Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Gulag Gurls

The image in the Femulator slot of Saturday’s post depicted “British prisoners of war femulating in a show at Stalag 383 during World War II.” That image resulted in comments and questions from you readers wondering about the soldiers femulating in that photo.

Years ago, I wondered about POW crossdressing and did some research on the matter. The results of that research appeared here almost two years ago to the day and I am repeating that post below to help clear things up. If you have further questions, I will try to answer them.    

Cassidy wrote, “Quick question. I, from time to time see on your blog and others WWI and WWII POWs dressed as women (femulating) and performing for other inmates. I always wondered where they got the clothing to do so. Could you offer an answer?”

I had the same question when I discovered all the photos of POW femulations.

I wondered if the Geneva Convention required every POW facility to be stocked with the latest in female clothing, wigs, makeup, etc., to permit the prisoners to dress en femme?

Did the POW camp commander ring up his favorite dress shop and order some frocks for the prisoners whenever they wanted to put on a show?

I asked those questions (with tongue in cheek), but I was curious because it seemed to me that these “girls” were not wearing homemade outfits put together from scraps of material that they scrounged up in camp. Rather they were dressed as fashionable women of the day would dress in outfits that came off the rack of women's clothier.

What's the real story?

With nothing but time on their hands, the POWs would make their costumes using whatever scraps of material they could find, repurpose or barter from the prison guards. They even made high heel shoes! If you ever saw the film The Great Escape, it shows the prisoners making civilian clothing and Nazi uniforms (for their escape) the same way.

(Reminds me of the time before I had the courage to shop for women's clothing in person that I made a red satin micro-miniskirt from a scrap of material that my mother had left over from a sewing project.)

As they say, “Where there's a will, there's a way.”

On the other hand, there were POWs who performed as female impersonators for the troops before imprisonment and brought their makeup and gowns along with them into captivity. Since wigs were a scarce commodity, some of the "girls" were permitted to grow their hair out!

Addendum: I am aware of two films that depict POW femulations: La Grande Illusion and The Bridge on the River Kwai. In the former, officers are the femulators, whereas in the latter, enlisted men do the femulating.

(Sources: The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War by Midge Gilles; Cultural Heritage and Prisoners of War: Creativity Behind Barbed Wire by Gilly Carr and Harold Mytum)

Source: Rue La La
Wearing London Times

When Bombardier Arthur Butler of the 122nd Field Regiment Royal Artillery transformed himself into Gloria D’Earie she became ‘exquisite’. She made all her own costumes and moved and spoke just like a woman. Butler was a professional female impersonator and widely regarded as the best in Changi. His act was so convincing that some men found it too painful: they would rather not be reminded of what a woman looked like as it made their separation from wives and sweethearts harder to bear. (Source: The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War by Midge Gillies)


  1. AnonymousJune 24, 2020

    Wow that's fascinating! So many questions, most importantly why did their captors allow it and even let the impersonators take much of their old costumes? Might they have felt "feminising" their captives made them more docile and easier to control?

  2. In the book "King Rat" by James Clavell a female impersonator had quite a major role. "She" became so wrapped in her alternative identity that she committed suicide when the camp was liberated rather than go back to being a male.

  3. I already mentioned the transwoman, Roberta Cowell, who was encouraged to let her hair grow in a POW camp to play female parts in their plays. The British have that very long tradition of men playing the female part on the stage. When Charles II allowed women to act on the stage the male actresses simply moved to the next tier down and continued to perform as women in the music halls. There was no stigma attached to men playing women.

    The Brits had an "all men on board": approach to fighting the Nazis.So there were many gays in the war effort. They had harsh laws about homosexual activity which were put on hold for the duration of the war. Of course they hounded them to death after the war -- Alan Turing, who might well have been the single most important person bringing the end of the war, was the most visible example of this. But in the war, knowing the troops needed some respite from time to time, they had entertainment troupes, which were loaded with female impersonators. Here's a link to a troupe from New Zealand who performed for ANZUS troops throughout the war. I have the impression they were NOT hounded like their British counterparts after the war.

  4. I entered something yesterday that had what I'll call "memory-related" errors. I pointer out that Roberta Cowell, possibly the first successful MtoF transwoman was in ma POW camp when she was "Roberta" and asked to play females in the POWs theatre shows. I decided to look back at her and found I had read the book even farther back than I thought. Her book came out in 1955 and I read it shortly after it was released. By the time I was in high school I had found a newsstand that had quite a lot of CD/TG mags and books. That was about 63 years ago. The other POWs approached "him" to grow her hair and play female roles but she declined, not wanting them to assume she was homosexual. I'm sure what I wrote implied she had participated,, but my frayed memories failed me. But shortly after the WWII she pursued her strong feeling that she was meant to be a woman and had the very experimental surgery in the 1940's. No doubt Stana chose not to post my mistaken recollection.