Thursday, 25 February 2010

Constructing the Teddy Boy

One of the most conspicuous aspects of the British Teddy Boy was his hair; that towering quiff carefully and regularly primped with a comb - perhaps a flick knife comb for extra posing points! - and secured with copious fistfuls of pomade.

At least since the nineteenth century, men's hair was simply cut short and combed flat, sometimes slicked with the macassar oil that gave Victorian and Edwardian housewives such headaches worrying about their stained upholstery they were forced to invent the antimacassar. The only possible variations seemed to be in the parting of the hair, and tonsorial exuberance was confined to the moustache.

Given all those long decades of modesty and simplicity in men's hair, it must have been quite a shock in the early 1950s to see young men constructing glossy (and greasy) edifices of hair and quite shamelessly preening in what was seen as an effeminate manner. There can't have been many young men who went quite to this, er, length though:


This 1956 film was shot at Cyril Parker's hairdressers shop in Tottenham Court Road, London. The hair 'sausage' or 'elephant trunk' seems very similar to the postiches used by Victorian and Edwardian women to pad out their hairdos - think of those voluminous bouffant styles as sported by the "Gibson Girls" which often needed substantial postiches to achieve.

There's very little footage of Teddy Boys in the British Pathé archive, although interestingly the two clips I've found focus on their hair. So here's the second film, shot at a hairdressing show in Belle Vue, Manchester, in 1955.

There's some bizarre ladies' hairdos, and a varied selection of men's haircuts including the 'Petronius' (Roman style), the 'Curled Semi-Crew Cut,' the 'Brush Cut' and the 'Tony Curtis.' You can catch a brief glimpse of Lew Starr (finessing the Brush Cut), who was the Teddy Boy hairdresser in Manchester, and - I'm told by one who remembers - always had intimidating queues of scowling, smoking ruffians outside his salon in Charles Street:


And we all know what 'D.A.' really stands for, don't we?!

Friday, 19 February 2010

Knit your own "fur" coat

A knitted "fur" coat pattern from Woman's Friend magazine, May 7th 1932, page 5.

This charming little pattern was found in a very cheap 1930s women's magazine, printed on (by now) crumbly newsprint.

The idea of knitting a humble little jacket to imitate fur must have had considerable appeal in the hard years of the Depression. And since the instructions look rather brief, I'm assuming its a very simple jacket to make - I can't knit unfortunately so I'm no expert on this.

Click on the picture for a larger version, please print it off with my pleasure, and if you do try to make it I'd love to see the result! You might not be able to source Patons and Baldwins' "Beehive" "Feather Wool" these days, but I'm sure there's a nicely furry modern equivalent yarn that will do.

You deserve a Whitbread!

Whitbread Pale Ale advertisement in Lilliput, June 1947, page xv.

This startling advertisement appeared in Lilliput magazine's June 1947 issue. A man is pictured in a frilly apron doing the washing up, presented with no comment or indication that this is the least bit remarkable.

Taken in the context of the immediate post-war years, it did surprise me. Men were returning from fighting six long years of war and the usual story we are told is that women who had ably coped with 'men's' jobs - working in munitions and aeroplane factories during the war - were immediately pushed out of their jobs and ordered back into the home and kitchen where they belonged. It was back to 'business as usual' - the reassuring gendered division of labour with women as housekeepers and mothers, men as breadwinners, and pampered kings of the castle at home.

This ad complicates those assumptions. There's no suggestion that this man is emasculated by helping out at home, even with a frilly apron on, and the scenario is not exploited for comic effect (as it inevitably would be today). In fact he looks rather noble in his woodcut-style vignette. Perhaps gender roles in the post-war years were a little more complicated and nuanced than we have been led to believe by most popular histories.

Of course, I'm sure most women wouldn't have expected to be rewarded with a bottle of pale ale for doing household chores, so there's an indication that the man's efforts are a little bit special, although obviously not unusual.

In fact, within a few pages of the same magazine is another very similar advertisement:

Votrix Vermouth advertisement in Lilliput, June 1947, page iii.

