Smoke and Mirrors: Willy Clarkson and the Role of Disguises in Inter-War England

By McLaren, Angus | Journal of Social History, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Smoke and Mirrors: Willy Clarkson and the Role of Disguises in Inter-War England


McLaren, Angus, Journal of Social History


  "I, who have studied disguise almost as deeply as the great Willy
  Clarkson, will transform you into a perfect ruffian."
  Sax Rohmer, The Golden Scorpion, 1919.

The notion of the "historian as detective" has a long lineage. (1) Today social and cultural historians investigating questions of sex, gender or race frequently find themselves grappling with issues of masking and passing. (2) Dealing as they so often do with once tabooed topics, historians of sexuality are especially likely to see the need of reading against the grain, of searching for evidence of desires or practices that the subjects of their inquiries felt obliged to hide. An appreciation of how and why some were either forced or chose to lead double lives promises to enrich enormously our knowledge of the past.

The need or desire to disguise oneself has, of course, long been a key theme in western culture. Greek legends are filled with references to gods and humans adopting false identities, much of our theater, beginning with Shakespeare's plays, abounds with characters who attempt to pass as someone else, and innumerable modern mystery stories climax with the shrewd shamus unmasking the villain. Our interest in individuals' attempts to re-invent themselves seems to be perennial, yet in each historical epoch specific sorts of masquerading have had a special resonance. Attempts to understand why the public at certain times was sensitive to the employment of specific disguises, promises to provide us with a better sense of a society's particular cultural preoccupations.

Questions of identity and disguise certainly fascinated late nineteenth and early twentieth-century English culture. A society made anxious by shifting class, gender, and racial relationships was naturally preoccupied by dress and role playing, by visual codes and clues. One has only to recall the stratagems used by those in positions of power to penetrate the underworld. This was the great age of "slumming" by members of the middle and upper classes including James Greenwood, Jack London, Beatrice Webb, and last but not least George Orwell. In the world of fiction Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and E. W. Hornung's Raffles perhaps best embodied the elite's conviction that gentlemen detectives could easily "pass" as workers. Similar masquerading--as depicted in the works of Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Richard Burton, and T. E. Lawrence--was employed by whites to penetrate non-European cultures. (3) Here again the complacent English reader assumed that the white man could successfully pass as native, whereas the native's attempts to cross the racial barrier were always doomed to fail. (4)

Disguises were, of course, not simply used by the powerful for the purposes of policing and surveillance. To obtain better paid work, some laboring women donned male attire. In pursuit of freedom, even higher-class women on occasion adopted similar tactics. For example, in 1910 an official was quoted by the press as asserting, "It is by no means an uncommon practice for young women in long-distance liners to pass as boys in order not to lose, by confinement in the female quarters, the company of a father or brother." (5) Intrepid feminists publicized their use of disguises to explore the city. In Elizabeth Robins' play Votes for Women (1907) a middle-class activist describes how disguising herself as a working-class woman opened her eyes to male power. "You'll never know how many things are hidden from a woman in good clothes. The bold, free look of a man at a woman he believes to be destitute--you must feel that look on you before you can understand--a good half of history." (6)

Homosexuals, who necessarily had to lead double lives, were perhaps the most appreciative of the multiplicity of roles one individual could play. (7) At the turn of the century a Bostonian wrote a friend: "You would be amused could you know how in my secret thoughts of late I have been chiefly engaged in trying to penetrate my own disguise to find the real Dwight, for it is ridiculous that I should all unconsciously have played a part so well as to deceive so many intelligent and respectable people. …

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