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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Fashion and Textile Museum, a flamboyant landmark on London’s achingly hip Bermondsey Street, has been a mecca for fans of fashion history ever since it was opened by designer Zandra Rhodes in 2003. Now part of Newham College of Further Education, the hot pink and orange building, a former warehouse, does not own a permanent collection, nor is it particularly large compared to behemoths like the V&A, but it packs a punch with continually crowd-pleasing exhibitions complemented by a creative and engaging programme of talks and workshops. In the last couple of years, exhibitions have celebrated the history of swimwear, Liberty of London and Italian knitwear brand Missoni. This autumn, the museum has turned its attention to the glittering, glamorous Jazz Age combining exquisite original garments from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield with photographs of the era’s icons by American photographer James Abbé, curated by Terence Pepper.
Not only that, we were delighted to be invited to curate a display of fashion illustrations for the exhibition, bringing an important facet of the 1920s fashion industry into focus. The pictures selected were all full-colour illustrations by American designer, Gordon Conway, who was commissioned by The Tatler and Britannia & Eve in the late 1920s to produce a series of designs, most of which were published under the simple title of ‘A Tatler Fashion’. Both magazines now form part of The Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at Mary Evans, and are an authentic reflection of the tastes and aspirations of a widening class of consumers who were keen to try new fashions and sample modern freedoms that had previously been beyond the reach of their mothers and grandmothers. Conway herself was the epitome of the stylish, modern girl – very much practising what she preached.
Born 18 December 1894 in Cleburne, Texas, USA, Gordon Conway (1894-1956) was the only child of John Catlett Conway and Tommie Johnson. Educated in America and at finishing school in Switzerland, she showed a special talent for drawing and it was at a dinner party in 1915 that her doodles on a menu card impressed the writer Rufus Gilmore, who recommended her to Hepworth Campbell, art director of Vanity Fair. Though she lacked any prolonged formal art training, Campbell was struck by the fresh and modern linearity of her drawings. Fearing that further art lessons might dilute her distinctive style, he commissioned her to provide artwork for the magazine, where her designs, drawn from imagination, led her to be described as, ‘the artist who draws by ear.’
Having launched her career in America, by 1921, she had travelled to Europe with her new husband, businessman, Blake Ozias, where she divided her time between London and Paris, keeping studios in both cities. Tall, red-haired, sophisticated and stylish, Gordon Conway personified the svelte flappers she drew, and courted publicity – alongside her famous pet cat, ‘Mr Fing’ – as part of an effective marketing drive that was to lead to multiple commissions during the 1920s period. She provided designs for theatre posters and programmes for productions in London and Paris; sketched for a number of well-known couturiers and, championed by Edward Huskinson, editor of The Tatler, contributed original designs to his own magazine and other titles in the same ‘Great Eight’ publishing group – Eve: The Ladies’ Pictorial and The Bystander. She also excelled in costume design for cabaret and theatre, dressing performers The Dolly Sisters, Gladys Cooper and her good friend, Dorothy Dickson among others. Towards the end of the decade she became more heavily involved in costume design for the British film industry, establishing the first autonomous in-house costume department at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation studios where, as executive dress designer she produced costumes for a succession of pictures including the futuristic ‘High Treason’ and ‘There Goes the Bride’, starring Jessie Matthews.
Gordon Conway worked hard, refusing to ever miss deadlines set by her demanding clients, while also maintaining a hectic social life. Overwhelmed by such a schedule she suffered a heart attack in late 1933 which was to curtail her output. Plagued by ill-health, she divorced her husband and retired in 1937, returning to the USA to live with her beloved mother Tommie at Mount Sion in Caroline County, Virginia, an eighteenth century property inherited from her father’s family.
