Category Archives: Dance

Oxford Bags, Pullovers and Northern Soul

‘Le Gandin’ by Auguste Bosc, published by Auguste Bosc (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Clérice frères.

Bloomers were not the only pants fashion worthy of a song or dance. Proudly this young man struts around, wearing very capacious trousers called Oxford bags. The fashion of these wide-cut trousers started in 1924 in the city of youth, Oxford. They were typically made of flannel, with a circumference of usually 66 cm around the knee and 60 cm around the ankle. These Oxford bags were sometimes also named ‘Charleston trousers’ or ‘collegiate pants’.

In those days young men in Oxford were seen as fashion icons. They were reported in the newspapers and their vestimentary code had a worldwide impact. Our sheet music covers are sure witnesses of that influence on the vogue in Paris.

The instant popularity of the Oxford-style trousers is illustrated by the song C’est chic les longs pantalons or Oxford Bags created at the Moulin Rouge in 1925. The cover for this song is illustrated by Roger de Valerio. He might have drawn a self portrait here: the young man is wearing de Valerio’s typical round horn-rimmed spectacles. Or he could have been joking: allegedly some followers of fashion wore these round spectacles with plain glass just to give “an appearance of owlish sapience”.

French papers were making fun of the ‘elephant leg’ trousers. Surely, if fashion wasn’t French it could not be elegant, could it?

‘C’est chic les longs pantalons’ or ‘Oxford Bags’ by Fred Melé & Craven, published by Francis Salabert (Paris, 1925) and illustrated by Roger De Valerio.

It is said that these large trousers became the style because students were not allowed to wear knickerbockers in lectures, so they hid them under Oxford bags. However, the belief is now that rowers used to slip them over their shorts during cold weather, the equivalent of a tracksuit. One such a pair of rowing-over trousers (already coined Oxford bags in 1896) is kept at the River & Rowing Museum, in Henley-on-Thames.

At first Oxford bags were worn with a double-breasted blazer but soon they were accompanied by pullover sweaters, another Oxonian fashion statement. “Conservative Oxford continues to add bizarre notes to the prevailing mode of men’s fashion. After the flapping Oxford bags of a previous year fanciful coat-sweaters of exotic colours, called pullovers have captured the undergraduate fancy.” (The Chicago Tribune, 26 October 1926). The newspaper continued to state that the pullover’s unusual popularity may be traced to the 1926 lockout of one million coal miners and the ensuing cold lecture rooms.

Il a mis son Pull-over’ by René Sylviano, published by Francis Salabert (Paris, 1928) and Illustrated by Roger De Valerio.

The Oxford trousers as a fashion item were taken to extremes. One pair even had a 122 cm wide hem, and extravagant trousers such as these were getting all the attention. But still, the normal kind of Oxford pants were to stay right up into the 1950s.

‘Charming’ by Romain Macker, published by Harmonia (Brussels, sd) and illustrated by Peter De Greef.

In the 1970s Oxford bags found their second life in the Northern soul scene, a British subculture that emerged out of the mod movement in the North of England. The youths danced all night to rare vintage vinyls of black American soul with a heavy beat and fast tempo. They had a particular dance style, spinning around, kicking in the air, performing splits and backdrops. A typical sweat-soaked all-nighter was fuelled by popping Dexedrine pills to keep dancing for hours. Beer was not served though, because the dance clubs could stay open as long as no alcohol was offered.

For practical reasons the boys chose light and loose-fitting clothes to easily move in: high-waisted Oxford bags, polo shirts, sports or track jackets and leather soled shoes for good gliding across the dance floor. Often patches representing the soul club allegiance were sown on the vest or shirt.

In this 25 minutes ‘Wigan Casino’ documentary from the seventies we can appreciate the dance moves of Northern soul devotees who lose themselves to their favourite music. The Wigan Casino (1973-1981), a night club in Greater Manchester, was the primary venue for Northern soul music.

The Slow, Slower, Slowest… Boston Waltz

Valse Lente‘ by Clifton Worsley published by Alphonse Leduc (Paris, 1920) and illustrated by Georges Dola.

