Mar 28 2011 3:00pm

Chick-in-Pants Heroines: Historical Hotness

Chicken PantsEveryone has a sub-category of romance that makes them sit up and take notice. Maybe it's a vampire, a secret baby, an arranged marriage, or a governess story. Me? I love a chick-in-pants romance.

A chick-in-pants romance is where a female dresses up and passes as a male—and not just any male either. A true chick-in-pants doesn’t just throw her hair in a hat and pull on pants. No! She works at being a man, and holds her own as one of them until her hero discovers her true identity and falls madly in love with her.

My love for the chick-in-pants stories started with Elizabeth Chater’s Milady Hot-at-Hand. This was the first time I came across a true chick-in-pants heroine: One who cut off her hair, practiced deepening her voice, and actually planned out how she could live as a boy while she tried to solve the mystery of her father and sister's deaths.

Like most chick-in-pants heroines, circumstance pushed her into wearing breeches, but her own bravery and sense of self allow her to pull it off while catching the attention of her hero.

The strength of character of the chick-in-pants heroine is one of the biggest draws for me. A chick-in-pants heroine has to be smart, strong, and determined. She knows who she is, what she wants, and is willing to do anything necessary to get it—even if that something isn’t something you, me, or the hero agrees with. Take, for example, my all time favorite chick-in-pants reread Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind. I pick this book up for a read every year because I’m facinated by the relationship between the hero and heroine. She dresses as a boy because she’s a loyal Confederate while our hero is a loyal Union soldier during the Civil War. Here we have a perfect example of a heroine fighting for what she believes in at any cost, and a man loving her against his better judgement.

Lady Alex’s Gamble by Evelyn RichardsonAs a romance fan, the best kind of chick-in-pants tales are ones where the hero finds himself inexplicably attracted to the heroine even though she's not what he expects. There's just something super sexy about a man falling in love with someone in spite of themselves. The hero in a chick-in-pants story is just as important as the heroine, and just as special. He has to fall a little in love with the heroine while she’s wearing the pants, and then fall in love with her completely because of her ability to wear them as herself. Which is why Evelyn Richardson’s Lady Alex’s Gamble tops my list for best chick-in-pants book. Richardson's chick-in-pants heroine has to dress up as a man so she can win back her family's fortune at the gaming tables. Alex/Alexandra is everything a chick-in-pants heroine should be: She’s smart as a whip, committed to her role, and passes as a man without anyone the wiser. Her hero is her perfect foil. He can’t understand why he’s drawn to this man. He doesn’t understand where his feelings are coming from. When he finally discovers Alex’s secret, he’s awed by her and loves her all the more for duping him.

Chick-in-pant stories span the ages; Shakespeare had Viola in Twelfth Night; the '80s had Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria and Joyce Hyser as Terry in Just One of the Guys, Barbara Streisand as Yentl, and even Disney got into the act with  Mulan in the late '90s.

What all of these stories have in common is a woman who has to live as a man in a man's world, and consequently finds a man who falls in love with her soul and not her looks. At the end of the day, isn't that the most sexy thing of all?

More chick-in-pants books:

The Adventurers by Michelle Martin

What An Earl Wants by Shirley Karr

Miss Grimsley's Oxford Career by Carla Kelly

What are your favorites?


Chicken pants image courtesy of Unknown (if you're the owner, let us know—we'd dearly love to give you credit!)


Cybil Solyn reviews for

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Janet W
1. Janet W ... I'm sure I'll think of many more examples but this is one of my oldest & most favourite: The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer. Does it pass the test for you?
Janet W
2. bungluna
Does "These Old Shades" by Georgette Heyer count? I love the story of Leonie and her Monsieur.
Lisa Cox
3. brontëgirl
See also Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage and West of the Pecos,
tho' the first is an exception . . . read 'em to find out why :).
Shayera Tangri
4. Shayera
I saw the title of this post and instantly thought of These Old Shades. Which I think I now have to go reread. It's one of my all time favorites.
Donna Cummings
5. Donna Cummings
How fun! It reminded me of one of my faves in this category: Eloisa James' Duchess by Night. The hero has figured out the heroine's secret, but he doesn't let on. Instead, he declares his attraction, making the heroine extremely nervous. It's a very funny scene.
Cybil Solyn
6. CybilSolyn
Thanks for the recs ladies! I have added the Zane to my TBR pile. I'm not a big Western fan, but for a good chick-in-pants I'll make an exception. ;) I've never read Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer so it's been added to my pile as well. I only posted romance novels in this article, but there are a ton of these types of stories is all genres and I have a soft spot for all of them!
Olivia Waite
7. O.Waite
Donna, I'll have to check out the Eloisa James, because that sounds completely marvelous!

