Collection Scope and Content Note
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Postcards portraying cross-dressing and female and male impersonators in France, both real-photo postcards, some hand-colored, and those printed using heliogravure and offset methods. All are printed between circa 1900 and 1925 in France, except for four printed in other European countries, and all the performers appeared in France. Many images are photographs of performers on amateur, cafe-concert, music-hall, and legitimate stages at the high-point of cross-dressing as a form of entertainment in France.
In one postcard, Jeanne Bloch is imitating Armand Fallieres, President of the French Republic, 1906-1913, a provocative statement at a time when French women were still denied the right to vote. Eleven portray Robert Bertin, one of the leading female impersonators of the Belle Epoque, including images of his expert imitations of the famous singer Yvette Guilbert, who appeared in the paintings of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and the dancer Polaire, a lover of novelist Colette. Gerard Koskovich notes that "in the period before World War I, Bertin toured extensively, appearing not only in Paris and the provinces but also in such distant places as Buenos Aires,"and that Eloi Ouvrard, another noted music-hall performer of the era, singled out Bertin for particular praise: "Des qu'il nous presentait une des etoiles feminines, on avait l'impression d'admirer en scene, non seulement une vraie femme mais bien une superbe et jolie femme!"
"During a period when gender roles in French society moved from quite distinct to increasingly in flux, such performances were far from subversive; rather, by elaborately mimicking the dress, grooming, countenance, gestures, and forms of speech and singing attributed to the other sex, imitators reinforced normative gender expression. Comic repre-sentations of cross-dressing performed a similar function by making imperfect gender expression, notably the mixing of male and female conventions, into an object of mockery.
"At the same time, at least some music-hall female impersonators - and perhaps many of them - apparently were homosexual in their off-stage lives. Given the close association of homosexuality and gender inversion during the era reflected in the collection, both the performances and their representation in postcard images may therefore have created coded spaces of sexual ambiguity for a select public that was in the know."
The second major category of postcards are gallant visual narratives of women being wooed by other women dressed as men. Included are ten hand-colored postcards in a die-cut holder, titled "Les Cerises," Paris: Kunzli Freres, circa 1900. Koskovich suggests:
"The genre is no doubt related to the popularity of trouser roles in operettas and plays during the period; the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt, for instance, triumphed in several such roles, notably in a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1899) and in Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon (1900). The link between the theatrical images and the gallant scenes is demonstrated by the music-hall and opera postcards in this collection that follow the conventions of the illustrated scenes; the only difference is that the performers are clearly identified.
"Postcards of this type also may have constituted a mild and legally acceptable form of erotica calibrated for mass distribution. By portraying cross-dressed women in the sexual-aggressor role conventionally reserved for men and by tricking out the narratives almost invariably in the ancien regime trappings of the 18th-century, a period associated with liber-tine indulgence, the images likely offered inspiration for titillating fantasies of erotic role re-versal. At the same time, any hint that actual women might behave with the masculine sexual agency represented in the postcards is neutralized by the coy and stylized poses; the historical settings; and the emphasis on carefully arranged theatrical backdrops, costumes and props."
Lastly, one postcard is a reproduction of a comic drawing of a cross-dresser, and one is a comic photograph of a stout male villager dressed in the costume of a regional peasant woman.
Osvaldo Sosa Cordero. Historia de las Varietes en Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Corregidor, 1998).
"Courier des spectacles,"La Presse (Sept. 16, 1906); consulted May 5, 2011: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k603870x.textePage.f2.langFR.
Henri Duvernois. "Vignt têtes sur deux epaules,"Je Sais Tout 4:6 (1908): pages 797 - 806.
Robert L. Herbert. Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988): pages 115f.
Leonard C. Pronko. "Kabuki and the Elizabethan Theater,"in Samuel L. Leiter (ed.), A Kabuki Reader: History and Performance (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002): page 332.
[Eloi] Ouvrard. Elle est toute nue. La verite sur la vie des coulisses, expose par Ouvrard Pere, ex-vedette des grands concerts de Paris (Paris: Au Cafe-Concert, 1926).
Martin Penet, "Chansons Interlopes (1906 - 1966),"illustrated booklet included in the two-CD set Chansons Interlopes (1906 - 1966) ([Paris]: Labelchanson, 2006); album no. 001.
Bernard Savalle. "Henri Defreyn, acteur,"Le Cinema Français (website); consulted May 5, 2011: http://www.cinema-francais.fr/les_acteurs/acteurs_d/ defreyn_henri.htm.