No People Like Show People: Vesta Tilley and the Tuxedo

London chic is masculine: women’s fashion is considered an optional extra, a lesser art that should not be allowed to take centre stage – French Vogue, 1938

Stylist magazine ‘Androgyny’ shoot, September 2011

In my opinion, there is nothing hotter than a girl in a suit. My own predilection for dressing like Charlie Chaplin is how I manifest this, and I dream of one day owning my own piece of bespoke Savile Row. People seem to be coming around to my way of thinking, as  the bow tie phenomenon shows, an obsession I share with the blogger Man Repeller. And the return to formality in many of the menswear collections as well as current trends for tailoring in womenswear and the condescendingly-named ‘boyfriend dressing’ has left the suit at the centre of many sartorial discussions. ‘Masculine’ dressing has become such a staple of the style media that it’s easy to forget just how transgressive it once was to dress in clothing that was deemed inappropriate for your gender. And few people know that before Bianca Jagger and Diane Keaton made it cool in the 70s, before even Marlene, Greta and Katharine made it acceptable for Hollywood royalty in the 30s and 40s, before all of them there was Music Hall star Vesta Tilley.

A/W 2011 Ralph Lauren (first three) and Pucci

In the mid-nineteenth century, American female reformers headed by Amelia Bloomer caused so much controversy by dressing in bifurcated clothing that many of them renounced such ostentatious garb for fear of distracting attention away from such trifling goals as the right to vote and the right to property ownership. But just a couple of decades later, a Music Hall star by the name of Vesta Tilley became the highest earning woman in Britain by adopting the very garments that caused such outrage.

Turning society on its head: the perils of bifurcation. Punch, 1851 from the John Leech Archive

Vesta Tilley made her fortune as a male impersonator. She was born into poverty in 1864 and with the help of her father (who worked the Halls), she first tread the boards at the tender age of 3 and a half. At 6 she performed her first routine in male clothing, and by 10 she was the sole financial support of her entire family. She toured the Halls in Britain and the States right through until 1920, performing at the first ever Royal Variety Performance and marrying the Music Hall entrepreneur Walter de Frece along the way.

Vesta Tilley in drag from Vesta Tilley by Sarah Maitland
Vesta as a pantomime principal boy, age 14; Vesta Tilley postcard; Vesta off duty as Lady de Frece (her husband was knighted in 1919). From Vesta Tilley by Sarah Maitland

Vesta Tilley was such a successful male impersonator that she even managed to influence men’s fashions. Always fastidious about her dress, once she came off stage to change to find that her maid had forgotten her cufflinks. Not wanting to appear unkempt, she improvised using ribbons from her maid’s hair; a few weeks later she saw replicas of them in a smart clothing shop with the label ‘as worn by Vesta Tilley’. She was a huge hit in the States in 1894 when her ‘Algy’ costume (below) was seen as the epitome of European chic and began a trend for grey. In fact, the colour combination was chosen to reflect a certain pompous affectation in the character, but this subtlety was somehow missed by American audiences. Her success in the States also led to a canny range of licensing and merchandise deals that would make Disney proud, from the Vesta Tilley Boater for women, to the Vesta Tilley Vest (waistcoat), Vesta Tilley Cigars and Vesta Tilley Socks for men.

Vesta Tilley songsheets, with the frock-coated character Algy on the right in his trademark grey suit

Young as I was, I had in song run through the whole gamut of female characters from baby songs to old maids’ ditties and I concluded that female costume was rather a drag. I felt I would express myself better if I were dressed as a boy – Vesta Tilley, from Vesta Tilley by Sarah Maitland

Vesta Tilley in evening dress from Vesta Tilley by Sarah Maitland; women in trousers from smoking to dancing in Punch, 1927 (click to see image larger); Radclyffe Hall in smoking jacket with Una Troubridge, 1920s

Despite stints as a sailor and a soldier, it was as a rakish man-about-town that Vesta Tilley really left her mark, and paved the way for successive generations of female performers to don formal male attire. Women in suits have become some of our most enduring fashion icons, from Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ to Annie Hall.

