The girl on her fierce-looking alligator seems oblivious to her perilous ride. Her garter belt is peeking out, but she only cares for her new handbags. ‘Beim Alligator in Wien’ is a publicity song issued by the Viennese Alligator workshops and stores, selling (alligator) handbags.
We checked the addresses of the old ‘Beim Alligator‘ stores in Vienna. To our pleasant surprise we discovered that one of the shops still exists.
The sheet music dates from the late 20s or early 30s, a period at which the illustrator might have read about The California Alligator Farm.
This was a strange amusement park founded in 1906 near Los Angeles. With over a thousand alligators on exhibition the farm offered weird attractions. One could watch the alligators being fed with live chickens…,
or admire Okeechobee, a 500 (ahem!) year old senior reptile.
The children could enjoy the pleasure of a carriage ride…,
or a bareback ride on an alligator. Rather unsafe for small children, I guess.
The farm’s brochure boasted about its speciality: ‘Alligator Bags Ornamented with Genuine Alligator Heads and Claws’. A promotional photo shows a large alligator-skin bag on top of an incubator full of cute alligator babies. The caption reads: ‘From start to finish’. Gruesome!
Also sickening is the undercover documentary from the animal rights group PETA. Still today, alligators and crocodiles on farms in Texas and Africa are cruelly bred, skinned and slaughtered. It moved Jane Birkin to try to dissociate her name from the luxury ‘Birkin crocodile handbag‘ made by Hermès.
Well, I’m relieved that I never owned a ‘gator bag’. Probably couldn’t afford it either…
On the cover of Pourquoi hésiter is a portrait of Anny Duny. She won the first modern national beauty contest in Belgium in 1921. The event, known as La plus belle femme de Belgique, was organised by Maurice Cartuyvels de Waleffe (1874-1946). He was a Belgian aristocrat working as a journalist and publisher in France where he was mocked for his Belgian roots and pompous rhetoric. Maurice de Waleffe was the founder of the only daily newspaper that came out at noon, Paris Midi. He became an important figure in the fashion world and had a keen eye for new trends.
In 1920, after suffering the harshness of the First World War, Maurice de Waleffe took an initiative to raise spirits. He launched the first competition for the most beautiful woman in France ‘La plus belle femme de France’ in the newspaper Le Journal. More than 2000 young women answered the call. A jury of painters and sculptors (including only one woman!) shortlisted 49 contenders, aged between 17 and 23 years. With an original multimedia campaign, de Waleffe organised a popular vote to chose the winner.
Every day his journal published the portrait of one of the 49 young girls. At the same time, but on a weekly basis, the photographs of seven candidates were shown in the cinemas throughout France. Each competitor appeared on the screen in full length, in a head and shoulder shot, and in the group picture. To ‘preserve their modesty’ the girls didn’t appear under their real name. Each girl received a romantic stage name in accordance with the title of the group to which she belonged: Flowers, Precious Stones, Birds, Goddesses, etc. The cinemagoers received a voting paper. This might have inspired Roger de Valerio in 1922 when he illustrated the sheet music The Girl on the Film…
After seven thrilling weeks of mesmerizing the French audiences (and after thousands of newspapers sold), seven finalists remained. The final election was held at the Parisian premises of Le Journal.It was one of the group Precious Stones, namely Emeraude or Agnes Souret, who won and could call herself Miss France. Some years after her victory she would succumb to a peritonitis, only 26 years old.
The contest was repeated in 1921 after which it was discontinued for five years.
In 1921 Maurice de Waleffe organised the same contest in Belgium. He again worked with a newspaper (La Dernière Heure) and with the cinemas. Out of 800 contestants a shortlist of 21 candidates was split up in three series: Laces, Virtues and Opera Heroines.
Out of the group of Laces, it was Bruges (or Anny Duny from our sheet music cover at the beginning) who won, and started a modest career as La plus belle femme de Belgique.
Anny’s new title brought moderate fame: she appeared in revues but not for long and not in important roles. She is known to have performed in slightly racy tableaux vivants such as Indiscreet Baths, The Return of the Merry Widow or The Décolletage through the Ages. According to a newspaper these were a great triumph attended by the jet set. If you ask me, it seems a bit old-fashioned to patiently gaze at an artistic still, in the hope of catching a dash of nudity. Where is the appeal when –at that time– you could have attended a striptease burlesque or an erotic motion picture.
