II-109867 | Miss G. Brytton costumed as a gentleman, Montreal, QC, 1895

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Miss G. Brytton costumed as a gentleman, Montreal, QC, 1895
Wm. Notman & Son
1895, 19th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on paper
17 x 12 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  female (19035) , Photograph (77678) , portrait (53878)
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Keys to History

In an 1882 interview with an American journalist, Sarah Edmonds Seelye of Nova Scotia recounted the details of her extraordinary life as Frank Thompson. "Very early in life I was forced to the conclusion . . . that matrimony was not the safe investment for me. I greatly preferred the privilege of earning my own bread and butter." After reading a novel about Fanny Campbell, a woman who lived a pirate's life disguised as a man, she decided that becoming Frank Thompson was her way to independence. According to her biography, she became a very successful book salesman, served as a soldier in the American civil war and "came near to marrying a pretty little girl."

Seelye's story was extraordinary, but given the lack of opportunities available to women, actually passing as a man was not altogether uncommon in the 1800s. If the deception was discovered, women might be sometimes greeted with wonder and applause, but were more likely to encounter anger and even violence for violating gender codes. Interestingly, "passing" was never treated as a medical disorder as it is today.

Source : Straitlaced: Restrictions on Women [Web tour], by Elise Chenier, McGill University (see Links)

  • What

    Dressing as the opposite sex was entirely acceptable so long as it was clearly a "costume," as it was for Miss G. Brytton.

  • Where

    Costume parties were one of the most popular Victorian-era entertainments among the élite, and many of Notman's clients had their portraits taken before the event.

  • When

    This portrait was taken in 1895, 13 years after the famous bisexual author and raconteur Oscar Wilde visited Ottawa on his tour of North America. Wilde was likely her inspiration for this get-up.

  • Who

    The woman in the portrait is identified as Miss G. Brytton.