The Holy Trinity: Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong in white tie evening dress

Performers, however, being the operative word here. It was considered acceptable for female stars to dress in male attire long before it was anywhere near admissible for the general population, the assumption being that the performative state of the wearer either on or off stage was essentially a Get Out of Jail Free card for flamboyance. This is why Baker, Dietrich and Wong (among others) could get away with dressing like men in an era when women weren’t expected to wear trousers in any formal context, the only borderline case being the relaxed state of beach or lounge pyjamas (read more on this here).

Androgyny, mid-century style: Great Garbo; Katharine Hepburn; 20s and 30s-inspired Oxford bags as re-appropriated for the 70s from 70s Style & Design by Dominic Lutyens and Kirsty Hislop.

Gender-bending has historically been more acceptable within the subversive space of the theatre, from Shakespeare to Music Hall, and certainly makes a popular subject for films, as Academy Award-winners Some Like it Hot (1959), Tootsie (1982) and Victor Victoria (1982) can attest to. Tilley prided herself on being a respectable performer and so distanced herself from the sexuality that dominated a lot of the Music Halls (for example the bawdiness of Marie Lloyd). From an early age she made an effort not to disrupt the fabric of respectable society, and as she reached puberty she changed her stage name from The Great Little Tilley to Vesta Tilley – so audiences knew for certain she was a woman dressing as a man; it was impersonation, a performance, and as such less threatening.

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977); ‘Le Smoking’ was created in 1966 by Yves Saint Laurent, this iconic Helmut Newton picture was taken in 1975; Twiggy in 1968 from Fashion by Jane Dorner

But it might not have been such a surprise here in London as it was in the States, where the Tuxedo acquired its name. As Bronwen Edwards notes in Fashion Theory, British style has always had an association with the masculine, from country tweeds to the tailoring preeminence of Savile Row. London has traditionally been viewed as the world leader in tailoring, far removed from the frippery and flounces of French couturiers; as American Vogue observed in 1930, “not for nothing is London famed as the highest authority on men’s fashions.”  Yet we need look no further than Dolce and Gabbana or Ralph Lauren to see that androgyny has become an international trend, lacking the subversive qualities that propelled Vesta Tilley to stardom.

Androgyny: a 21st century international trend. Dolce and Gabbana A/W 2o11

And what of the history of this ensemble, so beloved of both men and women? The suit has been around since the Regency era of Beau Brummell (if Ian Kelly is to be believed, some contest this). Throughout its long history it has often been associated with London, from the use of the lounge suit as a political statement by Kier Hardie in the early 20th century (previously only frock coats were worn to parliament) and its later popularisation in all manner of checks and fabrics by the Duke of Windsor, to the birth of the Tuxedo itself, which according to their website can be attributed to Henry Poole & Co of Savile Row. As legend goes, a short evening jacket was made by Henry Poole for the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII and at the time very much a trend-setter) in 1860, for informal dinner parties. In 1886 a (possibly apocryphal) American named James Potter visited London where he was invited to Sandringham by the Prince, and was told he could get a similar short jacket tailored for him. On his return to the States Potter wore this new jacket to his New York country club, the Tuxedo Park Club, and bang! An icon was born.

Illustration of full evening dress and a dinner jacket by Hermann Hoffman from German fashion magazine Styl (1922); advertisement for Fashion Park, New York in The Saturday Evening Post (1921). Both from One Hundred Years of Menswear by Cally Blackman. Final image: the classic Henry Poole & Co three piece dinner suit (Tuxedo)

While James Potter remains a shadowy figure, the correlation with Tuxedo Park in New York is likely to be true. Henry Poole & Co have held a Royal Warrant as court tailor since 1869 and remain true to their origins: they only make bespoke suits – no made to measure or ready to wear – and each takes an impressive 3 fittings and 60 hours to finish. Along with the former king, clients have included Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, William Randolph Hearst, and more surprisingly, Buffalo Bill.