The occasion this time is the aftermath of a party, with two gentlemen gamely tackling the piles of dishes. They both wear feminine, patterned aprons and are again deserving of a reward in the form of an alcoholic drink. A delighted-looking wife peers through the door (and then perhaps runs off to fetch their drinks?!)

Did men do anything else around the home except the dishes, now and then? Perhaps . . .

Vactric vacuum cleaner advertisement, from Housewife, November 1947, inside back cover.

This vacuum cleaner advertisement from the same year is rather less credible ("Give him a Vactric"? Hmm) and there is a lightly ironic tone to the copy: "When the household god descends to lend a hand" is a clear indication of the 'normal' domestic power relationship, however humorously expressed.

So the idea of a man helping out with onerous domestic chores is framed in all these advertisements as a sort of special treat for their wives, who are still expected to do them most of the time. But at least its not portrayed as ridiculous or unmanly, as you might expect even to this day, and its considered unremarkable enough to be featured in mainstream advertising.

It makes me wonder how far we've progressed since then (as I contemplate the stairs that need vacuuming . . .)

Monday, 8 February 2010

The magnificent Tilly Losch

Tilly Losch, 1923, originally uploaded by Trevira.

This beautiful photograph in my collection came from the archive of the newspaper The San Francisco Examiner. There's a damaged relic of a pasted-on label on the reverse giving the title "Serpent of Hell" (the production title? Her character's name?) and a date of April 14th, 1923, which might be the publication date.

Ottilie Ethel Losch was born in Vienna on November 15th 1907, which would make her 15 years of age in this photograph. You can read a summary of her extraordinary life and career in that link over her full name, which details her first stage appearance as a dancer at the age of six with the Vienna Imperial Opera ballet school, her promotion to prima ballerina at the unusually young age of 15, and her subsequent work with Max Reinhardt as both dancer and choreographer (and much more, of course, but we'll come to that soon).

What is puzzling is that according to the Binghamton University Library, which holds Losch's papers, she didn't arrive in the United States until 1927.

Why, then, is she appearing in a popular American newspaper (owned by William Randolph Hearst, by the way) in 1923? In a costume that looks much more Max Reinhardt than something you might expect from the Vienna Imperial Opera, and a full four years before she was reported to have first been invited to perform for Reinhardt in 1927?

The remains of that label note that she was wearing "phosphorous tights" - and I sincerely hope they mean phosphorescent, by the way, or her health might have been seriously endangered.

I'm speculating wildly here - its a bad habit of mine - but perhaps either the photograph date is wrong, or there's something missing or incorrect in that summary of her life?

No matter, Tilly Losch's life was extraordinary anyway, and she is one of those 20th century figures who seems to have orbited around many of the most significant cultural figures of her times, like a female Zelig, only much more beautiful!

She married Edward James, the wealthy English art connoisseur who was a patron of Salvador Dali (he was the proud owner of the first iteration of the iconic Mae West lips sofa, which was installed in his surrealist country pile Monkton House, and was captured by Magritte in this famously baffling portrait). But their marriage ended in a scandalous divorce in 1934 - Tilly accused him of homosexuality, he in return cited just one of her numerous affairs.

Other names that crop up in her life that might still ring a bell to the modern ear include Noel Coward, Fred and Adele Astaire, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, George Balanchine, Berthold Brecht, Jean Cocteau (an ardent fan), the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton.

Her career in Hollywood has left us with some appearances in films such as The Garden of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich, The Good Earth (1937) and Duel in the Sun (1946). All of which I'm pretty sure are readily available on DVD.

Later she retired from dancing and acting and turned to painting, which apparently suited her reportedly shy nature, and was enobled by her 1939 marriage to the Earl of Carnavon to the status of countess. Despite their divorce after the Second World War, they remained on friendly terms and the Earl was one of the few mourners at her 1975 funeral.

But let's go back to the top of this post and contemplate that amazing vision of her as an accomplished teenage dancer making news across the Atlantic - wasn't she magnificent?

