Tag Archives: 19th century

The Brightest Star

Some weekends ago, I attended an exhibit of 19th century wedding gowns, feeling like an invitee to these departed ladies’ proudest day.  It was a small gallery, in a room filled with sepia and satin, rich with the promise and limitations of a woman’s future.  She had grown from a child to a teenager, from a teenager to a debutante, from a debutante to a bride delicately leaning on her groom’s arm.  And after marriage she grew no more.

There were slightly more than a dozen mannequins – manicured and white; their faces blank like a perpetual lowering of eyes and silence of thoughts.  Wrists were arched at painful angles, fingers curved but empty:  waiting for a bouquet, a scrap of lace, a pair of gloves that fit like a second skin – a closeness which rendered them unsuitable to be worn a second time.

The exhibit was without color, save for the splash of a bouquet or the tip of a velvet shoe twinkling from beneath a hem.  But the impression was unforgettable – the imprint of expensive fabric, rows of glass beads that rippled like rivers in the sun, voluminous skirts and sleeves, corsets and petticoats that carved the bride into a woman’s shape.

The gowns spanned the entire century.  The earliest was from 1802:  a simple column of linen finely embroidered with a trellis of flowers. Its rich simplicity was a throwback to Marie Antoinette and her milkmaid reveries at the Hameau de la Reine.


In 30 years the wedding gown had become a flurry of satin and bows – figured jacquard and lace, tiers of ruffles and ribbons on the sleeves and an ornamented bodice fitted at the waist which was newly ‘found’ and beginning its descent to its natural place.


Mid-century and the gowns featured deep, scooped 17th century necklines – the lines that swooned with sentimentality at the vision of a lady’s pure and pale shoulders.  Skirts were bell-shaped and layered with decoration – buoyed with petticoats, they bobbed gently as she walked, shocking onlookers with glimpses of pretty ankles and pumps with curved embroidered heels.


Towards the end of the century complex bustles were introduced, taped and sewn into a maze of folds and pleats.  This labyrinth pulled the fabric of the skirt towards the back until the front was smooth and fitted.  So to preserve the diminutive waist, femininity’s silent cry for attention, tight-lacing entered a particularly brutal phase.  Stiff and doll-like, the bride would walk to meet her groom, already imprisoned – a penitentiary that was edged with lace, embroidered with colored silk, wreathed with tiny bows and that cut into her skin like a thousand exquisite thorns.


The room shone with the subtle warmth of thick satins, flaxen lace, pearls and glass beads.   Light honored the fabric with a heightening of textures, with radiant molecules that descended on patterns like sequins.  This was a history of the fashion of the wedding:  where there was much change; and the history of the bride:  where there was very little.  The exhibit was called ‘Bliss’ – and for that one blissful moment when she entered the church all eyes would be on her.  And they would follow her like flowers billowing towards the sun.  On that most singular, proudest, day she would be their brightest star.



‘The Ugliest Girl In Paris’

Emilie Marie Bouchaud was born in Algeria, in 1874.  She spent her childhood in a harsh landscape, with colors blasted into sepia by a sun so hot it seemed to kiss the mountains with a fiery, merciless passion.

Her father died when she was five.  Of her eleven siblings, only one still lived by the time she was sixteen.  When she was seventeen, she had run away to France. She sang in cafes and cabarets, her smoky voice wafting above the demimonde that assembled there to in their lavender languor.

Within the year she was singing and dancing in music halls.  She named herself after the Pole Star – the brightest star in the sky:  Polaire.

During a time when women were as indolent as flowers, when pink and porcelain coursed through their skin in delicate confusion, Porlaire was viewed with both horror and desire.  A lithe, dark animal, she was a feral object who twisted and coiled like a cat trying to escape.


Her short, thick hair was wavy and expansive; it was parted on the side so that one undulating curl draped across an almond-shaped eye, steeped in shadow, caught in a perpetual eclipse.  The mouth was wide and spoke of a curved invitation, even when silent.  Everything about her face was bold and seductive, alarming those who could not accept a woman who felt no shame.