Bianca Jagger found here; Annie Lennox; Rene Gruau poster from 1981

This venerable history has recently been commemorated by Henry Poole & Co in a project run in conjunction with London College of Fashion. Titled Tuxedo: The Little Black Jacket, the initiative saw Bespoke Tailoring degree students briefed to re-invent the Tuxedo for the 21st century to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Tailoring students were paired with young thespians from the Drama Centre at Central Saint Martin’s to create bespoke pieces with a modern twist, the results of which will shortly embark on an international tour which includes the Tuxedo Historical Society in Tuxedo Park, the birthplace of the legend.  Always keen to endorse homemade design and production, Harold Tillman has described the project as a “perfect example of some of the finest British craftsmanship.”

The launch of the Tuxedo: The Little Black Jacket project by London College of Fashion at Quintessentially HQ demanded a dress code of ’21st century black tie’, which allowed me to team my Eton morning coat with pleather shorts

As Janelle Monae becomes the latest in a long line of female performers to pick up her mantle, Vesta Tilley would certainly be proud that her masculine style has become a resounding trend, repeated season after season, year after year, decade upon decade.  And its appeal is timeless: a good suit brings out the best qualities in its wearer, whether male or female. Roll on the day when I can afford a trip to Savile Row.

The tuxedo’s current pin-up: Janelle Monae. See her in action here.

About Amber Jane

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian on a quest to reveal the secrets of our sartorial past and place the semiotics of style in a wider cultural, political and social sphere. She has contributed to productions for BBC 1 & 2, BBC Learning, Radio 4, Channel 4 and Sky Arts, from Making History and Woman’s Hour to Great British Sewing Bee, and she presents a regular ‘In Conversation’ series at the V&A museum looking at issues concerning the clothed body in fashion and performance. She is an Associate Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, where she lectures across a number of areas concerning fashion, the body and contemporary culture, from the impact of blogging on fashion media to fashion and the grotesque. Shot by Vogue as a girl with great British style, her interest in antique clothing was ignited by working as Head Buyer for vintage clothing company Beyond Retro, and for 5 years she was a regular contributor to leading trend analysis company WGSN. As the red-haired half of the Sony-nominated Broken Hearts DJ duo she has graced stages across the globe for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Louis Vuitton. Their weekly radio show on Jazz FM ran for over 3 years and focussed on swing music, with an emphasis on rediscovering forgotten women of the Jazz Age. A former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, Amber has spoken at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, British Museum, Royal Academy, British Library, Wellcome Collection, British Film Institute, and is a regular on the SHOWstudio fashion week panels. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and the Association of Dress Historians and her book Nautical Chic: a history of high fashion on the high seas, is forthcoming in 2015 published by Thames & Hudson. Amber Jane Butchart's Fashion Miscellany, her compilation of vestimentary oddities, is out now.
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12 Responses to No People Like Show People: Vesta Tilley and the Tuxedo

  1. Vicky Butterfly says:

    You might also be interested in Charlotte Charke: one of the first women to manage her own theatre/company in the 18th century:

    Not only was she celebrated for her ‘breeches’ roles (playing Hamlet as well as ‘travesty’ roles), but she also liked to blur the boundaries in her non-performative life, cross-dressing off-stage as well as on.

    Fun fact: her father was the Poet Laureate/playwright satirised in Alexander Pope’s ‘Dunciad’ and her grandfather was the sculptor who made that statue of Charles II in Soho Square!

    Vicky Bx

  2. Hannah says:

    Wonderful post, Marlene and Anna are style icons of mine, I love it when women don masculine attire.

  3. Pingback: The Friday Five: women in tuxedos, hats in Bonnie and Clyde, space age HI-FIs, witchcraft in 60s suburbia and fashist women's image | Style High Club

  4. Pingback: Magnificent Girls in Their Flying Machines – AMELIA EARHART: FLIGHT, FASHION & FEMINISM by Amber Jane Butchart « hushkit

  5. Pingback: Women’s Tuxedos & Tailcoats « The Black Tie Blog

  6. Reblogged this on Camara Dia Holloway and commented:
    Female dandyism – especially tuxedo drag – explored in the introduction of my book Afrochic.

  7. Pingback: Charlie Chaplin, fashion icon | Silent London

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