The valse lente was very fashionable in the early 20th century. It was a slow, sentimental waltz, also called a Boston waltz. I am still confused over the precise technical moves of the valse lente or Boston Waltz. What makes it so ‘lente’ or ‘Boston’, still eludes me, though I’ve read more than a few instruction texts. I even dared a few hesitating steps in my boudoir.
I also tried hard, but found no reliable explanation for its name or origin. Different Western regions or continents claim to be the cradle of this wildly popular dance. Some say the Boston waltz is an American, slower and gliding variant of the traditional Viennese waltz. The oldest reference that I could find is a composition by Marie Félicie Clémence de Reiset, Vicomtesse de Grandval. She composed Prélude et Valse Lente in 1885.
According to the composer Clifton Worsley it was he who coined the term Boston waltz.
Clifton Worsley is the pseudonym of the Catalan musician Pere Astort i Ribas. A trained pianist, Pere Astort started working as a clerk at a popular sheet music shop located on the most emblematic street, La Rambla, in Barcelona. This shop then called Can Guàrdia still exists as Casa Beethoven.
In the sheet music shop Pere Astort worked as a song demonstrator (or song plugger) to help sell the sheet music. Patrons could select a title of a song for him to play on the piano, thus getting a first listen before buying.

Beloved‘ by Pere Astort (aka Clifton Worsley), published by Casa Dotesio (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by M. De Lohn.

The story goes that while Astort was playing one of his own compositions, an American musician walked into the shop. Stunned by Astort’s song the visitor told him that the music reminded him of fashionable waltzes from his home town, Boston. The American also suggested to adopt a pseudonym with a more ‘artistic‘ and international resonance. Pere Astort went for the dignified sounding Clifton Worsley nom de plume.

'Vision' by Clifton Worsley, sheet music cover
Vision‘ by Pere Astort (aka Clifton Worsley). Published by himself in Barcelona (1902) with an art nouveau cover designed by Llorenc Brunet.

Clifton Worsley had a rival in Theodor Pinet who also claimed to be the Bostonkungen or the Boston King. Pinet was a Swedish composer, with a Belgian father, who used to play at the royal court of Sweden. He introduced the Boston waltz in Sweden around 1902. Clifton Worsley had then already composed his first Boston walz in the late 1890’s. Anyway, Theodor Pinet became a big name in Sweden thanks to the Boston Walz. In 1910 he launched his own music hall: the Boston Palace! According to Sweden’s state archives, the rush to Pinet’s Boston Palace was huge: “Ladies in exquisite toilets, gentlemen in coats and tuxedos, students, little shop girls in blouses and skirts, jacket-clad office workers and demi-mondaines in rustling silk with or without cavalier, all bitten by the Boston fly […]

‘Papillons’ by Theodor Pinet, published by Lundquist (Stockholm, sd).

In 1900 the French Roi de la Valse Rodolphe Berger composed a valse très lente (a very slow waltz), the hugely successful Amoureuse.

Amoureuse‘ by Rodolphe Berger. Published by Enoch & Cie (Paris, 1900) with the cover illustrated by Léonce Burret

And after Massenet also having written a Valse très lente, Debussy created La plus que lente or ‘the even slower waltz’ in 1910. It was his tongue-in-cheek riposte to the the countless lightweight valses lentes that were so successful in the Parisian salons and dance halls. La plus que lente is a charming sentimental waltz with a lot of rubato written for solo piano and arranged for strings.
Debussy mentioned in an interview that he had written La plus que lente for the Hungarian violinist/leader of a gypsy orchestra. He had discovered the ensemble in the newly opened Parisian Carlton Hotel where he regularly went with his wife and friends for the afternoon tea. Who better then, than the Hungarian Antal Zalai to perform La plus que lente

Poor little rats: Les Misérables… de l’opéra

‘Friquette’ by Raoul Schubert, published by E. Demets (Paris, s.d.). Illustration signed ‘Gebo’.

The gesture of a wealthy man patronisingly lifting the chin of a ballerina hides a grim and sordid truth.

‘Ballerine’ by Hermann Devries, published by L. Grus (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Dola.

In the 19th century most ballet dancers of the Parisian Opera came from poor and deprived families. They were also often illiterate. Sometimes a family’s hope for a better future rested on the frail shoulders of a daughter with dancing skills. These young ballerina’s were commonly called Les Petits Rats, or the little rats of the opera.

‘Petits Rats’ by Henri Christiani, published by Durand (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Clérice Frères. (source: https://gallica.bnf.fr)

Around 1830 Louis Véron, a short corpulent man, became the new administrator of the Parisian opera. Véron was a trained physician turned businessman who had made fortune from cough drops (Pâte pectorale de Reginauld Ainé). He had arranged a lucrative deal that yielded two-thirds of the profits to him without having to work.

Left: Louis Véron, 1855. Right: publicity for Pâte Pectorale de Regnauld.

