Tipping the Velvet opens in the reign of Edward VII, as Nan King looks back over her life in the early 1890s. Brought up in a Whitstable oyster parlour, Nan Astley is 18 when she first sees Kitty Butler, a male impersonator (or masher), perform on the stage of the Canterbury Palace of Varieties. Having fallen instantly in love with Kitty, Nan is thrilled to be invited to become Kitty’s dresser and move with her to London. During their first year together, the girls’ relationship becomes physical and passionate, and Nan joins Kitty on the music hall stage as a male impersonator. But Nan’s happiness is shattered when she discovers Kitty in bed with the girls’ manager and mentor, Walter Bliss. Heartbroken, Nan runs away from her life in the music halls to live alone in sordid lodgings. She sets herself up as a male prostitute, making use of the costumes from her previous life as an impersonator.