She was proud of her sweaty barbarism – the scandal of her magnificent allure.  When she debuted in New York, she was billed as ‘the ugliest woman in the world’.

Polaire danced like an untamed sprite, a thunderstorm descending from the sky and unleashed upon the stage.  Her spitfire body was fluent and sinuous, and when she pulled her skirts to her knees, balancing on unstill muscles, she moved with an unhinged grace.   She sang ‘Ta-ra-ra- Boom-de-ay (“Just the kind you’d like to hold/Just the kind for sport I’m told”).  Toulouse-Lautrec sketched and painted her inelegance, her cropped hair, her wide mouth and shrouded eyes.


People came to watch her dance and act.  They came to listen to her sing.  But they also came to stare – at her tiny, tortured waist, punished inside of a ring of whalebone that rumor claimed was as small as 16 inches.  Though petite – she was 5 foot three inches and naturally slim – women “gasped sympathetically” at the sight of the ribcage crushed like folding hands, and men swooned at its minute perfection.  Her agent, displayed one of her 14 inch corsets in a theater where she was performing, describing her waist as “this gift of the gods.”

No photoshop

This was a superficial time that embraced beauty and triviality.  Women at the opera stood on their chairs and balanced their lorgnettes on judgmental noses for a close look at the current mistresses.  They crowded bridal paths to view courtesans drive their carriages paid for with the wages of sin.  They made Polaire the star she always wanted to be – because they wanted to stare at the forests of furs wrapped around her shoulders, the jewels wrapped around her arms and neck.  They came to regale in the foreign magnetism that burned within her shocking silhouette.


Someone in that admiring, desiring audience had written a song for her, which began:

“When I started in a music-hall, my waist fitted in a man’s collar” (“Quand j’députais au music-hall,/Ma taille tenait dans un faux-col.”).

Many gentlemen found this a charming image, and sent her their collars, to see if she would fulfill it.

Polaire died at the age of sixty-five in 1939 – a time when such gallantries would have been laughed at.  It was said that she suffered from depression – the spider that crushes mind and body within its shadowy web.  But for a few delirious decades, she was the brightest star in the sky, guiding Paris’ ships in the night, their bright faces staring up at her like lanterns held aloft.

Whither The Child?

There was a time – an unfair, enviable time – when the laws of coiffure were strict and steadfast.  These laws tucked morality inside the twisted designs and curls, made sure its rules brushed across braids and ribbons – and that they lay across shoulders in glistening commandments.

A young girl was allowed to proclaim her youth with long, undressed hair.  Like a forest – unknown, undiscovered, untouched by man – her hair was chaste and uncivilized.   She stood outside the tight refinements of adulthood, brandishing her carelessness in a fiery aura.  If she wore her hair clipped, curled or sculpted, she would be reaching into years she was not yet  prepared for – abusing her unadorned childhood, her Victorian gift.

A woman, however, had earned the right to the petty foolishness and daintiness of a lady’s toilette.  Her hair could now be piled into complex patterns, lost and cursive, braided and frizzed – mocking the bare terrain of neck and shoulders.  Held up in turrets by pins and combs, troubled by jeweled bands and flowers, it was a declaration of readiness to touch society’s bracing seas.

But when the woman takes back the appearance of a child, she assumes the seductive confusion of mixed warnings.  The girl sees with eyes dark with experience and breathes within the boned décolleté of brocade and embroidery.  And the woman is warmed by the torrent of hair – as coarse as new silk – that covers her shoulders and arms.

Betwixt And Between

This misplaced femininity was almost immoral – a daring negotiation that wove through the peripheries of age.  With such a bewilderment of years the child risked a quick maturity, and the woman became fiercely approachable.  It was a betrayal of the laws of nature and society that coiled like DNA to define the child’s behavior and set the boundaries of the woman’s home.

