Published on July 12, 2021
In Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel Villette, schoolteacher Lucy Snowe unexpectedly dresses in drag to perform a male role in a “vaudeville de pensionnat,” or boarding school play, using elements of both male and female costume. She later watches what she considers a shocking theatrical performance of professional actress Vashti, whose loosely draped costume and unconfined hair she describes as “neither of woman nor of man” (Brontë 153, 286). Though these women approach the stage with different levels of experience and different costumes, their performances both raise significant questions about the relationship between theatrical costume, gender performance, and identity within the novel, which like many other nineteenth-century works addresses the complexity and stability of identity and closely links identity and gender performance. In order to better comprehend the significance of Lucy’s narrative style and her descriptions of both her own theatrical costume and Vashti’s in relation to the novel’s exploration of gender and identity, these scenes must be investigated through a lens of both a historical understanding of Victorian costume and clothing and a theoretical understanding of gender performance.
As literary scholar Helen Cooper points out in her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Villette, Brontë’s novel contains historical references which “place the events [of Villette] no later than the 1820s” (xix). In order to better comprehend Villette’s exploration of identity and gender performance, it is essential to take into consideration not only the context surrounding Villette as a nineteenth-century novel, but also the cultural connotations surrounding Lucy and Vashti’s costumes during this specific temporal framework. As novels which frequently draw connections between gender performance and identity, nineteenth-century works often explore how their characters’ performance of gender roles impacts their identities, an exploration which is prevalent throughout Villette as well. Furthermore, Victorian clothing, whether intended for use by professional theatre performers or common citizens, gave specific, implicit meaning to its wearer’s identity in how it fit and portrayed their body to the viewer, particularly in terms of the wearer’s gender. During the 1820s in particular, both women’s cross-dressing costumes and standard male dress typically contoured women’s bodies in ways that emphasized their gender, making an examination of Victorian costume also crucial to discussions of gender performance within Villette.
The critical lens of gender theorist Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity gives significant insight into how Lucy and Vashti’s costumes relate to their performances of gender as well as the relationship between their gender performance and their identities. In her 1990 book Gender Trouble and other works relating to this theory, Butler proposes gender as performative and socially constructed, rather than an inherent part of one’s identity. According to Butler, one’s presentation of gender, including choice of costume, creates and perpetuates the illusion of gender categories, instead of stemming from an inherent gender identity. Butler also discusses how gender performance can be used to destabilize gender identity and categories, making her theory applicable to the destabilizing performances of gender and identity in Villette. By applying this theory which examines the relationship between performance, gender, and identity, this analysis can give new insight into Villette’s suggestion of gender performance as a means of destabilizing identity.
When considering Lucy’s descriptions of her and Vashti’s costumes and performances, an understanding of her narrative style is also essential. As a narrator, Lucy actively acknowledges and interacts with the reader during her narration, often purposefully concealing information from the reader and revealing the shocking truth at a later point in the novel. She is both aware of her status as the narrator and deliberate in how she conveys information to the reader. Given this purposeful narrative style, it is important to consider the ways in which Lucy describes her and Vashti’s costumes and performances to the reader, making a close examination of her descriptions also necessary to understanding her portrayal of these performances.
As an examination of their costumes through a theoretical lens of gender performativity, a historical lens of Victorian costume, and close readings of passages from Villette reveals, Lucy and Vashti’s use of both prescriptively male and female elements of costume transgress contemporary nineteenth century societal ideals of gender and the gender binary, suggesting gender to be a theatrically-produced illusion.
After an unexplained tragedy leaves her without a family or home, Lucy first works as a caregiver for the aging Miss Marchmont, and upon her client’s death, she moves from England to the French town of Villette in search of a new means of financial support. Lucy finds employment as a governess for the children of boarding school headmistress, Madame Beck, who later promotes Lucy to the position of an English teacher at her school. During Lucy’s time as a schoolteacher, the boarding school, the Rue Fossette, plans to put on “a compact little comic trifle” performed by its students to celebrate the birthday of Madame Beck (Brontë 143). The day of the vaudeville, however, one of these students claims illness, prompting the play’s demanding director, Monsieur Paul Emanuel, to implore Lucy to take on a role which she describes as “a disagreeable part,—a man’s—an empty-headed fop’s” (Brontë 148). Upon Lucy’s reluctant agreement, M. Paul, a character who often encourages Lucy to follow his instructions in an irritable and controlling manner, locks her in the attic to practice her assigned role. When Lucy finally arrives at the cabinet serving as the vaudeville performers’ dressing room later that day, M. Paul informs Lucy that she “must be dressed for [her] part”—the part of a man (Brontë 152). Lucy rejects this idea with a voice “resolute in intent” (Brontë 153). However, Lucy does not only dismiss the male costume; she refuses a female costume as well. As literary critic Katie Peel points out, Lucy’s emphasis is not on rejecting “concrete signifiers of the male gender” or “keeping female attire,” but rather on “retaining that which is her own” (236). Twice within this passage, Lucy firmly repeats to herself, “I would keep my own dress,” and she directly states to M. Paul that her costume “must be arranged in [her] own way” (Brontë 153). This strong emphasis on the word “own” reveals Lucy’s true focus when choosing garb for her onstage performance. She is not concerned about whether her clothing is prescriptively female; she simply wants to arrange her clothing according to her own sense of self, regardless of Victorian societal ideals about the appropriate clothing for either her assigned female identity or her newly assigned male role.
