Decades before gender studies questioned the stability of existing notions of sex and identity, Barbette – born Vander Clyde – transcended ‘male’ and ‘female’ to embody beauty as a performance beyond binary definitions. In the 1920s, he evolved a circus act that defied expectations. Born in Texas, and living in Paris, he was an aerialist, gliding above the audience’s heads on a trapeze, but with an extra element of theatricality – he wore drag, which he then removed as the finale of the spectacle – challenging spectators to question what they had perceived and to rethink their perceptions.
His body, and the way he spectacularised it through costume, re-created him as a modernist artwork. Jean Cocteau was enthralled, and commissioned Man Ray to photograph him in 1926, as well as composing a literary homage to him in his essay Le Numéro Barbette of the same year. In December 1930, pioneering magazine Vu published a photo-essay that showed his complete metamorphosis. I found this copy in a brocante market in Nice – and was immediately enthralled by the story and the intimate images. These detailed his masculine attire as he walked through the city streets, and then his gradual transformation as he applied makeup, wig, padding and gown to become Barbette – a name chosen for its very ambiguity.
He used his own gender dissonance to seduce his audience – his movements and gestures, were feminine, and yet simultaneously masculine – his body muscled and athletic. His act was equally fluid – graceful yet a feat of strength.
He acknowledged Shakespeare’s use of male actors for female roles as inspiration and spoke of the ‘strange beauty’ both they and he embodied. He queered expectations and showed how ineffectual binary gender ideals are – mere cultural props that he redeployed to produce an enticing ‘inbetweeness.’
His avant-garde performances were a contradictory triumph of transcendence, and it is important to contextualise this within the vibrant world of interwar cabaret and performance in major cities. Barbette’s modernism was at one with contemporary challenges to definitions of art and beauty, and went further with his defiantly indefinable sense of selfhood.
Although wider interwar society was not in step with his forward looking queerness, he is an important figure and role model. Indeed, he was instrumental in one of the best known pop cultural instances of cross-dressing – in later life he coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their roles in Some Like It Hot (1959).