The Tango Craze

With a new series of Strictly Come Dancing on our screens, we’ve taken an in-depth look at the original tango craze of 1913.

“Everybody’s doing the Tango, learning the Tango, talking the Tango or watching the Tango. Never, perhaps, has a dance become of such universal interest so quickly…” Thus opined The Sketch in November 1913, reflecting upon the incredible international popularity of ‘tango tea’ dance fever.

An illustration of the Tango in action

The craze for the Argentine tango in its latest incarnation began in Paris in 1912 as the thé dansant, so named from the practice of taking tea as a refresher between dances. The tango tea was rapturously embraced by Parisians of all classes, causing the caricaturist Sem to re-christen the capital ‘Tangoville’, and it wasn’t long before the trend had swept across Europe and beyond.

It’s difficult to over emphasize how enormously popular the tango tea had become by 1913. The prodigious coverage on all aspects of the craze in the illustrated magazines in our archive reveals a world in the throes of tangomania. Whether it was tango teas held at fashionable hotels, the latest steps explained or mocked, reviews of tango ‘exhibitions’ at the theatre or novelties such as tango dancing on roller skates,  the tango was everywhere.


Manufacturers embraced any opportunity, however tenuous, to ally their products to any aspect of the lucrative craze. Tango-legend has it that one enterprising dressmaker found himself with a glut of orange fabric, and taking advantage of the mania, re-named the colour “tango”, making it an instant hit. Adverts in the press plugged tango lessons, gramophone records and sheet music –and even tango boot polish.

An advertisement for tango lessons

However, the craze brought much more to the world than just a great merchandising opportunity: it also brought liberation. The new ‘tango’ corsets that offered increased flexibility, and skirts and even trousers that left feet clear for dancing, were designed to give women the freedom of movement required for dancing the tango properly. The physical liberation offered by the tango dress was a stark contrast to the constriction of the fashionable ‘hobble’ skirt, a big trend of 1910. Though women’s liberation would take more drastic forms in 1913 (in the same year, imprisoned suffragettes went on hunger strike, and Emily Davison threw herself under the king’s horse at Epsom Derby), the subtle changes wrought by the tango echo those elsewhere in society at that time.

The spread of the tango:the arrest of a militant suffragette
Everyone may have been talking about the tango, but it wasn’t all praise. Boycotted by some religious groups, the tango’s enemies saw not liberation, but moral degeneration. Unlike the more traditional dances of the period, the tango hold was an intimate embrace, which was perceived by some to have a corrupting influence. For an “unnamed peeress”, who wrote to The Times in disgust in May 1913, the dance was full of “scandalous travesties”.  The Illustrated London News cheerfully combined extracts of this letter with a retrospective on the polka, a dance which was also greeted with disgust in 1844, but went on to be widely adopted, and by 1913 was regarded as thoroughly tame.

As 1914 progressed, the passionate fervour for all-things-tango had begun to cool. Even before the First World War had begun, the dazzling magnesium flash of the tango tea had, almost as suddenly as it had burst onto the scene in Paris, burnt out. It was to survive, albeit in a different incarnation, to dance another day.

Tango Festival - London

Top 10 spookiest photos in the archive

It’s October, the spookiest month of the year and Halloween is only four weeks away.   At Mary Evans Picture Library we have plenty of images to give you a good scare, thanks to our collection of several thousand images on the subject of the ‘paranormal’.

Co-founder of the library, Hilary Evans (1929-2011) was a leading voice and author on the paranormal and helped to co-found the Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena in 1981.  Due to Hilary’s extensive research on the subject, the library amassed many thousands of images on all things otherworldly. In addition he also formed relationships with external paranormal collections which we continue to represent, including the renowned Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, which we exclusively represent along with other collections from independent paranormal investigators and collective societies.

Here are the top 10 most creepy and unsettling images from our paranormal archive, guaranteed to send a chill down your spine.


1.) The ghost of Raynham Hall, Norfolk.  This figure is not seen but is unknowingly photographed on the staircase; it may be the ghost of Dorothy Walpole, known as ‘The Brown Lady’. 
The image was first published in the December 26 edition of Country Life Magazine 1936 and has since become one of the most famous ‘ghost photographs’ in the world to date.

Image courtesy of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, University of London.

Phantom priest in the church at Arundel, Sussex

2.) Phantom priest photographed in the church at Arundel, Sussex, date unknown. 
Image courtesy of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, University of London.


3.) Eastry Church Ghost, Kent, 1956. 
When Bank Manager Mr Bootman took this photograph of Eastry Church in 1956, he claims it was empty.  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.

Ghosts on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen's House

4.) Ghosts on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen’s House, Greenwich, London 19 June 1966.

Figures photographed on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen’s House during normal opening hours of the museum, though the photographer saw nothing.  This image was taken by Rev. R W Hardy of White Rock, British Columbia, Canada whilst on holiday in the UK.  Image courtesy of Peter Underwood.


5.) Enigmatic Figure, 23 May 1964. 
When J P Templeton photographed his daughter on Burgh Marsh, Cumberland, this enigmatic figure appeared behind her.  Image courtesy of Peter Underwood.

Ghost of Lord Combermere

6.) Ghost of Lord Combermere 5 December 1981. 
Sybell Corbet’s photograph of the library at Combermere, taken between 2-3 pm, seems to show a figure, resembling Lord Combermere, at the time he was being buried.  Image source: Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol V December 1895 page 167.


