Music hall has only recently been treated to ‘serious’ as distinct from anecdotal study, and the ‘turns’ of its leading performers remain largely unexplored. Particularly revealing, perhaps, are the acts of the male impersonators – whose ancestry in ‘legit’ performance had been a long one, yet whose particular approach to cross-dressing had a special social and sexual significance during the ascendancy of music hall, with its curious mixture of working-class directness, commercial knowingness, and ‘pre-Freudian innocence’. The most successful of the male impersonators was Vesta Tilley, whose various disguises, the nature of their hidden appeal, and the ‘messages’ they delivered are here analyzed by Elaine Aston.
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