My favorite chick-in-pants novel is Suzanne Enoch's Lady Rogue, because the hero penetrates her disguise (heh) fairly early on, but has to play along because otherwise their reputations will be shattered. And she's a huge hit with his friends. And even once she starts wearing scandalous crimson ballgowns instead of breeches she stays kind of unpredictable and feral, because she's been raised essentially as a boy by her gamble-happy father in France. And the ending will wrench your heart right out of your chest.
Myretta Robens
8. Myretta
How about Pam Rosenthals's first book, Almost a Gentleman? I thought it was a great take on chick-in-pants. And probably thought of you when I read it, Cybil.
Lisa Cox
9. brontëgirl
Zane Grey is one of my go-to novelists for romance, along w/ the Brontës and Austen. Charlotte Brontë has an interesting take, a reversal, of the chick-in-pants trope in Villette.
Janet W
10. Anna C. Bowling
This is one of my favorite tropes in romance. Ashes in the Wind is of course a classic and I'd be remiss in not mentioning Jude Deveraux's Velvet Song. The Wind and The Sea by Marsha Canham was amazing. I'm away from home right now, so can't paw through my keepers, but chick in pants stories can provide for some great adventures.
Janet W
11. BCHorn
My favorite chick in pants romance is the Scotsman Wore Spurs by Patricia Potter. I love it! It has a Wild West cattle drive mistaken identity thing going on.

Another favorite chick in pants story is the Alanna the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce. She was my favorite young adult author when I was a kid and I still pick up all of her books when they come out.
Cybil Solyn
13. CybilSolyn
OMG! How have I not read Suzanne Enoch's Lady Rogue?! sounds perfect O.Waite. As to the Rosenthal I recall being bored, but I didn't review it so I can't recall why. Oooh! YA is one of my favorite genres to get recs for. I've ordered Alanna the Lioness.
14. EvangelineHolland
I love Laura Black's Wild Cat. It's a gothic romance, but the heroine's reasons for donning male clothing are very harrowing, the hero is to die for, and it's set in Victorian Scotland!
Janet W
15. Mahlee Ashwynne
Well Georgette Heyer also wrote another two chicks-in-pants heroines. There is THE MASQUERADERS where a brother and sister swap places - Prudence as Peter Merriot and her brother Robin as Kate Merriot. And the lovely Sir Anthony Fanshawe who is nobody's fool!Plus the heiress Letitia and the father of Prudence and Robin who complicates the plot!Then there is my favourite THE CORINTHIAN where Sir Richard Wyndham and orphaned heiress Penelope Creed embark on an adventure to avoid distasteful forced weddings. As Pen (named after the famous Quaker)Brown/Wyndham and with Mr Brown they go in search of her childhood sweetheart. What a tangle ensues!!!Another favourite of chicks-in-pants is an early book by Barbara Cartland (yes her early stuff was great, her later stuff mulch churned out for the under 15s) called ELIZABETHAN LOVER where Lady Phillipa takes her brother's place on board a ship going to the newly discovered Americas on a voyage of adventure and discovery.
Janet W
16. Janet W
One of the most delicious bits in The Corinthian ... when Richard's henpecked brother-in-law describes in thrilled tones, the lock of "yaller" hair that has been discovered in the fire place (after Richard's star turn as a barber). I did think of this book -- a delightful romp -- so many fond recollections, like when the mother of Pen's childhood beau informs Sir Richard that young ladies are not in the habit of regarding him as an uncle! I did feel that the stakes in The Masqueraders were higher: this was a family fighting for their honor and their lives within society.
Janet W
17. Alex_D
I tried Milady Hot-at-Hand and Lady Rogue after reading these recommendations.

Milady Hot-at-Hand was okay oldstyle romance - I liked that the hero does not know she's a girl until she tells him, but I really disliked that the "hero" tends to hit and/or whip people at the slightest provocation, and that he never apologised to anyone, including the heroine.

I really liked Lady Rogue. Yes, it was a romp without much historic accuracy, but it turned into wonderful, classic screw ball comedy every time the hero and the heroine started arguing. Neither of them were door mats, the heroine is competent throughout the whole book and nobody turned into a gibbering idiot and started to misunderstand everything. Fun all the way to the end.
Janet W
18. Chelle
I also loved MJP's The Rake, which featured a take charge heroine that wore pants. :)
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