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July 1, 2020

The 19th Century Drag King: 30 Amazing Real Photographic Postcards of Vesta Tilley Performing in Drag in the Early 1900s

As a child, Vesta Tilley toured the music halls in a solo singing and dancing act. Finding she expressed herself better as a boy, she adopted male attire and, with songs such as “Burlington Bertie,” became the most successful male impersonator in the business. During the war she gave performances to promote recruitment and raise funds for wounded soldiers. Her songs, including “Jolly Good Luck To The Girl Who Loves A Soldier” and “The Army Of Today’s All Right,” encouraged so many men to enlist that she was called “England's Greatest Recruiting Sergeant.”

Matilda Alice Powles (May 13, 1864 – September 16, 1952), was a popular English music hall performer. She adopted the stage name Vesta Tilley and became one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. Her career lasted from 1869 until 1920. Starting in provincial theaters with her father as manager, she performed her first season in London in 1874. She typically performed as a dandy or fop, also playing other roles. She found additional success as a principal boy in pantomime.

By the 1890s, Tilley was England’s highest earning woman. She was also a star in the vaudeville circuit in the United States, touring a total of six times. She married Walter de Frece, a theatre impresario who became her new manager and songwriter. At a Royal Command Performance in 1912, she scandalized Queen Mary because she was wearing trousers. During the First World War she was known as “England’s greatest recruiting sergeant” since she sang patriotic songs dressed in khaki fatigues like a soldier and promoted enlistment drives.

Becoming Lady de Frece in 1919, she decided to retire and made a year-long farewell tour from which all profits went to children’s hospitals. Her last ever performance was in 1920 at the Coliseum Theatre, London. She then supported her husband when he became a Member of Parliament and later retired with him to Monte Carlo. She died in 1952 on a visit to London and is buried at Putney Vale Cemetery. Her life story was commemorated in the 1957 film After the Ball.

(Images © National Portrait Gallery, London)


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