But the wenches and dudes also wore blackface, adding a note of bigotry to the event. And real transvestites - as opposed to people who cross-dress just for the day - have faced extraordinary prejudice in Philadelphia and elsewhere across history, which makes the Mummers' embrace of them all the more remarkable.
White Mummers once saw blackface as a harmless act of buffoonery: Why, they wondered, was it more offensive to dress up as an African American than to impersonate a woman?
The answer, of course, lies in our nation's ugly history of stereotyping African Americans as childlike, happy-go-lucky simpletons. That's why the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality petitioned the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to bar blackface from the Mummers Parade in December 1963. In response, the Mummers threatened to hold the parade in private.
Trying to placate both sides, the court barred blackface from Broad Street but allowed it on other parts of the parade route. Yet even a partial ban was too much for some Mummers, who staged a civil-rights-style "sit-in" to protest the blackface restrictions. Others wore dark-blue makeup on Broad Street but pointedly reapplied blackface when they marched through an African American neighborhood below South Street. "The Democrats own Broad Street; we own Second Street," the Mummers taunted.
That spoke to the city's increasing political polarization around questions of race. Blacks and white civil-rights proponents clustered in the Democratic Party, while opponents drifted toward the Republicans. The latter's standard-bearer was Frank Rizzo, who became a Democrat to run for mayor but later returned to the GOP.
As a police official in the 1950s and '60s, Rizzo also spearheaded the harassment of gays and transvestites. In 1959, when he was captain of a Center City precinct, Rizzo ordered a raid on a gay coffee shop on Sansom Street where an undercover policewoman reported that a man was "dressed as a woman."
Not all transvestites are gay, of course, or vice versa. Coined by the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in the early 20th century, the term "transvestite" derives from the Latin trans, "across," and vestis, "dress"; it refers to clothing, not sexual orientation. Hirschfeld examined 17 transvestites and found that most of them were heterosexual.
Nevertheless, both Germany and France outlawed cross-dressing in public. In several notorious cases, Hirschfeld found, women mistaken for male cross-dressers were arrested.
In the United States, likewise, law enforcement officials harassed and arrested transvestites. A California man dressed as a woman served six months' probation in the 1950s because his driver's license said "male." In the 1960s, an airline pilot lost his job and pension after he was arrested for cross-dressing.
Ironically, the persecution of transvestites galvanized them as a political force. After police raided a cross-dressers' bar in San Francisco's Tenderloin district in 1966, for example, customers rioted. Transvestites also played a key role in New York's now-famous Stonewall Riot of 1969, which began when lesbian cross-dressers refused to go to the bathroom with female officers seeking to "verify" their gender.
Even today, in the age of "LGBT," many of us remain much more comfortable with the first three groups - lesbian, gay, and bisexual - than the last, transgender. The American Psychiatric Association still considers transvestism a disorder, even though it dropped that designation for homosexuality long ago. And when Mummers leaders announced that drag queens would march in this year's parade, they received several dozen angry calls from members.
But they also turned a deaf ear to the complaints, striking another welcome blow against bigotry; the first came in 1974, when the Fancy Brigades barred blackface once and for all. Now the parade has courageously opened its arms to transvestites, who dress up as an identity, not just a lark. And if you have a problem with that, the joke is on you.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at email@example.com.