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Composite photograph of cabaret star Josephine Baker and the cast of “Plantation Days,” a 1923 musical revue by African American jazz pianist James P. Johnson. Parisian cabarets featured comedians, clowns, acrobats, and a variety of other entertainments. But singers and dancers always attracted the largest crowds.

As you might have heard, the Duke Library Party has been resurrected after a one-year hiatus, thanks to the help of the Duke Marketing Club. The date: February 21, 2014. The theme: “Life Is a Cabaret.” Party-goers will be invited to enjoy a rollicking nightlife scene right out of late 19th- and early 20th-century Paris, in what was only hours earlier just another room in Perkins Library. Of course, one must always be fashionably attired when attending such soirées, so we have put together a gallery of cabaret fashions to inspire your inner Parisian of the Belle Époque.

But first, a note on the phenomenon of the cabaret itself. Cabarets took Parisian culture by storm. Until 1867, song lyrics and theatrical performances were carefully censored and regulated in France. By the 1880s, these restrictions had relaxed, and a freer, more risqué form of entertainment began to flourish in the bohemian, working-class neighborhood of Montmartre. Legendary cabarets like the Moulin Rouge, the Chat Noir, and the Mirliton were filled with comedians, clowns, acrobats, and—most importantly—singers and dancers. The songs were bold and bawdy, the dancing suggestive, and audiences adored it.

The historical, artistic, and cultural impact of cabaret life will be the subject of an upcoming library exhibit—Cheap Thrills: The Highs and Lows of Cabaret Culture in Paris, 1880-1939—which will go on display in the Perkins Library Gallery on February 19 and run through May. The exhibit will highlight the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s extensive collection of cabaret-related materials, including biographies, guidebooks, periodicals, and musical scores.

Now back to the fashion show.

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One of the more ladylike ensembles, this particular dress worn by cabaret star and modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller would have you floating through the crowd this February.

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For a more scandalous look, this illustration from Gil Blas is classic cabaret, right down to the black stockings and abundant use of tassels. (Don’t forget the fan!) Gentlemen: note the top hats, high collars, and ubiquitous mustaches.

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Prepare to dance the night away, just like this lovely lady in a flouncy, frilled frock.

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Though we can’t recommend this particular ensemble (the Library Party is a respectable event, and banana leaves are hard to come by in February anyway), Josephine Baker’s iconic “banana girdle” outfit is one of the most famous examples of cabaret style.

So there are a few ideas to inspire you, with more to come. Start assembling your bejeweled, ruffled, bohemian, mustachioed wardrobe and get ready to party in the City of Light!

(With the exception of the composite photo at top, all images are taken from two French publications of the time: Gil Blas, a Parisian literary periodical, and Le Mirliton, a weekly newsletter published by the famous cabaret of the same name. All come from the collections of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.)

 

 

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