Friday, 16 December 2016

A thing of strange beauty

“In his glory days of the 1920s, he entered the vaudeville stage or circus ring like a Ziegfield showgirl, swathed in ostrich feathers, stunningly gowned, bejewelled and bewigged. He then removed his headdress, cape and gown, and garbed in as little as possible to suggest near nudity but not run afoul of the law, Barbette began the acrobatic part of his act. He walked a tight wire, slack wire, and performed on the rings and the trapeze. He was a master of the dramatic, seeming to fall only to catch himself by a last second hook of his foot. He kept his audience aghast and amazed until he left the stage. When he returned to acknowledge the sustained applause, he doffed his wig, revealing his bald head and reminding all that they had marvelled at a man playing a woman.” [from Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers by Frank Cullen]

“I’d always read a lot of Shakespeare…and thinking that those marvellous heroines of his were played by men and boys made me feel that I could turn my speciality into something unique. I wanted an act that would be a thing of beauty - of course it would have to be a strange beauty” - Vander Clyde, aka the great Barbette.
In 1923 Vander Clyde took to the stage of the Folies Bergère in Paris dressed in full drag as Barbette. During the show Clyde performed incredible acrobatic stunts such as walking a high wire and dangerous trapeze-related tricks. Clyde’s appearance was so convincing that it left people to ponder the ambiguous performer’s true sexual identity.

Members of the French avant-garde community were captivated by Clyde’s portrayal of Barbette including one of France’s most influential creative minds the great Jean Cocteau, who was allegedly linked to Clyde romantically. Cocteau was so taken with Barbette that he commissioned surrealist photographer Man Ray to take a series of photographs showing Clyde’s metamorphosis into the ethereal, androgynous Barbette.

Ill-heath forced Barbette to hang up her trapeze in 1938, but she went on to provide inspiration for up-and-coming performers as well as collaborating with with some of Hollywood’s greatest stars – Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and the legendary producer and director Billy Rose.

Judy stole this "look"

More on Barbette at Dangerous Minds, and also (of course) at the marvellous Queer Music Heritage archive.

Sadly, after years of dealing with chronic pain, Barbette committed suicide on 5th August 1973. RIP.

Wildflower: The Dramatic Life of Barbette is a biography of the great showgirl by Kyle Taylor.

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