Aubrey’s Christmas

Aubrey Beardsley and a few other select souls began The Savoy magazine in 1896, shortly after the artistic demise of the Yellow Book (physically, it continued – naughty in color only – until 1897).  Aubrey had been summarily released from his artistic duties in 1895, after the debacle of Wilde vs. Queensberry.  Having used his depraved and blessed talent to illustrate Wilde’s play ‘Salome’ – there was born in the public’s febrile imagination an artistic friendship between the two (actually, they rather disliked each other).   Society’s ignorance had made sure that Oscar Wilde was safely out of the way at Reading Gaol, and that Aubrey Beardsley was out of a job.  The new, yellow literature had been deserted; the season of scandal had ended.

Aubrey Beardsley drowned 19th century aesthetics in decadence, in the hothouse breathlessness of a corrupt garden.  He had two years to live and the thick, debauched creativity ran like an urgent river through his tubercular blood.  The Savoy was born out of this resentment and panic – but lived for only one year.  He drew each of the covers – perfect, shocking – with the premiere issue that indicated his state of mind:  it featured a tiny, nude putto  preparing to urinate on a copy of The Yellow Book.  (it was edited out immediately, but this Aubrey always found it quite marvelous)

Hidden inside of issue number 1 was a delicate gift; a greeting – a welcome.  It was a Christmas card designed by Beardsley, an illustration that lifted the Mother and Child from their poverty and shepherds and transported them to a forest chilly with the verdant shadows of centaurs and druids.  Her robe did not glow with crescent moons and lilies; rather it was rich with emblems of the earth – leaves and flowers – and beheld a curving hem trimmed with fur.  She had become a pre-Raphaelite maiden with loose, immodest hair – sitting in a cold, green world:  lost in a flourishing land.

Pretty Greetings

Was Arthur Symons, the publisher, pleased with Beardsley’s portrait of this spiritual family?  Or did the Virgin’s androgeny and low-cut gown disturb him?  Did he only recognize the seductive history of the roses that breathed so close to her – or was he aware of her other name, ‘The Mystic Rose’?  Did he think it right that the Child wore a Victorian gentleman’s shirt?

I have a pretty good idea of what his opinion was.  But it matters not.  Because this Aubrey finds it quite marvelous.

Happy Christmas, my marvelous, ethereal, unknown friends.

The Gift

In a sultry room the gift poses, hips and waist twisted into a seductive curve.   The gentle path of flesh becomes a journey and an invitation; a dangerous welcome for the weary traveler.

The Lady Is Without Fear

The face is small and proud, with a beauty’s spirit brewing just below the surface.  An alchemy of arrogance swirls in tangents between the black eyes, the dainty mouth, the dazzling countryside of silhouette and bone.  Colors buoy and glimmer through a gentle haze:  cherry, rose, a sfumato of lavender, ivory dissolving lovingly into pearl.

The crescent smile is scarlet and pert, and a mischievous femininity mirrors in the dark eyes, the honest, heavy brows.  The hair is soft and tumbled, the stray hairs an echo of the roguish expression that dashes across her face like an unbridled colt.  A single curl has fallen, and threatens the triangular stability of brow, eye and nose. 

With a look of aggressive generosity, the gift seeks the face of the viewer.  The body is a presentation piece: an offering of audacious skin and daring measurements rising from a sea of soft, white currents.

The gift is wrapped in silk and organza:  tight and taut, décolleté and delightful.  Swathed in colors that reflects the pale sunlight of spring, it glows with promise as does that most innocent of seasons.   But it is radiant with danger, too.

The gift is one of boldness and freedom – an unabashed vision that once was hidden if only because such a fearless beauty was not allowed to be shared.


“The Orient In Her Hips”

Agustina Otero Iglesias was born in western Spain, into a childhood pocked-marked with poverty and abuse.  Her parents – a Greek officer and a Spanish gypsy – gave her an insolent, passionate heart, but little else.  Her proud inheritance lept unbidden from them to her mysterious blood, which flowed like rapids to their destiny over the cliffs.