After convincing M. Paul to allow her to dress herself, Lucy decides to keep her “woman’s garb” and adds to her costume “a little vest, a collar, and cravat, and a platetôt of small dimensions,” items of clothing typically associated with masculinity (Brontë 154). Through her creation of a unique and personalized fusion of both her own clothing and these items borrowed from the brother of one of her students, Lucy reveals gender categories as societal illusions rather than inherent cores of one’s being. As Butler points out, gender consists of “the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (Gender Trouble 140). In specific relation to one’s choice of clothing, this means that rather than stemming from some inherent core essential to identity, costume is actually a signal of the illusory, imitative nature of the societal ideals known as gender. Costume both results from and contributes to the perpetuation of these unattainable, illusory categories. Therefore, when Lucy styles her body with her own choice of masculine and feminine clothing instead of in accordance with prescriptive gender roles (either the female role she has been assigned to play by society or the male role she has been assigned to play by M. Paul), she emphasizes the illusory nature of these roles. Her costume does not stem from some inherent gender identity of herself or her character, but rather her desire to arrange herself in “her own way,” outside of societal ideals.
This choice of costume fits into the category of drag which Butler considers disruptive to the gender binary. In her theory of gender performativity, Butler makes a distinction between subversive and non-subversive drag: there are performances “effectively disruptive, truly troubling,” and there are performances “domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony” (Gender Trouble 139). As Zèlie St. Pierre’s opposition to Lucy’s denial of the male costume reveals, Lucy’s drag falls into the subversive category. After M. Paul’s announcement that Lucy must be dressed as a man, St. Pierre, one of Lucy’s fellow schoolteachers at the Rue Fossette, “officious[ly]” volunteers to dress Lucy, sneering at her in a “cold, snaky manner” (Brontë 153, 154). At Lucy’s resistance to this masculine ensemble, St. Pierre firmly tells her that she “must not resist,” clarifying that if she does so, Lucy “will spoil all, destroy the mirth of the piece, the enjoyment of the company” (Brontë 153). St. Pierre makes it clear that Lucy’s rejection of the “proper” costume for her assigned role will disturb and disrupt both the vaudeville and its audience, highlighting the unsettling nature of her dress. Furthermore, her warnings reflect the significant consequences that Butler warns accompany “acting out of line with heterosexual norms”: “ostracism” and “punishment” (“Imitation” 314-315). If Lucy chooses to break away from the prescribed costume for this role, St. Pierre implies that she will face societal backlash and social isolation following her performance, consequences that accompany truly subversive performances. This further connects Lucy’s costume to Butler’s idea of a subversive performance, again establishing her drag as the type of subversive performance which “reveal[s] the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire” (Gender Trouble 139).
Given the historical context surrounding Victorian drag costumes for women during the 1820s, Lucy would have engaged in the type of drag performance that Butler describes as “domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony” if she had accepted the entirety of the male costume, removing the subversive potential of her performance (Gender Trouble 139). As theatrical historian Tracy Davis points out, many instances of cross-dressing involved a “knee-length tunic, tights, and boots” during the early nineteenth century (112-113). Rather than attempting to “sustain the illusion of masculinity,” these form-fitting garments actually “emphasized the feminine shape,” especially the actress’s legs and waist (Surridge 6). Because this costume and the actress’s resulting “contoured silhouette” still highlighted her prescriptive gender, this type of female cross-dressing costume did not disrupt gender categories, but rather reinforced the idea of some inherent identity or core that could not be erased, even when performing a theatrical role (Davis 114). Therefore, if Lucy had chosen to accept the entirety of the male costume, she would have participated in this type of non-subversive drag, removing any suggestions of gender as a societal construct.
