Children, Costume, and Identity in the Chester Midsummer Show

Susannah Crowder

Abstract


This essay focuses on the performances of children in late medieval and early modern Chester, using questions about gender identity and fashion to unpack the intricate social meanings of their representations in the Chester Midsummer Show. Roles for children in the Show changed drastically in the decades before and after 1600, when depictions of boys in performance shifted from representing them as uncivilized and outside the social order to imagining them as a symbolic merchant ‘nobility’. Earlier roles, such as the ‘naked boys’ who attacked a dragon, slowly gave way to luxuriously dressed ‘lords’ who rode for each guild. Unlike the naked boys, who were chosen on the basis of talent and/or specific skills, evidence reveals that the lords were played by the sons of prominent local officials. Given the context of historical unrest in Chester, these familial connections suggest that the desire for imagery of the ‘insider’ came to surpass that for the ‘outsider’. By the seventeenth century, the body of the child no longer represented a sexual and societal blank slate, but instead recreated the social order of the civic elites through aristocratic clothing that drew on sumptuary law to safely express social distinction, social aspiration, and legitimized local authority.

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