When she was ten – in 1878 – she was working as a servant.  In that same year, she was raped.  Four years later she ran away with a lover to Lisbon, and began her dancing career in the local taverns and clubs.  She was young, charming and careless in those dark and dangerous places, her skin glowing like a lost pearl.

She escaped to France with another lover when she was twenty.  Within the year she was free once more, and had reinvented herself as La Belle Otero, swathed in silken shawls hung with silver coins and black roses, her hypnotic feet tracing Spanish patterns on the stages of Marseilles and Paris. 

She was very soon the star of the Folies Bergere and one of the most desired courteseans of a generation that devoured beauty with eyes hidden beneath heavy, lavender colored lids.

Her "followers" were legion.  Stories of madness and desire flashed above her like lightning sparking above a velvet landscape.  The suicides of the men she had turned away.  The duel that was fought over her.  The cupolas of the Carlton Hotel , modeled after her famous breasts.  A writer, Hugues le Roux, observed in the language of education and dissipation, "All the Orient was in her hips."

Whad did he mean?  That all the secrets and danger of an unknown continent curled within her muscles in a seductive implication?  That the exoticism of The Silk Road traveled along the bends and curves of her body?  When he watched her, did he see things that exceeded the dreams of respectable men?  In her luscious prime, Otero must have been magnificent. 

Le Belle Otero died in 1965, aged 97.  The world by then must have become offensive to her:  sloppy, rude and loud.  Reputations were no longer gracefully destroyed in whispers, in the shadows, but in the street for all to see.  Fifty years earlier she had purchased a home for $15,000,000 – now she was shamed by a monthly rent.

She had her memories:  of the lives she ruined, of the underworld she ruled; of the jewels that glittered from her neck and arms – passion's decorations.  Perhaps she rested her hands on her hips and marveled at their once singular power.  She remembered that their slightest movement inspired words as brilliant as a diamond dropped into a glass of champagne and raised to her lips.

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The Jersey Lillie

"They saw me, those reckless seekers of beauty, and in a night I was famous."

That one night was in 1876.  She had been invited to a reception and the dress she wore was simple; serene beside the skirts bobbing like likes of crinoline and the bodices that cut deep, with decorations pursuing the cruel pathways of cloth and bone.  All her dress did was follow the full, natural contour of her strong body.  The dress was black – she was still mourning the death of her younger brother – and her creamy, unpowdered skin made a handsome contrast.  her auburn hair warmed the eyes.  She was an untouched palette, attractive to any artist who searched for his subjects in the drawing rooms of Victorian England.

And there were artists in attendance that night.  In the morning, copies of her portrait could be seen in shop windows throughout London.  In a single night, Lillie Langtry had become famous.  Society had found its new Professional Beauty – invited to the most enviable parties, holding the London Season like a bouquet in her arms…she would be its queen until the flowers grew cold.

This photo was taken in 1890.  Much had happened since then.  She is 37 here; never possessing prettiness, which would have condemned her masculine wit, her features are clear-cut and Grecian.  She is still Oscar Wilde's 'Helen of Troy'.

Her affair with Prince Edward (eventually to become Edward VII) had ended ten years ago, his attentions straying to a dark, nimble sprite, Sarah Bernhardt.  Once Lillie was free of him, there had been other men.  In 1881 she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie – the father's identity still a matter of speculation.

On her friends' advice, she embarked on a stage career.  The leap from society to the stage is not such a tremendous one.  And talent notwithstanding, there wouldn't be a theater in the country that would turn Mrs. Langtry away.  Within months of her daughter's birth she had made her debut.  In 1882 she was touring America.  That same year she had found another lover, a millionaire, Fred Gebhard, and was his mistress for nine years.

And after him, there was George Alexander ("Squire") Baird, amateur jockey and boxer.  He beat her regularly, seeking her forgiveness with diamonds and yachts.  She found the bruises acceptable currency, and endured the violence that ran unrestrained across her skin.

