The woman who would be cardinal

By Kenneth Cohen
An elaborate outfit comprising a crimson robe with matching skirt with gold lace overlay. There is a sloping sash placed around the shoulders and a hat with four points.

In reflecting on National Coming Out Day, Curator Kenneth Cohen was reminded of the fascinating story of Charlotte Cushman that we've preserved through objects in our collections.

An elaborate outfit comprising a crimson robe with matching skirt with gold lace overlay. There is a sloping sash placed around the shoulders and a hat with four points.

This is one of the oldest theater costumes in the museum's collection. It was made around 1857 for the role of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in Shakespeare's Henry VIII. But it is important less for its age than for the fact that it was made for an actress not an actor—an actress who challenged the conventions of gender and sexuality in her day, both on stage and off.

The actress was Charlotte Cushman. Few remember her name today, but it would be hard to overstate her renown during her lifetime. Besides constant announcements of her performances, she was celebrated in prints, photos, and even statues. At her final show in New York City in 1874, the police had to guard the theater for fear of overcrowding inside, and thousands lined Fifth Avenue after the show to watch fireworks as she passed on the way back to her hotel.

This kind of celebrity explains why the Smithsonian acquired two of Cushman's costumes for the same 1914 exhibition that launched its collection of First Ladies gowns. Charlotte Cushman was without a doubt the first lady of the American stage.

On the left is a color print of a woman in a man's costume with a seated woman in a white dress clinging to her. They are on a balcony with trees and a view of the sunset behind them.

A long piece of paper covered in text in different sizes with some words made bold.

Of course, this costume does not represent a lady. Cushman wore it when she played Wolsey on more than a dozen special occasions, from Boston to New Orleans, between 1857 and 1873. In taking on the role of Henry VIII's scheming churchman and minister, Cushman broke with a century of theatrical precedent.

Women had long played tragic male characters such as Romeo and Hamlet. In fact, Cushman herself first achieved stardom playing Romeo opposite her sister as Juliet. But, traditionally, lots of men went to see women in these male roles because they were costumed in tights that revealed legs normally concealed under dresses. In contrast, the Wolsey costume did not show off Cushman's body. In addition to covering her legs, the robes fit her more loosely than did her Romeo costume or the dress she wore in the role of Katharine of Aragon (the female protagonist in Henry VIII and the other costume of hers in the Smithsonian collection).


An old, ornate black gown with gold leaves and vines stitched along the hems and embroidery on the waist and collar. It has long, full sleeves and the skirt is slashed to show a cream underlayer with gold detailing.

A faded photograph of a woman leaning against a balustrade. She is wearing a dark crown-like hat and a skirted outfit with embroidery.

The Katharine gown has the same waist measurement as the Wolsey robe but is only 32 inches around the chest. The Wolsey robe measures 40. The result is a costume that conceals rather than accentuates Cushman's bust. Coupled with a wig of thin blonde hair, in comparison to wearing her own thick, dark hair when she played Romeo and Hamlet, the Wolsey costume reflects an effort to play a male role while looking as much like a man as possible instead of trying to play a male role noticeably as a woman.

Cushman took on the part of Wolsey in order to show that she could play dramatic men's roles on her acting merits, without resorting to looking racy. She evidently succeeded. Reviewers consistently called her impersonation "a positive success." After her death, one national magazine noted "that for complete abnegation of sex Miss Cushman's Cardinal Wolsey was pre-eminent."

If the story of this costume was only about Cushman's place in theater history, we could stop with the fact that it helped women lay claim to a wider range of roles than they previously played. But Cushman's private life reveals that she pursued such freedom offstage as well as on. Her acting success made her the breadwinner for her family after her father went broke when she was a teenager. As an adult, she funded and lived in a community of what she and her friends called "jolly female bachelors" or "emancipated women" who were known for producing art, wearing men's clothing, and lobbying for working women. All of the romantic relationships documented in her personal papers at the Library of Congress were with women.

A black and white photograph of a seated woman. A younger woman stands next to her, looking in the opposite direction.

An older woman in a dark satin gown sits in this black and white photograph as a younger women in a polka dot dress looks with her to something to their right.

In a period before words like "lesbian," "queer," and "transgender" came into use, most Americans saw Cushman's lack of male partners as evidence of chastity and purity, particularly considering other actresses' reputations for philandering. Her audiences saw her relationships with women as close, but platonic, friendships. Cushman herself did nothing to correct this view, and frequently told her partners and lovers to burn her letters to protect her reputation.

The respectability of the first lady (or as the New York Times put it, the "Queen") of the American stage declined only in the decades after her costumes came to the Smithsonian. Then, as female homosexuality became more recognized—and ridiculed—the photos and memoirs that documented her relationships with women made her less celebrated. Perhaps such homophobia explains why her costumes have not been exhibited since at least the 1910s. Recently, however, the National Museum of American History has updated the photography and research of its Cushman items in an effort to spread the word about how her stage work reflected her refusal to conform in her personal life.

Cushman may never have felt free enough to come out, but her success in male roles and refusal to take a male partner simply for show makes her a groundbreaking figure in LGBTQ history, as well as a foundational star in the history of American entertainment.

Kenneth Cohen is curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts.