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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Barbette – How to Snatch a Wig

In the early 1900’s America’s underground culture was thriving. The period was known for prohibition and speakeasy’s, with the mafia running everything from behind the scenes. Long before RuPaul’s popular show created a place for previously sidelined people, a culture was thriving. Female impersonators, now known as drag queens, ruled the stage.

Vaudeville is a type of performance art and acting that was popular in the in the early 20th century. It featured acts like burlesque, comedy, song, and dance, and many of these acts featured female impersonators.  Anthony Slide, a historian who focuses largely on drag culture, said that this was “the golden age of female impersonation” in America. One, in particular, Barbette has gone down in history as being influential in what the world of drag has become today.

Vander Clyde, born in Texas sometime around 1898, first got into performing when he was young. When he was around nine years old, he went to a circus with his mother and became interested in “wire-walking.” Much to his mother’s dismay, he claimed he was going to run away and join the circus to be part of the aerial performance acts. He never did though, and since he was a bright child, he graduated at the top of his class while working a cotton picking job to fund his frequent visits to the circus. After graduating, by the age of 14, Clyde had taught himself the aerial skills necessary to follow his dream. Soon after, he responded to an ad placed by the Alfaretta Sisters “World Famous Aerial Queens.” This would be where Clyde would develop his alter-ego, Barbette.

The Alfaretta Sisters were a group from Italy that consisted of two aerial trapeze artists that traveled with a vaudeville circus. One half of the pair had tragically died, leaving space for Vander Clyde to step into the role. The duo left Texas to tour with several circuses, which was not known for its kindness to female impersonators and Clyde has since remarked that he “was unable to readjust to the crudity” when speaking of his home state. (Gerwirtz & Kolb 2004)

With the Alfaretta Sisters, Barbette was a quick sensation and moved on from the Alfaretta sisters to create a solo act. As Barbette, Vander Clyde was a star. He excelled at death-defying feats using his self taught aerial moves, and had the charisma to match and create somewhat of a sensation. He was known for taking off his wig at the end of his acts to show that he was indeed not a woman, but a man in drag.

When his performance as an Alfaretta sister came to a close Barbette moved on to perform with other acts, one of which was Erfords Whirling Sensation, which featured three people swinging from rings who, to quote Clyde himself, “hung by their teeth” while the rings revolved around each other. (Steegmuller 2018)

Much like the Drag Queens of today, Barbette is known for wearing ostentatious outfits, like long dressed with ostrich feather trains, and his impersonation of a woman was so spot on that many thought he was actually a woman until he did the big reveal of pulling off his wig at the end of his acts.

After moving to a solo act, Barbette was in demand all around the world. He traveled to Paris in 1923 and performed with many different acts, one of whom was a comedian, Jimmy Duarte that would sing of the beauty of women, and after Barbette had performed and removed his wig, Duarte would cry out ‘Betrayed!’ much to the delight and shock of audiences. Of his performances, Jean Cocteau, director of the film Blood of a Poet that Barbette appeared in, wrote “… A theatrical masterpiece, An angel, a flower, a bird.” (Gerwirtz & Kolb 2004)

Barbette was and still is the inspiration for many other artworks. Alfred Hitchcock’s film Murder features a female impersonator trapeze artist. Barbette was also the inspiration behind the German film Viktor und Viktoria, which has been a remade into several films of different names as well as a Broadway musical. Jean Cocteau also wrote an essay that was published in the book Barbette that was published in 1989. More recently John Kelly, performance artist from Brooklyn Academy of Music, based a piece named Light Shall Lift Them on Barbette and a French restaurant in Minneapolis was named Barbette after the trapeze artist.

During the time that Barbette was popular, female impersonators were not looked on all too kindly. The vaudeville actors, particularly those that dressed in a more feminine manner or performed more feminine dances were viewed as homosexuals, and while new ideas about homosexuality fostered a desire to watch drag acts such as the Alfaretta Sisters, many viewers were conflicted due to negative public opinions. Many performers, to negate some of the rumors of their sexuality began to help articles about them focus on their ‘manly,’ out of costume, ‘real-selves.’ Barbette and several other notable performers from the time were not bothered by rumors and were not regarded as highly as their ‘manlier’ counterparts in the public eye.

Barbette’s sexuality and his nonchalant attitude towards it may have very well led to the decline in his popularity. He was caught in his dressing room with a man, before a performance in London and the theater manager canceled the performance, and made sure that Clyde could no longer enter the country.

While performing in New York, Clyde caught pneumonia and was sick for a long while which put an end to his life on the stage as a performer and as Barbette. He went on to keep working in the field of his dreams and served as an aerial consultant for Disney on Parade, and a choreographer for The Big Circus. Towards the end of his life, Vander Clyde did return to his home state of Texas.

The impact of Clyde’s performance as Barbette still reigns as one of the more impactful historical drag queens to this day. Photographs of Clyde getting ready for his performances were taken by Man Ray and show just how much drag has changed, but bear a striking resemblance to the drag culture that has grown so popular with the airing of RuPaul’s Drag race.

Bibliography

  1. Adams, Katherine H., and Michael L. Keene. Women of the American Circus: 1880-1940. McFarland, 2012.
  1. “Androgynous Aerial Acrobat & 1920s Female Impersonator, the Great ‘Barbette’.” DangerousMinds, 16 Dec. 2016, dangerousminds.net/comments/androgynous_aerial_acrobat_1920s_female_impersonator_the_great_barbette.
  1. Gerwirtz, Arthur, and James J Kolb. Art, Glitter, and Glitz: Mainstream Playwrights and Popular Theatre in 1920s America. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004. Google Books, books.google.com/books?id=zrJfQro64mAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  2. Slide, Anthony. The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. University of Mississippi, 2012.
  3. Steegmuller, Francis. “The Daring Young Man (Dressed as a Woman) on the Flying Trapeze.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 25 Jan. 2018, newyorker.com/magazine/1969/09/27/an-angel-a-flower-a-bird.
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