This is the tradition whereby the romantic hero of the story is played by an attractive young woman.
The breeches role, as it is often known, can be traced back to at least the early 1800s, predominantly in opera. The first panto Principal Boy was Eliza Povey, who played Jack at Drury Lane in 1819, but the convention did not take hold fully until the 1880s with the rise of the Music Hall.
So why have a woman play a man? Well, it was a way of increasing the popularity of the show. The Victorian male, living in a society where even the legs of the parlor piano were covered for modesty's sake, craved the vision of a well-turned calf or shapely ankle.
In a male role, actresses were allowed to display as much leg as they dared. Audiences would compare which actress had 'the best legs in the business'. Soon the tunic replaced the breeches, and by the 1930s the tradition was at its height. A 'boy' in panto came to mean an actress who did not impersonate a man but who retained her femininity in the role, wore short and flattering costumes and could draw attention to her legs by giving them the occasional slap.
Over the years, the tradition has waxed and waned. Women held sway through the first and second world wars, but in the 1950s, men began to take over the role. In the 1960s and 1970s, the pendulum swung the other way, but today, in Britain, many of the large commercial pantos have handsome young men, usually television or pop stars, playing the romantic lead.
Here at Theatre Britain, we have done both! Our first pantos featured young men, but since we revived in 2002, we have cast women in the roles.
Historical panto information in this article was taken from www.its-behind-you.com. Used with permission.