We were able to see the Gordon Conway display in place for the first time at the opening night of the exhibition, which also allowed us a sneak preview of the breath-taking clothes on display. Jazz Age is a pure delight, its disparate elements pulled together with such a deft touch by curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibition designer, Bethan Ojari that it feels cohesive and thoroughly steeped in 1920s atmosphere. Themed around the silent screen, this common thread is reflected in two opening tableaux – a cinema (complete with usherette uniform), flanked by a coven of twinkling black flapper dresses. Following this, the first display in the main area offers a mouth-watering array of evening coats and opera cloaks mirroring an illustration on the wall of theatre crowds in London’s West End, painted, coincidentally, by Fortunino Matania for The Sphere, another magazine held in the ILN archive. A set of wispy pastel coloured dresses and tennis costumes, contrast with the sexy frivolity of boudoir fashions and the sophistication of beaded and embroidered evening dresses on the upper level, while a wedding party in delicious, soft, orchard colours surround a shimmering Medieval style bridal gown. The most heavily sequinned dresses were displayed flat in glass cabinets to ward against the inevitable stretch and sagging that would occur should they be hung from a mannequin. Other than that, all clothes, which are in astoundingly good condition, are shown unconfined by glass cabinets, with each vignette scene, ranging from cocktail hour to Chinatown after dark, quietly enhanced by superb background paintings (the work of Paul Stagg and his team, carried out in Sanderson paints and strongly reminiscent of A. E. Marty or Georges Barbier in Gazette du Bon Ton). A display of occasional and dressing tables covered with period objects and artefacts provide a nostalgic narrative to the rapid social change undergone from the closing of the First World War to the dawn of the Second. Who knew Mum deodorant was already a thing in the 1920s? And presiding over all these fabric treasures is a chorus girl swinging from a suspended, glittering crescent moon. Should one’s mind wander back to the present day, a large screen playing a flickering 1920s dance routine on an endless loop reels us back in.
The photographic element of the exhibition includes a wall of female icons from the era most captured by equally famous snappers from Cecil Beaton to Man Ray. The James Abbé exhibition in an adjoining upstairs room, brings together some of the most glamorous stars of the period from the Dolly Sisters to Dolores, Mary Pickford to Rudolf Valentino. Abbe’s carefully constructed images convey the iconic status of his sitters, and the bold, sexually-charged confidence of this new age. To browse this gallery is akin to walking into a temple of assembled gods and goddesses.
The following day, with the exhibition officially open, I went back to the museum to take part in a panel discussion alongside the other contributors, Cleo & Mark Butterfield, Terence Pepper, Jenny Abbé, and curator Dennis Nothdruft . Talking about the genesis of the library, I also explained how fashion, as a barometer of social change, was a real strength of the library and that seeing the beautiful dresses and clothes on display brought the magazines and other fashion ephemera in our archive to life. There seems to be much cross-pollination and synergy in this collaboration. Pictures by James Abbé for instance, were frequently published in The Tatler, and Mary Evans contributor Gary Chapman, expert on the Dolly Sisters, assisted with the exhibition and will giving talks as part of its accompanying lecture series. With so many connections, we are proud to be associated with the museum’s 1920s Jazz Age. Furthermore, we feel our involvement would have delighted our founders Mary and Hilary Evans, who were always keen to share their passion for history with others. We hope Gordon Conway too would have been pleased to have been part of an exhibition that celebrates this dazzling period in fashion history – and the part she played in it.
Jazz Age at the Fashion & Textile Museum runs until 15 January 2017 http://www.ftmlondon.org/
Prints and cards featuring Gordon Conway illustrations are available to buy in the museum’s shop.
As rumours begin to rumble over which celebrities might take part in this season’s Strictly Come Dancing, it seems an appropriate moment to highlight a high kicking new collection from Jazz Age cultural expert, collector and author Gary Chapman. Gary’s collection The Jazz Age Club, chronicling cabaret, nightlife, celebrity, fashion and society between the wars is represented by the Mary Evans Picture Library and he has recently acquired a magnificent run of 25 copies of the rare British magazine The Dancing World.
It is a remarkable publication spanning the period from May 1920 to at least March 1924 and at the last check, only one copy is held by British Library making this a truly unique find that will be invaluable to researchers of the Jazz Age.
The Dancing World was similar to the more enduring Dancing Times but was produced in a much larger 8.5 x 11 inch portrait format, and aimed at a more general, yet sophisticated audience. Naturally, there was comprehensive coverage of the world of dancing, but it also featured fashion, cabaret, film, music, theatre, London society and ran an obligatory Paris column each issue. The stunning colour art deco front covers were drawn by the magazine’s art editor Guiseppe Peres (presumably of Spanish extraction) and each magazine was full of black and white illustrations and numerous photographs. The early 1920s witnessed a frenetic dancing craze in Jazz Age London; The Dancing World allows us privileged access to this most exciting periods of social history.