A year after this picture was taken, a coarse fist would exploit the face that many had considered the loveliest in the world.  She would hide that face, discolored and distorted, and sigh – perhaps – for the days when she was society's precious toy, the gilded lily lying on a velvet pillow.

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The Search

They are mystic glances, subdued by glass, surrounded by enamel and pearls, garnets and gold, colors from the sky, stones from the earth.  They stare boldly from beyond their frames, from beyond the centuries – clutching jealously at their meaning, keeping it hidden beneath the guarded depths of a lover's jewel.


There was a time when they searched crowded, powdered rooms:  tiny ships with precious cargo, pinned safely within the gentle harbor of a silken bodice, by the sharp island of a velvet lapel.  They held the image of a loved one's eye; the eye that animated a living face the way meaning inspires a word.  Free from the danger of recognition they were unblinking testaments that their owner yearned, but had to keep that longing a secret.

When the sun questioned such audacity, the eye would appear to blink under its hot scolding.  When it rained, the eye seemed to despair and cried for its wearer's loneliness.  When the clouds pulled a shadow across the flippant sky, the darkness made the eye overcast and enigmatic.

The eye can be a narcisisstic pool – a liquid mirror in which a person can see his own heart and desire.  The DNA of human emotion swims in its oceanic depths.  It reaches into the luminous sky and sees its image in the stars piercing the galaxies like an embroidery spanning infinite acres.  But it can also be a communique of shade and color; a confession two hundred years old whose ghostly reflection still reclines in the embrace of loving gems, continuing its lonely search.



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The Peacock Room

On four walls he painted a glittering, gilded cacophony, golden feathers dripping down leather walls, wings that panted against the ceiling, multitudes of patterns that made a mockery of empty space.

Peacocks make human noises; they scream and cry in jagged, lonely tones.  But nature apologized to the male of the species for this atonality by providing him with iridescent rainbows that glistened and rippled as he moved, with an aurora borealis glowing from his feathers.  Painters, and all aficionados of color, love his betrayal of earthiness, his irresponsible exhibitionism.  He was seemingly made for negligence and beauty.

Beardsley drew skirts of peacock's tails that curled around the ankles, and clouds of feathers that breathed over Salome's shoulder:

Wilde made the peacock a symbol of languor and decadence; James MacNeil Whistler dedicated an entire room to this stunning bird with a cry like Lazarus waking in his tomb.

In 1876 Frederick R. Leyland commissioned Whistler to decorate his dining room.  Leyland's preferences were serious and symmetrical and he should have known better than to let such an artistic sprite into his home.

Using pots full of gold metallic leaf, he covered the ceiling and panels of the walls in a thin layer of liquid metal, the alloy that began humbly as grains rolling in the bellies of streams and rivers.  He then chose one color and investigated its darknesses, chosing its varied shadows as carefully as if they were the newest silks from Lyons.  This palette of blue – prussian, cobalt and indigo – was used to sew a textile of feathers that flowed with impatient currents, wings that were as lush and stiff as brocaded draperies, tiny aristocratic heads poised on necks a swan would envy.

Four peacocks were created: four golden tapestries embroidered into the walls; four gardens clipped into a manicured maze that branched into gilded tangles; four streams of light siphoned from the sun and diluting that bright star.  He called his glowing aviary:  "Harmony in Blue and Gold:  The Peacock Room".

In a creative thrill Whistler wrote to Leyland, telling him that his dining room was "really alive with beauty – brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree".

Leyland hated it.  He hated the sunburst of feathers that blazed across his dark room like a sunset caught in a bottle.  He hated the tendrils of plumes that charted burnished rivers from wall to wall.  He hated the effete delicacy of the poised and posing birds.  He hated their inescapable loveliness.

He hated Whistler's price.

There was a violent quarrrel – not surprising with two such high examples of ego – and Leyland eventually agreed to pay…half of Whistler's stated amount.  He intensified the insult by paying in pounds instead of guineas.  Pounds were the currency of trade, not of artists and other professionals.  Furthermore, in the 1870's, a pound was worth twenty shillings, with the guinea twenty-one.  Whistler lost the arguement, lost money and lost face.