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Santos Casani - the forgotten dance master

If you've ever seen one of those archive film montages of the 'roaring twenties' in a TV documentary, there's one clip that always features. Its the one featuring a couple dancing the Charleston on top of a taxi cab driving through a London street.

That clip is at the very end of this British Pathé dance instruction film (incidentally, fashion history buffs will be delighted by Miss Jose Lennard's lower back skirt hem - a major trend in the last years of the 1920s):


The stunt was intended to demonstrate that the new 'flat' Charleston required very little space, in contrast to its original, wild form, which was a veritable whirlwind of flying heels and arms, presenting considerable danger to nearby dancers. Indeed the Charleston was banned from many dancehalls at the time.

It is ironic that this clip is now employed to symbolise the reckless, risk-taking, devil-may-care nature of the times when its original intention was actually quite the opposite.

While I could easily (and quite happily) go on about the Charleston, this post concerns the man who appeared in that film, the famous dance master - and energetic self-publicist - Santos Casani.

Mr Casani was the proprietor of "the largest school of dancing in England," wrote a column for the Daily Mail, and made numerous short dance instruction films for British Pathé's cinemagazine for women, Eve's Film Review. The film company supplied free instruction leaflets based on the dance steps Casani featured, which viewers could send off for, and as a demonstration of how popular these films were, on one occasion they had to print 20,000 leaflets to satisfy the demand (most of this information is derived from Jenny Hammerton's fascinating book For Ladies Only? Eve's Film Review Pathé Cinemagazine 1921-1933).

As an aside, its lovely to imagine a cinema audience practising dance steps under their seats as they watch the films!

Here Casani makes an appearance in Popular Music and Dancing Weekly magazine, demonstrating the first three steps of the 'Five-Step' - steps four and five were published the following week, but unfortunately I don't have a copy of that issue (again, fashion buffs please note how remarkably long Miss Lennard's skirt was in 1924!):

"How to dance the Five-Step by Santos Casani" in Popular Music and Dancing Weekly, 7th June 1924, page 133 (click picture for a larger view).

In 1933 Casani opened his own nightclub in Imperial House, Regent Street, London and British Pathé was there to record it.

If you were to try to imagine a high-tone 1930s nightclub in the West End of London his establishment lives up to your Art Deco dreams, and this film includes footage of the renowned house band lead by pianist Charlie Kunz, a swimsuit fashion parade, an elegant rendering of the waltz by Mr Casani himself, not to mention a novelty song and a curious female contortionist. Pour yourself into a backless satin dress, shake up a cocktail and join in the fun:


Unlike his near contemporary Victor Silvester, Santos Casani failed to secure himself a place in dance posterity and his name is probably unknown to most people nowadays. But he was clearly a significant figure in his time - a suave, elegant man who knew how to work the media for maximum attention. In his prime, he was Mr Dance, and I'd like to salute his memory.

If you would like to see more of Santos Casani in action, there's plenty more films for you to enjoy.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Fashion rations

Even during the dark years of the Second World War, and the long years of clothing rationing that followed it, women were expected to keep up appearances. "England's number one glamour girl" Joan Richards, a professional model, doesn't disappoint in this 1944 film where we follow Joan through a "routine day's work." From getting up in the morning with full slap (apologies to US readers - slap = makeup) and immaculate hair, through her long and busy day, she is the epitome of 1940s chic. By the way, these film links have come up as black boxes, but they will work if you click on them.


However, not every woman met the grade. This amusing short from September 1946 features the "Pathé Pictorial Fashion Expert" Mr Richard Buzzvine (at least, that what his name sounds like) lurking self-consciously with a newspaper on Regent Street as he casts a waspishly critical eye over young women's outfits. Although his voice isn't heard, the narrator reports his merciless judgements.

Mr Buzzvine is very hard to please, and only one girl meets with his approval, although its hard to see how she is much different from the other 'failures.' Its a useful reminder of how fraught getting dressed used to be, with all kinds of complicated rules and conventions governing what was - and was not - appropriate wear.