In an advertisement in the Christmas 1921 issue, the magazine set out its mission statement. It was to be the magazine for the stylish dance-goer – amateur or professional – who needed to be informed on all aspects of dancing from the ballet to the ballroom, styling itself as ‘an artistic paper for elegant folks.’ It was intended to be international in scope, to record the up-to-the minute news and views and to forecast the trends of dancing history, stating confidently, ‘It will appeal to the smart set, people of taste and discernment who appreciate style in a professional paper as they do when making a purchase from any of the high grade firms whose announcements are in our columns’.
It went on to say in its March 1922 issue, ‘The Dancing World is not full of dry, technical information. Our magazine is artistic, up-to-date, mixing fun, gossip, art and dancing with a skilled hand. It is the only authentic and amusing publication of its kind in existence’.
With editorial offices at 177a Kensington Hight Street, London, the proprietor was not named. There were several editors – mainly Byron Davies and occasionally Ernest Betts and JB Cooper Reade plus various contributors. Byron Davies was the publicity manager for The Original Dixieland Jazz Band known for playing at the Hammersmith Palais and Rector’s nightclub. Both venues were owned by Canadian William F. Mitchell and American Howard E Booker; Mitchell’s wife Mae was hostess at Rector’s. Both men had an agency in Kensington High Street and from 1920 were clearly wanting to promote both venues and dancing in general to an eager London audience. Given the coverage to both the Hammersmith Palais and Rector’s within the magazine, and the link to Byron Davies and Kensington High Street, it seems logical to assume these men were behind the publication itself.
Another twist to the tale is that the magazine appeared to publish its last issue in March 1924 when there was sensational news that Rector’s nightclub had been closed. Shady operation tactics were revealed in The Times when the club was struck off the register and ordered not to be used for the purpose of a club for 12 months because it had been supplying intoxicating liquor without a license. This was a blow to William Francis Mitchell, the owner, who had been associated with the club since 1911. In fact in June 1911, both Mitchell and his partner had been prosecuted by the London County Council for conducting the club as a dance hall without a license and it was surprise that in 1924 it still did not have a license. The club had been registered as a company at Somerset house with a capital of £30,000 and Mitchell had paid a further £12,000 to enhance the place. It was one of the very best cabaret and dancing establishments in London with a high class membership and a nightly audience of over two hundred people. What happened to Mitchell’s Palais de Danse empire thereafter is not clear.
In the fourth and final series of ITV’s ‘Mr Selfridge’ currently showing on Friday evenings, two new characters are introduced – The Dolly Sisters. We’ve invited contributor Gary Chapman, owner of the wonderful Jazz Age Club Collection and biographer of The Dolly Sisters, to provide us with an introduction to this fascinating duo.
Welcome to the wonderful, glittering world of the delectable, dancing Dolly Sisters.
‘To me they appeared to be marvellous birds of paradise….If one could believe the tales, thrones were about to crumble and multi-millionaires willing to go broke for love of them…. In London under Cochran they were lionised. No Mayfair party seemed complete until they arrived, chattering like magpies, one taking up when the other paused for breath and trailing chinchilla or foxes or sables as if they were dish rags.’
The actress June in her autobiography The Glass Ladder
The last series of the hit TV show ‘Mr Selfridge’, will bring the Dolly Sisters to a much wider, global audience. Let’s hope viewers realise that, like all the characters, they will be portrayed in the context of a make-believe drama, bearing only vague resemblance to their true, glamorous story. For a start, they were not blonde and they were identical twins – unlike the unrelated actresses who portray them in the TV show. Also, only one sister was the object of Harry Selfridge’s affection, not both of them.
The dark and exotic-looking Dolly Sisters first met Harry Selfridge at the Kit-Kat Club in London in the summer of 1925 when they were at the height of their fame and fortune. They had already conquered Broadway, London and Paris with their dainty dancing, glamorous good looks and immense charm and were, quite simply, legends in their own time on both sides of the Atlantic.
Born in Budapest, Hungary 25th October 1892, Janszieka (Jenny) and Roszicka (Rosie) were keen dancers but their father did not approve of his daughters becoming entertainers. Due to the unfortunate deterioration of his business he moved to America where the girls arrived with their mother in 1905, followed by their younger brother Edward (later to be a successful stage and screen choreographer). In New York, they began to earn their living as entertainers to help make ends meet. From their rather humble origins they swiftly danced their way to fame and fortune on Broadway finding work with the great Ziegfeld and the Shubert Brothers. They were close friends with the elite of Broadway and Hollywood and became the essential prerequisite for any Broadway festivity. Sporting sleek black bobs, their identical appearance and chic sense of style was a magnet for dress designers, significantly Lucile, Jeanne Lanvin and Jean Patou, who provided costumes and wardrobes for the Dolly Sisters in what was often a mutually convenient arrangement of celebrity endorsement.