But he got the last laugh.

He gained access into the offending room and painted one more masterpiece.  It was a confrontation between two peacocks, frozen in the movements of an angry ballet: one standing with its feet straddling a pile of silver shillings, its throat a path of aggressive ruffles, alluding to Leyland's favored ruffled shirts.  The other peacock, recoiling before its rich and greedy rival, has a silver crest feather resembling the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler's forehead.  This altercation was called, "Art and Money, or, The Story of the Room." 

This was finished in 1877.  Whistler never stepped foot in the room again.

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A Defence Of Cosmetics

I read this essay many years ago; and it was written many years before that, in 1894, by Max Beerbohm.  The title pleased me, for I thought I had found my advocate.

Max Beerbohm was a delightful writer, living at a time when one can turn wit into a career.  I was not surprised that he would be the one to write an apologia so dear to me.

Max was a dandy – dandyism was one of the more effervescent trends of the late 19th century.  It delighted in surface perfection of course, in Brummel's precision, but also sought the mental superiority that would lift its practitioners above the miasma of dirt, industry and vulgarity that lurked in every Victorian alley.

Max was a satirist.  His humor was coy and fanciful.  But when I read phrases like these, I chose to believe them:

"No longer is a lady of fashion blamed, if, to escaped the outrageous persecution of time, she fly for sanctuary to the toilet table."

"Artifice is the strength of the world, and in that same mask of paint, of powder…is a woman's strength."

"Artifice, sweetest exile, is come into her kingdom.  Let us dance her a welcome!"

But the article, of course, was a farce, a parody.  (Max, in fact, was a great admirer of the classic, unadorned British complexion)  I had been taken for quite a ride – it was a wonderful gallop, but the fall was stupendous.

Had Max left it to me to defend cosmetics?  Perhaps I can defend my use of cosmetics.

I've used make-up since high school.  I'm not saying that I used it well, having fallen many times into the inexcusable trap of matching your eye shadow with your clothes.  Especially inexcusable when you're wearing a powder blue pant suit.  I didn't use it to hide, nor to glorify.  It didn't, by the way, destroy my Youthful Glow or turn my skin moribund.  It did, however, make me different.  It gave me drama.  That was reason enough for a teenager.

And in my twenties, when I had nothing else to do but think about such things, I realized that I would age very ungracefully.  That is, I would protest the encroaching years most vehemently, using whatever weaponry I had at hand:  pots, paints, rouge, reds, pinks, whites, liquid blacks.  And I worried – I hoped I would be up to the task.

Fast forward – way forward – to the present, and I still use cosmetics.  I might apply foundation and powder with a lighter hand (in college I went through a Noh actor phase); but you will only pry my lipstick from my cold, dead hands.

A naked face is no more honest than a painted one.

My face shows age, mere years.  The laugh lines tell me that at some point in my life I have laughed.  Wrinkles tell me that I have indulged in habitual facial expressions, been damaged by the sun, and that I am a poor hydrator.  And that is all.  Cosmetics do not blot out my life's experiences because my face isn't the picture that will tell those stories.

(Oh, in addition there is a slight separation in my right eyebrow which was a result of a traffic accident, when I was hurled from the backseat to a stare-down with the gear-shift.  Wear your seatbelts, kids.)

My make-up will cover these imperfections as well as contribute to a creation.  I like dramatic coloring – this is why I enjoy the dark eyes and blatant mouths of the 1920's.  I am partial to theatricality both in look and in act.  The onslaught of age weaves in and out of my reasoning like a ragged thread.  Some of my cosmetics fight the battle, and some are used for pretty.  Age certainly will not determine how long I will use them.  That's a personal matter.

If you want to know about my life, don't study my wrinkles.  Talk to me.  Read what I've written.  Look at what I've drawn.

Cosmetics can both conceal and express, and I defend them.

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