Due to the unprofessional nature of this play (an “amateur affair,” in the words of M. Paul), many members of the vaudeville cast may not have used costumes designed specifically for women’s cross-dressing (Brontë 153). Lucy herself describes the male clothing given to her as a “costume of a brother of one of the pupils,” suggesting that it was likely not designed specifically for theatrical use (Brontë 154). However, as an examination of typical male dress during the 1820s reveals, even the everyday clothing of a male—particularly the pants—would have created a similar emphasis on the female form as a costume designed for a more professional performance. During the 1820s, three main styles of pants existed for European men: pantaloons, breeches, and trousers. Though pantaloons and breeches were largely a fashion of the late eighteenth century, this style did carry into the early nineteenth century and were fairly popular before 1825, making it possible that the male costume presented to Lucy included one of these items (Franklin). As fashion historian Anne Hollander points out, these “close-fitting silk knee-breeches and skin-tight doeskin pantaloons” displayed the male legs and crotch “without much room for compromise” (54). If either of these prescriptively masculine items were included in the costume given to Lucy, they would have prominently displayed her legs as well. Again, this skin-tight clothing would have emphasized her feminine shape, making it impossible for Lucy to perform convincingly as a male. Lucy, therefore, has to create her own blend of prescriptively feminine and masculine clothing in order to subvert the idea of inherent gender categories.
If Lucy’s male costume did not involve either pantaloons or breeches, it is highly likely that it included trousers, a fashion trend that overtook pantaloons and breeches during the 1820s. Again, this costume piece would have emphasized her female form, erasing any subversive potential from a performance in full male costume. Though trousers were certainly looser items of clothing than their predecessors, they were still “narrowly fitted” and would have obviously revealed the shape of Lucy’s legs much more than the prescriptive female wear of a skirt (Franklin). Additionally, trousers were often accompanied by a frock coat, which “featured a waistline seam, tightly-fitted, and full skirts hanging straight to the knee” (Franklin). Even if the trousers did not emphasize Lucy’s legs, this article of clothing would have certainly accentuated her waistline and presented a “contoured silhouette,” again highlighting her female form and dismissing any potential of a masculine performance without connotations of female shape and sexuality (Davis 114). Regardless of the exact contents of the “costume of a brother of one of the pupils,” this male costume would have still emphasized Lucy’s prescribed gender, confirming Lucy’s refusal of the complete ensemble as necessary to her ability to destabilize gender categories (Brontë 154).
Several chapters after her own amateur theatrical debut, Lucy attends the professional performance of Vashti, taking on the new role of a viewer rather than performer. Though Lucy plays this role in many scenes throughout the novel, her viewing of Vashti’s performance is a particularly significant example to examine in terms of costume and gender performance, considering Vashti’s performance serves as a sort of professional double for Lucy’s amateur theatrical performance. Lucy’s role as an observer comes with a subjectivity which filters through her narrative descriptions of Vashti, influencing in turn how the reader understands and perceives her costume and performance. In her descriptions of her viewing of Vashti’s appearance in particular, Lucy draws attention to the stylization of Vashti’s body in a way that again subverts the societal illusion of gender that the novel has so far proposed. She details how Vashti “stood, not dressed, but draped in pale antique folds, long and regular like a sculpture” (Brontë 286). Rather than simply equating this costume’s loose nature with “connotations of loose morals and easy virtue” or “desirable qualities of femininity” that often accompanied loose clothing during the 1800s, Lucy views and describes Vashti’s loosely draped appearance in a way which encourages the reader to recognize both masculine and feminine elements of her destabilizing appearance (Davis 109).
Because of contemporary Victorian associations between loosely draped costume and feminine qualities, Lucy’s descriptions of Vashti’s appearance carry implications of femininity. As Davis points out, many forms of Victorian drapery consisted of “a bolt of filmy cloth wound around one arm and loosely cast over the crotch,” resulting in a “public and complete display of the female form” (128). When Lucy specifically describes Vashti as “not dressed, but draped,” then, she not only emphasizes Vashti’s costume’s draped nature, but also creates an implicit connection to femininity as well (Brontë 286). However, while her appearance may carry some connotations of femininity, Vashti’s costume is not the type of drapery that is overly loose or revelatory of her female figure in a way that would prevent the viewer—or the reader of Lucy’s narration—from seeing her as anything but female. Lucy still identifies and describes some of Vashti’s appearance’s prescriptively masculine elements, again revealing to the reader how her performance disrupts gender categories. The “pale antique folds” of Vashti’s draped costume allow Lucy to see and praise her “mighty brawn,” “muscle,” and “full-fed flesh” in her narration (Brontë 287). This portrayal focuses on Vashti’s physical strength and force—attributes typically associated with the societal male role—bringing elements of masculinity into her physical appearance and performance as well. As with Lucy’s use of both masculine and feminine articles of clothing, Vashti’s use of a costume which highlights elements of both societal gender categories, instead of a costume that simply conformed to her assigned female role, destabilizes the idea that her presentation of gender stems from some inherent identity.
