I mean, is there anything about the description “cross-dressing Texan aerialist in between-the-wars Paris” which doesn’t compel the attention? The man born Vander Clyde whose dragrobatics thrilled French audiences heads a very long queue of people I would dearly love to see a movie about.
I am not alone in my love of this singular apparition. Over at Worn Through (“Apparel from an academic perspective”), Barbette appears in the recurring ‘Anarchists of Style’ feature which has included several other sartorial one-offs whose lodgings in Strange Flowers’ heart are assured, including Baroness Elsa, Claude Cahun, Anita Berber, Quentin Crisp, Vali Myers and Marchesa Casati.
Jean Cocteau figures prominently in any discussion of Barbette, being the first to offer theoretical grounding for Vander Clyde’s high-flying act, and casting him in his 1930 film Le Sang d’un poète. The Qouch (the Queer Psychoanalysis Society’s publishing platform) discusses “the surreal sex of beauty” celebrated by the writer:
Cocteau understood that Barbette’s act was more than a mere circus act or cheap exploitation; it illuminated the possibilities of thinking gender, sex, and sexuality outside of conventional binaries through aesthetic and theatrical innovation. He argues that the reason for Barbette’s success is that “he pleases those who see in him woman and those who perceive in him man, yet to others, their souls are moved by the supernatural (surnaturel) sex of beauty”. Barbette satisfies the drive of the audience to gender and sex him both as male and female, and at the same time for others, Barbette reaches a higher sex “above or beyond nature” legible only through an aesthetic practice of beauty that comes alive through theatrics.
Cocteau was also responsible for commissioning Man Ray to capture Clyde/Barbette in 1926. Like Cocteau, the photographer was fascinated by the performer in limbo, concentrating on the transitory moments before the female stage persona was fixed. Less often mentioned in the context of Barbette’s mystique but no less important in my view is another set of images dating from the same year. They were produced by the studio of Dora Kallmus, the Austrian photographer who traded under the professional name of ‘Madame D’Ora’ (fanciful, faux-French – just like ‘Barbette’). Moving through Vienna, Berlin and Paris, Kallmus was one of a tiny group of prominent female photographers of the time.
But the Clyde/Barbette prints are inscribed “d’Ora Benda”, the other name representing German photographer Arthur Benda, Kallmus’s collaborator. Not only is the subject of these images of ambiguous gender, so is their creator. Kallmus/Benda approached the dual phenomenon of Clyde/Barbette by taking stage and street manifestations at face value, revealing a suited figure somehow even more feminine, self-contained and dainty than the idealised creature of the stage trailing clouds of feathers. The resulting images are both seductive and subversive. The main photograph above depicts Vander Clyde as Barbette, apparently posing as Marlene Dietrich. If true (and it’s a fairly big if, but that’s how it’s captioned), it’s most likely the first such tribute to Dietrich who was at the time a reasonably obscure stage performer, this being a full four years before The Blue Angel launched her film career.
Below are images by the studio of Madame d’Ora as well as Man Ray and a Roger-Viollet series dating from 1937 which shows Clyde/Barbette backstage, just one year before retiring from performance.