This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Breeches Role

03 November 2018

“Clothes make a man.”

It's supposedly a very old proverb,
but I prefer the longer quote
from Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain.

“Clothes make the man.
Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

It has always been the case that
what a person wears defines how they will be perceived by others.
And in the world of show business it is especially true for entertainers.
For this female pianist, head turned toward the camera,
fingers poised over the keyboard,
her clothing of fancy neckerchief, ruffed collars,
smart tailcoat, and satin breeches
certainly prove that clothes do in fact make her the man.

Here is another example.
This looks like a handsome couple
but they are of the same sex,
as the gent with the top hat is actually a woman.

This next woman in a thoughtful pose
is also dressed as a man.
The key masculine garb are her breeches,
the short pants that were once the elegant mark
of a fashionable gentleman.

* * *

The first woman's photo is on a French postcard with a caption:
Rosine Damande,
Original Chanteuse, Diseuse au Piano.
Original singer, (dramatic)
monologuist and piano.

The postcard was never mailed and is unmarked
but it likely dates from 1910-1914.
The photographer left his stamp on the back:
Louis Martin, 52 Faubourg Saint-Martin, Paris.
Another clue that this is a French singer/pianist
is the ornately carved music stand above the keyboard.
It is a Pleyel piano, a celebrated French piano manufacturer
founded in Paris in 1807 by the composer Ignace Pleyel.
It was the favorite instrument of Frédéric Chopin,
who may be the 19th century pianist
Rosine Damande is dressed to resemble.

 * * *

The second postcard is of a pair female entertainers.

Ella und Leni Dejon
jugenl.(ich) Gesangs-Duett
Youthful Vocal Duet

They are two sisters pictured in
three small photo images surrounded
by an Art Nouveau style frame.
In the center the pair wear suitably feminine dresses
with embroidered decoration and curious berets,
perhaps an indication of French background,
maybe from the Alsace-Lorraine region
which was part of Germany from 1870 to 1918.
On either side they are dressed as a couple.
Presumably Ella is the shy girl on the left
and Leni is her attentive beau with top hat and then straw boater
who wears knee length breeches in both. 

The postcard was sent from Mainz
to Frankfurt am Main in 1908.

* * *

The third image come from a German postcard captioned:

Anny Köster, weibl.(ich) Humorist
Female Humorist

Pictured in two small photos, seated and standing,
Anny's costume is very similar to Rosine's,
with a ruffled cravat, tailcoat, and short breeches.
The round object Anny holds is a cap, I think,
possibly one like those worn
by male university students in Germany. 
The music halls of Germany and Austria
provided a very large circuit
for traveling theatrical entertainers
who produced thousands of promotional postcards.
But the way
Anny Köster chose to appear in a man's wardrobe
was probably a way to stand out as a female
as the majority of German comics were men.
Since many of these humorists often included
comic songs and musical instruments,
I suspect that they were part of Anny's performance too.

This postcard was also sent for Frankfurt
but this time posted from Leipzig on 14 July 1911.

Entertainers in our century dress appropriately for their music and their audience's expectation. A country and western singer must wear a cowboy hat, even if they've never ridden a horse or milked a cow. A rock band must appear in torn jeans and ragged tee shirt, even after years of success have made them millionaires. And in my closet are the uniforms of an orchestra musician: white tie with black tail coat and a formal black tie tuxedo. Though I wouldn't wear either livery around the house or out for an errand to the supermarket, when you are on stage this fashion left over from the 19th century does make you feel like a proper musical artist.

But in the 1900s the female entertainers pictured on these postcards followed different social constraints and unwritten rules on proper dress. Trousers and pant suits were not suitable for women's ordinary wear in public or private. These women were indulging in the freedom of the stage to assume the Breeches Role, a theatrical contrivance mainly associated with opera when a woman dons "breeches", a gentleman's knee pants, to portray a man. Mozart's Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, or Octavian in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier are two of the most famous examples of a Breeches Role, sometimes called Trouser Role. A female singer plays a male character, purposely scored for an alto or mezzo voice. The audience knows the artist is a woman, but suspends disbelief to watch her rendition of a man. It's vaguely similar to transvestite cross-dressing but in the 1900s the breeches had a different connotation. It would be wrong for our modern eyes to interpret any sexual orientation to these performers. It was just play acting.

So do clothes really make the man?
Or does it require a woman's touch?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday 
Click the link for more grand stories about pianos and bears.


Lisa Hirsch said...

The score of Her Rosenkavalier calls for a soprano as Oktavian; ditto the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos.

Avid Reader said...

Curls can make the man too, it seems.

Barbara Rogers said...

No requirement here of a woman's touch, but these were women who chose to work in a field that was dominated by men, and apparently their way to compete was to "join them."

Molly's Canopy said...

Popular culture can be both a mirror of society and a beacon illuminating a new future. Bravo to these entertainers for trailblazing alternative dress at a time when women were often trapped in uncomfortable -- even unhealthy -- garments, many of them yearning to breathe and move more freely.

Molly's Canopy said...

Also, thanks for you comment on my blog. I went back to check and Miss George's home was a two-family, with an apartment rented out to another family. And yes, there were many other railroad workers in the neighborhood -- both next door and down the block.

La Nightingail said...

I've never felt the need to dress like a man to get ahead or be respected for the job I held when I was a working gal. But I did sign my correspondence with my first and middle initials followed by my last name rather than use my given name. I was doing a job usually held by a man and felt using only my initials would garner more respect from those who didn't know I was female, and I was proven right on several occasions. Today women have more respect in that regard, but there's still a bit of room for improvement! :)


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