As with her descriptions of Vashti’s draped costume, Lucy emphasizes her hair’s loose appearance, which she again gives both prescriptively feminine and masculine attributes. While watching Vashti’s theatrical performance, Lucy describes how Vashti’s hair is “flying loose in revel or war” (Brontë 287). As Hollander points out, “[l]oose female hair was always…the sign of female emotional looseness and sensual susceptibility,” while “loose hair for mature men was usually a public virile ornament, akin to the display of muscle and stature, a sign of sexual force in action” (56, 57). Lucy makes use of both of these connotations in her description of Vashti’s hair. On one hand, its looseness suggests emotional and sensual vulnerability, aspects associated with nineteenth-century societal ideas of femininity. On the other hand, Lucy’s association between Vashti’s loose hair and revelry and war, activities typically associated with the male role, evokes connotations of masculinity and masculine sexuality. Lucy, therefore, portrays Vashti’s loose hair in war and lively celebration as a sign of both feminine sexuality and masculine power and force, projecting these implications onto the reader’s understanding of Vashti’s gender performance. Through Lucy’s descriptions, the reader can again see how her hair’s dual performance of both prescriptively feminine and masculine roles reveals the imitative quality of gender categories. Because her appearance does not adhere to one societal gender identity, but rather makes use of aspects from both, Vashti disrupts the idea that one’s performance of gender reflects some inherent core of identity, “enact[ing] and reveal[ing] the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity” (Gender Trouble 139).
Lucy and Vashti’s destabilizing costumes and performances contribute to the continuing instability of gender and identity throughout the novel, shaping the way the reader interprets Lucy’s portrayals of gender performance and identity throughout Villette. Their disruptive actions reveal Lucy’s presentation of self as well as her presentation of others as a key influence on our understanding of their characters’ gender and identity. For Lucy in particular, this destabilizing use of both masculine and feminine elements of costume further complicates the overall stability of her character. Cold yet passionate, familiar yet distant, feminine yet masculine, Lucy’s fractured self constantly disrupts the reader’s understanding of her identity, leaving the reader to ask, as Lucy’s student and friend Ginevra Fanshawe does, “Who are you, Miss Snowe?” (Brontë 340). Critics of the novel have also long investigated this question of Lucy’s unstable identity, discussing specific aspects of her identity such as her transgression of socio-economic class, frequent changing of roles, and fluctuating narrative style as examples of its instability. They examine the conflict between Lucy’s status as a single woman without familial connections or strong financial means and her close relationships with upper-class characters such as the Countess Paulina de Bassompierre and the wealthy M. Paul, her movement from caregiver to governess, schoolteacher to amateur actress, and stranger to confidante, as well as her narrative tendency to at one moment address the reader with seemingly honest familiarity while in the next gleefully revealing some key information she had purposefully hidden from the reader, all of which further complicate Lucy’s fractured self. This new perspective of gender instability through costume and dress, then, serves as a means of addressing yet another critical aspect of Lucy’s unstable identity.
This new understanding of the relationship between costume, gender performance, and identity can also influence the way we read and interpret characters within other nineteenth-century novels, including works of the Brontë sisters. Rather than assuming that these characters were performing their assigned gender identities as either female or male, the reader can view these characters’ choice of costume and performance of self as a constant negotiation of gender identity. As with Lucy, this specific approach to examining costume, gender performance, and identity can help reveal sites of instability in these characters’ selves, giving the reader a more nuanced understanding of these characters as well as a more thorough understanding of how these nineteenth-century novels often portrayed gender performance as a means of destabilizing identity.
Elizabeth Busch is an English and Spanish major with an emphasis in Gender and Sexuality Studies. In addition to her coursework within Mizzou’s Honors College, she enjoys performing on the piccolo with Marching Mizzou, reading and writing in both English and Spanish, and playing board games with family and friends. After graduation, Elizabeth hopes to continue sharing her passion for language and stories by helping others develop their writing and publishing her own literary works.