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.

WETFOOT TANGO 1913

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

A Snapshot in Time

In 1946, photographer Jean Straker formed a short-lived photographic firm known as Photo Union at 12, Soho Square in London. It specialised in the photo-essay, a form of pictorial journalism undertaken mainly with miniature cameras with lots of detailed images and bridging shots. Four years later, in 1951, the agency went into receivership when Straker sank capital into colour photography, which was to prove too costly. The archive, now at Mary Evans, consequently documents a particularly brief period of time but in many ways, it is all the more fascinating for it.

Woman on London routemaster bus, 1940s

Ley-On's Chop Suey Restaurant, Soho

Jean Straker was born in London in 1913 to an émigré Russian father and English ballerina mother. He began his career in journalism during the 1930s, specialising in film and launching ‘The Talkie’ magazine. A conscientious objector during the War, he combined duties as an ARP warden with working as a surgical photographer in London’s hospitals. But it was in the 1950s, that fame—or perhaps infamy—finally found a foothold. With the failure of Photo Union, Straker abandoned commercial photography to pursue personally satisfying projects. He set up the Visual Arts Club and as part of this, organised nude photography sessions for members. In 1959, ‘The Nudes of Jean Straker’ was published by Charles Skilton Publications, one of the first art photography books of its kind. Despite his activities being pretty similar in practice to life drawing classes, sensibilities were shocked and he was prosecuted in 1962 under the Obscene Publications Act. Arguing that there was nothing depraved or corrupt about the naked human body, Straker spent the rest of the decade refusing to curtail his activities or compromise his artistic integrity leading to a continuous cycle of prosecutions and appeals. By the late 1960s, Straker had given up photography but continued to campaign and lecture on censorship until his death in 1984.

Nude Danae by Jean Straker

Though Straker’s Photo Union collective was a commercial venture, whose subjects were necessarily more conservative, some of the images seem to hint at Straker’s background and personal interests. There are backstage shots of showgirls and candid shots of jobbing musicians, evocative images of Soho streets and long-gone West End restaurants while guileful London girls are pictured on dates with American GIs. They hint of freedom and a certain type of seedy glamour in an age of rationing and austerity. There are other pictures too, which project a more innocent nostalgia: apprentice carpenters, Kentish apple pickers and the 1947 Royal Wedding. But occasionally, the odd, artistic nude reveals the agency founder’s true, fleshy metier. The Photo Union collection is an eclectic and evocative picture of post-war Britain, and particularly London.  To see a selection of images from the archive on the Mary Evans website, click here.

VE Day Celebrations - Piccadilly Circus

Ballet dancers training