Wigs, corsets and kings

SHOWGIRLS by Andrea Stuart Cape pounds 18.99

"All the great Parisiennes I have known," Mistinguett was told by Edward VII, who had enjoyed the company of many in his time, "have been either great ladies capable of behaving like actresses, or actresses capable of behaving like great ladies." The King had a rather narrow view of Parisian society, but he did appreciate that it offered women certain opportunities. Mistinguett ("absolutely, genuinely" Parisienne, as Edward assured her), had managed to escape from her father's cafe in Enghien into the demi-monde of the Parisian showgirl, on an escalator that could carry one upwards into the company of kings or directly down into the gutter.

The ambivalence was part of the allure. The brothel in the Belle Epoque was decorated in the same (regal) red plush and gold paint as the theatre or the music hall, and put on a rather similar show, with women feigning different tastes to appeal to different sexual needs. Unlike the actress or the prostitute, the showgirl had no precise job description, but existed in an undefined space between the other two, acting out the fantasies of her audience without openly offering herself to satisfy them; the uncertainty about her private morals fuelled the fantasy.

She needed no asset except an attractive appearance, and the first thing that strikes one about Andrea Stuart's book is that none of the seven she chooses to epitomise the profession is properly speaking a showgirl. Mistinguett, Colette, Josephine Baker, Barbette, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Marilyn Monroe each had other talents. The showgirl ceases to be one when she marries the prince or distinguishes herself in some other way.

One of the seven was actually a man. Barbette, the tightrope walker, would perform his act in drag, then conclude by removing his wig and female clothes. There is nothing paradoxical in including him here: as Andrea Stuart argues, he could be considered the most authentic showgirl of all. For if the showgirl's act consists in inventing a version of femininity to excite the fantasies of her male audience, then Barbette, whose femininity was entirely the product of art, might well be more perfect than a natural woman. This was Cocteau's argument.

Stuart intercuts brief lives of her seven subjects with broader reflections on their significance, linking Mistinguett to changing concepts of the city under the Second Empire, Colette to the sexual ambivalence of the demi-monde, Baker to notions of the exotic, and so on. "When it comes to blacks, the imagination of white folks is something else," Josephine Baker remarked.

Famous for her banana-dance and typecast in her unmemorable movies as a semi-naked savage, Baker came in reality from the East Side of St Louis, Missouri. She would eventually be awarded the Legion d'honneur and the Medaille de la Resistance, in recognition of her work during the Occupation. Of course, her first arrival in France in the mid-1920s was the occasion for some blatantly racist comments in the press, and there were elements in the way that her body was exploited, to appeal to the imagination of white folks, that most people now would find distasteful, but Stuart does not work herself up into a fury of belated indignation about it. She knows, as Baker herself did, that the climate in France was a good deal more favourable to black performers than it was in America, and that successful showgirls are women who exploit an exploitative system and turn its mechanisms to their own advantage. It is noticeable that all except Monroe survived to respectable old age.

Stuart avoids becoming embroiled in the question of whether these women were betraying the wider cause of their sex. She has tremendous admiration for all of them: for their courage in defying convention, for their talents, for their ability to invent and reinvent themselves. It is a pity that she did not have the services of a careful copy-editor or proofreader to avoid a number of glaring mistakes, and she could have paid more attention to the difference between the theatrical world of her first four showgirls and the cinema milieu to which Dietrich, West and Monroe chiefly belonged. But this is a readable and thought-provoking book, the product of wide- ranging research, which justifies its implicit claim that the showgirl is worthy of close inspection by sociologists, feminists and cultural historians as well as by middle-aged men with opera glasses.

Books about Monroe always contain some never-before-seen testimony or photograph, and their authors have usually "been silent up to now". George Barris took the last pictures of Marilyn on Malibu beach (above) on 1 June 1962. During the shoot she talked about her life, and his notes and comments make up Marilyn in her Own Words (Headline pounds 14.99). Jock Carroll's Falling For Marilyn (Virgin pounds 14.99) shows the young star on the set of Niagara, her first starring role. Carroll was doing a photospread for a Canadian magazine, and 40 years later his record was disinterred from the files. The photographs are enchanting, goofy and gorgeous by turns: remember her this way. Matthew Smith's The Men Who Murdered Marilyn (Bloomsbury pounds 16.99) posits the fatal enema theory, as evidenced by the empty stomach and the purple-stained colon. Yuck.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?