Rosie married songwriter Jean Schwartz (1913) and Jenny married comedian and entertainer Harry Fox a year later. However, none of their friends was more important than the millionaire Diamond Jim Brady who indulged their every whim and taught them the art of a flutter with the horses. Such was his infatuation, he once bought them a Rolls Royce wrapped up in ribbon.
In 1920, they abandoned their husbands and conquered London in shows produced by Albert de Courville and C.B. Cochran, showing off such numbers as the Dollies and the Collies and the Pony Trot. But they found Paris, Cannes, Deauville and Le Touquet far more to their liking and in Paris they appeared in a string spectacular revues with Paris Sans Viole (1923), Oh Les Belles Filles (1923), Paris En Fleurs (1925), A Vol D’Oiseau (1926) and Paris – New York (1927).
Earning incredible salaries, the Dollies invested in property and vast collections of jewellery. ‘Behung with baubles like a couple of Christmas trees’ they were renowned as the most extravagant gamblers in Europe.
The toast of, first London, and then Parisian society, they were romantically linked with dozens of named and unnamed men of title or wealth, including the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VIII), King Alphonso of Spain, Henri Letellier and Viscomte de La Rochefoucauld. Each vied with the other in an elaborate game of falling in love, engagement, rumours of marriage and then cold feet.
When Jenny met Harry Selfridge, Rosie was engaged to the French socialite Francois Dupre, but Jenny had another prominent suitor in the form of Jacques Wittouck – a wealthy Belgian businessman. All was not simple and clear-cut. From 1925, Selfridge and Wittouck would be inextricably linked with Jenny for the next ten years, with constant rumours of marriage as each took it in turn to be her escort as they vied for her attention in a rather unusual menage à trois.
One of the oft-quoted pieces of mush leveled against them was that they had ‘ruined’ Selfridge and were ‘gold-diggers’. Let’s get this straight right away – Selfridge’s fall from grace and his ruination must be attributed to himself, no other. He was obsessed with all things beautiful, not least glamorous women, whom he showered with gifts. He also had a passion for gambling and was more than reckless. He did give Jenny expensive gifts, property, shares and aid her in a business venture. But she was also known for her acts of generosity and kindness as much for her jewels and furs. Their attraction was also re-enforced by their mutual love of gambling. This is the best description of their relationship ‘I should say that he saw at least part of his own daring and acquisitive image reflective in her tingling absorption in games of chance. She may have seen in him the father image, approving her daring.’
Rosie, never married Dupre but instead, ran off and married, and then swiftly divorced, Sir Mortimer Davis Jr, the heir to an estate worth $150m and affectionately called ‘The Fat Boy.’ Much more gossip, scandal, and ultimately tragedy followed.
Although they were not the first sister act to appear on the stage, the Dolly Sisters were certainly the most famous and paved the way for many of the subsequent duos and trios that proliferated in their wake. Even the Gabor sisters followed in the Dollies’ dainty footsteps.
When they retired in late 1927, numerous imitators took their place, but none were more outrageous than the Norwegian Rocky Twins, two boys who dressed up in drag as the Dollies and parodied their routines.
Living close to the rhythm of the time the Dollies were adept at always being in the right place at the right time in the company of the right people. It was a recipe that was to maximize their success. As true icons of the Jazz Age, their lives mirrored luxurious ‘society’ on both sides of the Atlantic and their story provides a fascinating glimpse of this privileged world that was eventually eroded by the Second World War.
The TV show ‘Mr Selfridge’ can only introduce the Dolly Sisters with ‘cameo’ appearances, a little taster of what was a much bigger and more fascinating true story, every bit as dramatic and engrossing as the best fiction.
For a selection of our Dolly Sisters images please click here.
Gary Chapman is the author of the only biography about the Dolly Sisters and has also compiled a lavish picture book about them. He is an expert on the Jazz Age and has a private collection of material solely licensed through Mary Evans Picture Library.