Véron devised several strategies to make the opera profitable. One was to create the Foyer de la danse, an exclusive and lavishly decorated backstage salon. Véron, the shrewd entrepreneur, offered to the well-heeled season ticket holders or abonnés not only a private theatre box, but also secluded access to this backstage. There the wealthy male abonnés enjoyed a kind of droit de seigneur over the little dancers.
Astonishingly to modern standards, these men in top hats had obtained the right to prowl the corridors and meet the (very young) ballet dancers in the lavishly decorated Foyer de la danse. They could enjoy informal performances and hold private parties with the danseuses. In the corridor leading up to the Foyer, they could negotiate with the ‘mothers’ the right fee to get an ‘introduction’ to a pretty dancer.

Valse Caprice‘ by Georges Piquet, published by Charles Morice (Paris, s.d.). Illustration signed with monogram CAB.

The most affluent of these abonnés were the members of the Jockey Club. This club was the epitome of exclusivity, its elite members solely being aristocrats. They were connoisseurs of horses, cigars and women. Their preferred part of the opera was the ballet. At that time the ballet was often nothing more than a choreographic interlude performed during the second part of an opera. The members of the Jockey Club used to dine during the first act. They then arrived at the opera just in time to admire their protégées on the gaslit stage, and —immediately after the ballet— left quickly for the Foyer… (*)

‘Les Vieux Gagas de l’Opéra’ by Eugène Oustric, Edouard Jouve & François Tier, published by Edouard Jouve (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Faria

Another strategy of Véron was to decrease the wages of the dancers, thus forcing the girls to find a wealthy protector. In this way Véron set up a patronage system for the opera’s corps de ballet based more or less on sexual services. The opera had become a place where there was art on the one hand and prostitution on the other.

Two young dancers from the Parisian Opéra (1878-1895) Source: Gallica, BNF.

But the story becomes even more Dickensian or Zolaesque. The opera also housed the ballet school. Girls as young as ten had to work up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, dividing their time between lessons, rehearsals and shows. Arriving too late or faults were fined. They had to live close to the Opera, because with their meagre pay they couldn’t afford the tram or omnibus. Only a minority of these young dancers would become famous and earn a salary sufficient to support their family. Meanwhile, some mothers hunted for a rich protector for their (underage) daughters.

The most famous of these girls was Marie Van Goethem. She was of Belgian descent and stood model for the beautiful Degas statue of a 14-year-old dancer.

“La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” by Degas.

At first Marie was a respectable dancer of the corps de ballet. But a year after the Degas statue was exhibited (1881) she went off the rails. Marie’s older sister Antoinette, had robbed a man in Le Chat Noir. She was arrested and put in prison for three months. The evidence at the trial made it clear that her mother was prostituting her. It is supposed that Marie was also on the game because she started to miss her appointments in the Opera until at last she was sacked.

Degas: illustration from ‘Les petites Cardinal’ by Ludovic Halévy.

Degas also illustrated the short stories Les Petits Cardinal written by his friend Ludovic Halévy. These stories tell, slightly veiled, about the obvious similarities between life at the Opera and scenes in a brothel where the abonné is the client, the dancer is the prostitute, and the mother is the madam.

‘C’est le charme de Florence’ from ‘Les Petites Cardinal’ by Jacques Ibert, Arthur Honegger & Albert Willemetz, published by Choudens (Paris, 1938) and illustrated by Würth.

The Musée Grevin, the Parisian wax museum, understood that the Foyer de la danse captured the public imagination and made it into a tableau. It was exhibited from 1890 on, for eleven years. It offered the visitor a voyeuristic peek behind the scenes on how the rich abonnés got entertained. The representation of the Foyer de la danse was Grévin’s greatest success after the famous crime scenes.

It was only from 1927 on that the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, tackled the problem of the excesses at the Foyer de la danse. His newly nominated Ballet Master, Serge Lifar, supported him fully. Under the dramatic protests of the abonnés they banned the backstage access to the Foyer de la danse, and made from the ballet in the opera a real art form. The film The Ballet of the Paris Opera, featuring Serge Lifar, dates from that period.


(*) When Wagner broke with the tradition and included a ballet in the first act of Tannhauser instead of in the second act, the members of the Jockey Club arrived too late to ogle their young protégées. They booed during the 1861 Parisian premiere and for the next two performances of Tannhauser, they disturbed the performances to such an extent, distributing whistles and rattles to the audience, that Wagner was forced to withdraw the opera after three performances.