero always figures it out quickly–he's no dummy. His heroine is far too feminine, and he is far too astute and observant (and wry–and I love a hero who accepts and supports whatever the heroine needs to do, though he may gently tease her about it). A chick in pants who has a reason to keep up with the guys, all within a historical context, can make the romance game intriguing, dangerous, adventurous, sexy, playful and more.
Cara/Andrea says: The "chick in pants” trope can be fun . . . but it does call for a healthy suspension of reality. I remember reading Lord Harry, a vintage Catherine Coulter Regency, which was a fun plot and enjoyable. . . but sort of stretched credulity that Henrietta could masquarade as a man for 2/3 of the book, and then challenge the hero to a duel—and fight him with swords!—(she thinks he murdered her brother) before he realizes “Harry” is “Henrietta.”
The legendary Signet Regency editor Hilary Ross and I once had a long discussion on the subject . . . we agreed that the indoor lighting back then would have helped obscure faces and shapes during the evening activities. But the idea that a woman could pull off the deception for long was slim to none. Voice, posture, walk, mannerisms—women and men ARE different! A consummate actress with the right body type could perhaps pull it off, but other than that . . .
Still, it’s an appealing plot device. Like the other Wenches, I’ve used the trope for a heroine who is in danger or needs to travel without attraction attention. But the hero always very quickly sees through the ruse, and then helps with the scheme. My first foray into “Chick in Pants” was in The Hired Hero, one of my first Andrea Pickens Regencies. The hero won’t help the heroine, who is being pursued by an unknown enemy, get to London. (She's suffered a carriage accident and has ended up, exhausted and injured at his country estate. Desperate, she finds some of his old clothes from boyhood in the attics and sneaks out early one morning to steal his stallion. The earl spots a scamp coming out of the barn and gives chase. Here’s an excerpt:
Davenport reached for the reins as he drew abreast. Nero shied violently to the right, but knowing his stallion's habits, he was ready for it.
The lad was not. As the earl's hand instinctively followed the movement of the horse's head, the sudden change of stride pitched the young rider forward. He lost his stirrups and slipped sideways from the saddle. Both of his hands clung to the edges of the leather while his feet hung precariously close to the flailing hooves. Davenport managed to grab the reins and fought to bring the spooked stallion under control. Suddenly, with a low grunt of pain, the lad lost his grip. One hand fell away—in another moment he would be trampled.
Served him right, thought Davenport. His own neck was at risk too, trying to manage two wildly galloping animals. But with a silent curse he let go of Nero and reached down to grab the lad's collar.
"Let go!" he shouted, as he reined in on his own mount.
The lad needed no encouragement. His strength was gone and his fingers slipped from the saddle. Winded from the hell-for-leather galloping, Davenport's mount slowed to a trot, then stopped dead in its tracks, sides heaving and flanks lathered with sweat.
Holding the young thief by the scruff of his jacket, as if he were disposing of a weasel from a dovecot, the earl was sorely tempted to wring the lad's neck. Instead he satisfied himself by dropping him none too gently onto the rutted ground.
"You damn fool," cursed the earl as he dismounted. "I should take my crop to you. Don't you know you could be trans—"
It was then that he noticed that the lad's hat had fallen off. There was a mass of honey-colored hair spilling over the pale face. His eyes traveled lower, to where a pair of slender—and very shapely—thighs were revealed by a pair of tight buckskin breeches. With a start he realized they were his breeches, from when he was a boy.
He closed his eyes for an instant and swore yet again . . .
Anne again: I do so enjoy that moment of revelation when the hero realizes. . . And because the wenches had so much to say on this particular topic, I'm splitting the post in two. Chick-in-Pants Part 2 will be posted on Friday 24th April, with opinions and examples from Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Joanna Bourne and me — and we don't all agree. There are also a few more fun moment-of-discovery excerpts, as well as some more 19th century portraits so stay tuned.
In the meantime, what about you? Are you fond of the chick-in-pants trope or not? Do you have a favorite example? Leave a comment and I'll send a copy of my own chick-in-pants book to a randomly selected commenter.