Arresting Dress

Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco

Arresting Dress

Perverse Modernities: A Series Edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe

More about this series

Book Pages: 216 Illustrations: 17 illustrations Published: December 2014

Author: Clare Sears

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies, Sociology

In 1863, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a law that criminalized appearing in public in “a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” Adopted as part of a broader anti-indecency campaign, the cross-dressing law became a flexible tool for policing multiple gender transgressions, facilitating over one hundred arrests before the century’s end. Over forty U.S. cities passed similar laws during this time, yet little is known about their emergence, operations, or effects. Grounded in a wealth of archival material, Arresting Dress traces the career of anti-cross-dressing laws from municipal courtrooms and codebooks to newspaper scandals, vaudevillian theater, freak-show performances, and commercial “slumming tours.” It shows that the law did not simply police normative gender but actively produced it by creating new definitions of gender normality and abnormality. It also tells the story of the tenacity of those who defied the law, spoke out when sentenced, and articulated different gender possibilities.


“[A] slim yet comprehensive look at how an 1863 law against appearing in public dressed as a different sex invited a regime of surveillance upon “problem bodies.” The book covers a lot of ground.” — Peter Kane, SF Weekly

“[A]s the first in-depth examination of cross-dressing laws in an American city, the book is a valuable contribution to gender studies. It demonstrates convincingly that societal discomfort with difference in gender-expression was historically tied to societal discomfort with other sorts of difference. Both led to the marginalization of “problem bodies.”” — Lillian Faderman, Women's Review of Books

"Arresting Dress gives one much to think about beyond its well-argued and convincing conclusions. This is what I consider a good book — a scholarly endeavor that causes one to think about how one might look at evidence, arguments, and conceptualizations in different ways.... Arresting Dress is highly recommended, both for the conclusions it draws and for the further thinking and research it encourages." — Peter Boag, GLQ

"Arresting Dress is an impressive work of history, based in deep archival research, written in engaging prose, woven with smart analysis, and complete with wonderful images from primary sources... that bring the text to life. Never over-theoretical, the work is both approachable for undergraduates as well as useful for specialists. As such, it deserves to be read and assigned widely." — Emily Skidmore, Journal of American History

"In her compelling historical account of a multiplicity of cross-dressing practices and their incorporation into certain cultural venues and proscription in others, Clare Sears demonstrates the ways in which stabilizing gender and sexuality was central to state-making projects of that time.... [T]he result is a book well worth reading."  — Tey Meadow, American Journal of Sociology

"Arresting Dress is a coherent and well-organized study tracing the processes of racialization and gender reconfiguration that led to production of new definitions of gender normality and abnormality that continue to haunt us today.... This fascinating and interdisciplinary book reveals the significant impact crossdressing laws had on city life and environment by mapping gender normativity onto urban space." — Robert T. Cserni, Journal of Homosexuality

"Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco is a worthy read for any student or scholar interested in the cultural and legal construction of gender norms. It is also concise and well written, providing a balance of historical context and fascinating examples of crossdressing as recorded by newspapers and court records of the nineteenth century." — Betty Luther Hillman, American Historical Review

"Sears’s book is important because it historicizes cross-dressing and cross-gender behavior in ways in which it never has been before. Indeed, it is the sort of interdisciplinary study that is often attempted but rarely executed with such interpretive precision.... Despite such scholarly intersections, however, the book is remarkably accessible. A stimulating read for undergraduates, specialists, and general readers." — Adam Q. Stauffer, Journal of American Studies

"There is much to admire in Sears’ analysis of this topic, especially in her persistent and convincing analysis of how cross-dressing laws interacted with racial politics at the time—two topics that seem unrelated at first glance. Overall Sears gives a nuanced, sensitive and in intelligent reading of a little-known law and its vast consequences for the culture of the city and the nation." — Ariel Beaujot, Social History

"What is especially admirable about Sears’s text is the depth and breadth of her interdisciplinary archival research that draws together a variety of processes and relations that demonstrate the fascination and outrage with forms of cross-dressing. This is equally well-balanced and supported with an application and articulation of a variety of theoretical perspectives that make this a valuable book about belonging, othering, bodies and dressed appearance, not just historically but with relevance today." — Shaun Cole, International Journal of Fashion Studies

"Sears deftly uses a variety of well-placed illustrations (newspaper clippings, political cartoons, posters, and photographs) to explain and expand her arguments. She also, in a surprising twist in view of her emphasis on the prevalence of cross-dressing, successfully challenges the popular notion of frontier San Francisco as a ‘wide open' permissive town." — Nancy C. Unger, Canadian Journal of History

"[A] tightly focused yet wide-ranging analysis . . . . Sears pieces together a complex argument in this book, yet manages to explicate it in a remarkably clear way." — Betsy Lucal, Contemporary Sociology

"This important study provides a fresh approach to the topic of cross-dressing. . . . [A] thoughtful, sophisticated exploration of people who challenged, rejected, and played with gender in a wide range of circumstances to varied ends." — Jen Manion, Journal of the History of Sexuality

"[A] well-researched, well-written, succinct little book that is amply illustrated with examples and historical context." — Michael Ferguson, Journal of Homosexuality

"In Arresting Dress the study of the historical production and operation of the boundary between normative and non-normative gender is successfully made. This work is welcome because it connects transgender studies to other areas of scholarship." — Katie Myerscough, History

"Sears’ work will surely be of indispensable aid to those who wish to conduct further enquiries into the policing of gender deviancy. Her use of trans-ing analysis broadens the discursive framework of cross-dressing as a subject by including a variety of cross-gender practices which have been overlooked in the past." — Jacob Bloomfield, Women's History Review

"Author Clare Sears offers a fresh look into how individuals targeted by cross-dressing law manipulated gender boundary logics to make public claims or evade unwelcome scrutiny. The volume is written clearly, extensively documented, and intelligently and vigorously argued as it explores how policing gender conformity has had quite far-reaching impacts." — Amos Lassen, Reviews by Amos Lassen

"Arresting Dress is an outstanding archivally based and theoretically potent intervention in transgender history. Clare Sears offers fresh insight into how individuals targeted by cross-dressing law manipulated gender boundary logics to make public claims or evade unwelcome scrutiny. Clearly written, vividly documented, and vigorously argued, this book explores how policing gender conformity had far-reaching impacts." — Nayan Shah, author of Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West

"Don't let the subtitle of Clare Sears's important new book fool you into thinking this is a narrow investigation of an obscure law in a small city a long time ago. It's filled with big ideas about bodies and spaces and norms, about the generative as well as disciplinary function of the law, and about the historical transience of gender categories as well as the persistence of transgendering practices. Sears's powerful analytical framework allows her to connect the exclusion of gender nonconformers from the public sphere with similar exclusions of raced and disabled bodies, while her crystal-clear prose and compelling archival stories never let the reader get lost in the weeds of excessive theorization. A great book for undergraduates and specialists alike." — Susan Stryker, author of Transgender History


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Clare Sears is Associate Professor of Sociology and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction. Not Belonging 1

1. Instant and Peculiar 23

2. Against Good Morals 41

3. Problem Bodies, Public Space 61

4. A Sight Well Worth Gazing Upon 78

5. Indecent Exhibitions 97

6. Problem Bodies, Nation-State 121

Conclusion. Against the Law 139

Notes 149

Bibliography 175

Index 191
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Finalist, 2016 Lambda Literary Award (Lammy) / LGBT Studies category

Additional InformationBack to Top