7.) Ancient Ram Inn Ghost, 5 June 1999.  This photograph appears to show an apparition just before an ASSAP (Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena) night vigil at The Ancient Ram Inn, Wotton- Under-Edge, Gloucestershire.  A murder was committed years earlier on this staircase.  We like to fondly refer to this image as ‘The Malibu Ghost’!  Image courtesy of Julie and Mark Hunt.


8.) Watertown Photo, 1924.  When sailors Courtney and Meehan of American ship S.S. ‘Watertown’ are accidentally killed, then buried at sea, their faces are seen following the ship and photographed.  Image source: Captain Tracy, the vessel’s captain, reproduced in Gaddis, ‘Invisible Horizons’.


Ealing Ghost

9.) Ealing Ghost, date unknown. A figure seen at an upstairs windows of a house where murder and 20 suicides have taken place (possibly the ghost of Ann Hinchfield who killed herself in 1886).  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.


10.) Leeds Poltergeist, 1970.
The photograph seems to show papers flying through the air.  This was photographed during a case investigating the disturbance in the offices of Air Heating company, Leeds, centred around  a 16-year old typist : the phenomena continued for six months.  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.

The Last Curtsey – Debutantes & the London Season

If you’re passing through Bexley on the south-eastern fringes of London, then try to find time to seek out Hall Place, a Tudor hidden gem with extensive gardens a couple of minutes from the A2.  We’ve had connections with Hall Place for some time through Bexley Heritage Trust, whose archive we represent, but more recently we’ve collaborated with them on a new exhibition that opened just a fortnight ago, The Last Curtsey.  Inspired by one of Hall Place’s 20th century inhabitants, socialite Baba D’Erlanger, the exhibition aims to recreate the vanished world of that upper class phenomenon, the debutante.

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Debutantes are something of a specialist subject here at the library. The magazines of the ILN archive, specifically The Tatler, The Sketch and The Bystander, were the bibles of the beau monde and consequently are filled each spring with every conceivable highlight of the ‘Season’ from the Royal Academy and Fourth of June to Ascot and Henley.  Alongside these delights were published photographs of the annual crop of ‘debs’ that were to be launched into society together with adverts for court gowns, hair stylists, West End couture houses and catering companies.  Source material doesn’t get much better.


Debutantes of the Year, 1957

And we have form in terms of writing on the subject.  Some forty years ago, Mary and Hilary Evans were authors of  ‘The Party That Lasted 100 Days’, a highly illustrated and wry look at the late Victorian season and more recently, in 2013 I wrote a concise history in, ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ for Shire Books.

Debutantes about to be presented at court

The London Season, vestiges of which remain in some of today’s summer sporting and social fixtures, was the dominant feature of the social calendar, a three-month bonanza of events and parties during which the daughters of the upper classes made their ‘debuts’.  The girls and their families descended on the capital from country piles all around Britain to take part in an elaborate and protracted marathon of social interaction that culminated in them being presented at court where they would make their carefully-practised curtsey in front of the King and Queen.  Today, it’s a ritual that seems terribly archaic, and at times rather comic; an outmoded phenomenon that pandered to rigid class distinctions and judged the youthful participants purely on looks and breeding.  And yet, it is also rather glamorous, romantic – and terribly British.  After a modernising drive at Buckingham Palace in 1958, the last debs made their curtsey in March of that year, meaning 2018 marks the 60th anniversary.


Their Majesties' Court by Sir John Lavery

Debutante queuing in the Mall by Rex Whistler

At Hall Place, the exhibition rooms, painted in soothing and elegant tones of lilac pink, take visitors through the debutantes’ typical first season and introduce us to a few key debs from the past including Baba but also the ravishing Henrietta Tiarks, fabulously wealthy Mary Ashley, sister of Edwina Mountbatten and the rebellious Nancy Cunard.  There are some exquisite gowns including a wasp-waisted example from the 1890, a cascading 1920s number and a glamorous strapless gown of mustard satin belonging to Elfrida Eden, one of 1958’s debs.  Curator Kirsty Macklen, who showed us around last week told us that Elfrida’s dress was bought from America, in order to avoid the ghastliness of turning up at a party in the same dress as someone else.  As well as the advertisements, magazine features and portraits lining the walls (50 of which come from Mary Evans, others from the archive at The Lady), there are some fascinating debutante accoutrements such as glove stretchers and papier poudre books (to keep a shiny nose at bay) as well as dance cards lent by Mary Evans and a couple of books from the inter-war period celebrating the debutante from my own collection at home.  For the full deb experience, you can try negotiating the complicated array of cutlery that might face an Edwardian lady sitting down to dinner, or squeeze into a ballgown and practise your curtsey to the Queen.  After just two weeks, the visitors’ comments at the end of the exhibition reflect a deeply felt nostalgia for this long-gone era, though no appetite for its revival in the 21st century.  Like many aspects of history, it is fun to learn more but it should remain exactly where it was left – in 1958.

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Click here to see a selection of images from our archive on the subject

‘The Last Curtsey – Etiquette and Elocution, the life of a debutante’ at Hall Place, Bexley, runs until 18th March 2018

Luci will be giving a talk on ‘Debutantes and the London Season’ at Hall Place, Bexley on 10th October at 7pm. Further details here

Further reading:  ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ by Lucinda Gosling, Shire Books 2013

Debs 2

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