Burlesque History Lesson: Babette, The Man-Woman

It’s that time of year again: when burlesque hopefuls find out if their applications to the Burlesque Hall Of Fame weekend have been accepted, and start frantically scouring couch cushions for change, calling promoters who owe them money, and taking extra work in order to facilitate the giant spectacle/Xanadu that is the BHoF weekend. My own troupe, Sweet Soul Burlesque, has been selected to perform which is exciting since it’s been five years or so since we collectively saw the stage there, though Rita Star, Lola Frost and Cherry Ontop have been back as soloists and a duo to perform. The largest point of BHoF isn’t as much showing off to each other (but there is a lot of sparkled, be-feathered, drunken peacocking awesomeness) but to celebrate the women who came before us. The ladies who entertained from the 40s to the 60s and paved the way for us to do what we do. This is really a chance to honour them.

Many folks know that I’ve got a pretty big burlesque library. My collection of books features a number of international ones, many of them from the last ten years. But the true scope of my collection comes from vintage burlesque books. Some of them in English, some not. The most recent of these is from the early 60s, but the rest precede that. I oftentimes wonder about the women featured in these books who don’t frequent BHoF, especially the European ones. Do they know about it? Did they bury their showgirl pasts and settle down, get married and raise families with no one knowing about their decadent pasts? Have they passed away altogether? It’s somewhat unsettling.

As I’m not super active in the burlesque community at large beyond performing a great deal, I figured that this could be a way I can potentially give back. True to my nature as the sexy librarian/occultist, I love my books. I loathe the idea of lending them out for fear they be returned autographed with coffee cup rings, splashed with whiskey or not at all. So I’m taking the more interesting chunks and posting them online here. Sort of a digital archive for my burlesque family globally to gaze upon. You may learn something. You may get inspired. You never know…

My first entry in this is from a tome titled, “Les Folies Du Music-Hall! A History Of The Music-Hall In Paris” by Jaques Damase (featuring a forward by Noel Coward). While this one focuses expressly on music all Paris between the years of 1914 – 1942, it has a rich amount of performers to share. I bring you, from the circus end of things Barbette.

Barbette The Man-Woman

“Just another dressing room: perfume, a pile of silk stockings, feathers, plumes, stage jewellery and, hanging on a strings from wall to wall , silver trains, gold lace and suits of spangled armour…

Here, in this dressing room, the man-woman is completing his disguise. He does his makeup, retouches is, his dresser, his own dresser, pulls on his precious silk stockings for him and he crams his man’s skull into an incredibly blonde wig that looks as if it’s been stolen from Ophelia or plundered from Gaby Deslys’ romantic tomb…

Barbette, the enigma…

Barbette was first presented by Lord Baradsford, at the Alhambra. He created another sensation in Y a qu a Paris at the Casino de Paris in 1923. He was called Barbette the enigma.


On stage, against black velvet curtains appeared a young woman in a silvery-gold wig topped with feathers and plumes, with a train of silver and rich lame, undressing on a couch of rich Oriental carpets. The woman then rose, naked except for the gems on her breast and belly, and began walking a steel tightrope. Her eyes shaded green, like an Asiatic jewel, she walked backwards and forwards along the tightrope, dispensed with her balancing pole, and contorted her thin, nervous body as the audience held it’s breath.

Barbette in his/her glory

Then Barbette leapt down to the stage, gave a bow, tore off her wig and revealed a bony Anglo-Saxon acrobat’s head: gasps from the astonished audience, shattered by the sudden brutality of the action.

The music-hall has always had it’s female impersonators. But no one went further in the cult of sexual mystification than this young man who transformed himself into a jazz-age Botticelli. And to reward his disturbing, dreamlike perfection, the music-halls paid Barbette ten times as much as the average acrobat.”

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