Speaking of tableaux vivants, this is our 2015 bubbly Miss Belgium ready to conquer the world. So, pourquoi hésiter (why hesitate)?
Further reading: Beauty and Big Business by Aro Velmet: http://fh.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/11/07/fh.crt083.full.pdf
‘Mademoiselle Mimi Pinson: Profil de grisette’ is a novelette written by Alfred de Musset (1810-1857). A grisette is a coquettish young working woman employed as a seamstress, milliner’s assistant or shop helper. The word refers to the cheap grey (gris in French) fabric of the dresses these women originally wore.
In mid-19th century literature, the grisette became associated with the poor artistic and student subculture in the Latin Quarter: the Parisian bohemia. She is in her late teens or early twenties, living on her own in Paris, supporting herself by work. She is sexually independent, changing lovers frequently and of course posing for artists. She is the artists’ muse. She is frank and honest and subversive to mainstream bourgeois values. The grisette archetype was embodied by Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and by Mimi in La Bohème (see the stage photo and Metlicovitz’ illustrated sheet music cover in a previous post) from Puccini.
Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956) resurrected Mimi Pinson at the turn of the century. Charpentier was a composer of humble social backgrounds who became an idealistic socialist. He made a fortune with his opera Louise, a love story between grisette Louise and the young artist Julien. Listen to Renee Fleming’s captivating rendering of the aria Depuis le jour.
The success of the opera Louise provided the means for Charpentier’s charitable work. In 1900 he established the Parisian social project l’Oeuvre de Mimi Pinson named after Alfred de Musset’s heroine seamstress. Originally l’Oeuvre intended to give working-class girls the possibility to attend a theatre or an opera at least once a year. In 1902 it became the thriving Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson.
The music school was sponsored by the piano manufacturing firm Pleyel and the music publisher Enoch. It provided free tuition by professionals for working women in Paris. Within three months Charpentier claimed 2.000 students. The classes were attended by women ranging from 15 years old to middle age, all of them unmarried. Charpentier saw the chanson populaire as a moral tool to educate the masses. The worker-students were taught elementary music, song, piano, harp, dance and pantomime.
Charpentier’s students performed all over France mostly in the service of a worthy cause. In all their spectacles, there was always a pantomime present in order to celebrate the ‘People’s Muse’ Mimi Pinson, represented by a local female labourer elected by her co-workers.
Although the Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson was very successful many were opposed to it and warned that this artistic liberation might upset the social order. The young female workers should marry, do their appropriate work and make their hard-working husbands happy. Or as one paternalistic critic put it: “The theatre is encumbered enough with the untalented… without making these nice little girls drop their needles”.
During the First World War many of the Mimi Pinsons became symbols of feminine self sacrifice. They joined the war effort as workers and were trained to become nurses. The Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson became an auxiliary to the Red Cross.
Other Mimi Pinsons made patriotic tricolour rosettes or cockades for charity from 1915 to 1920. These were exposed and sold for the benefit of the soldiers. The exhibitions were sponsored and supported by the major fashion houses and shops in Paris. Their female personnel also actively participated in the making and presentation of the cockades.
Henri Goublier recounted this social and patriotic work of the Mimi Pinsons into the war-related operetta La Cocarde de Mimi Pinson (The cockade of Mimi Pinson). The first act, set in a textile manufacture in Paris, shows female workers producing cockades, the blue-white-red national symbols, as “love gifts” for the soldiers at the front.
In 1919 the majority of the Mimi Pinsons, being regularly informed about their rights as labourers, joined the call for women’s suffrage.
During the first quarter of the 20th century Mimi Pinson was a popular symbol in France. She was represented living in an attic room with her animal friend a finch (pinson is the French word for a common finch). Clérice used the same symbolism to illustrate the cover of Chansons de L’ Aiguille (Songs of the Needle) composed by André Fijan and dedicated to Gustave Charpentier and his opera Louise.
In 1958 Mimi Pinson got a new but short-lived reappearance with a film of the same name by Robert Darène.
For further reading: Gustave Charpentier and the Conservatoire Populaire de Mimi Pinson by Mary Ellen Poole.