Victorian England appears to have supported a greater variety and higher number of human statues than any other culture ever, up to and including the present day. A large number of plays were performed and new ones written in which living statues featured as both props and plot devices. The nobility and even the middle class were still performing tableaux for each other in parlors, and actors were being paid to perform tableaux for special events and holidays, particularly for Christmas-themed pantomimes during December. Local variety shows and music halls in Britain also featured a huge number of tableaux, but the form of human statue to which the supposedly prude Victorians most took, the one which they truly made their own, was the highly erotic pose plastique.
The pose plastique was a living statue or group of statues performed by a women in various states of undress. The actresses were absolutely being displayed in a sexualized manner for the titillation of the audience, something which many if not most Victorians knew and which seems rather obvious to today’s viewer, leafing through old photographs and reading the ribald descriptions of various society gentlemen. However, if Brits in the middle and late nineteenth century weren’t quite the prudes we imagine them to be, they certainly were dedicated to keeping up appearances in public. They weren’t about to acknowledge the real purpose of the poses (to arouse) and spent an enormous amount of time and energy coming up with rationalizations for the naked woman onstage, usually that she was imitating a Greek or Roman sculpture which also happened to be nude. The biblical Eve, Lady Godiva naked on horseback and various scenes from the myths of western Europe were also fair game.
There are a few reasons for the special connection between England and the burlesque living statue. For starters, the pose plastique was invented by an Englishwoman, Emma Hamilton. Additionally, the Victorian upper classes tended to study and obsess over the arts of Greco-Roman antiquity, which as I have mentioned created a great many excuses for the pose plastique models to not be wearing any clothing.
Finally, many English men at the time were quietly terrified of the newly liberated “bluestocking” who demanded equal treatment, the right to vote, an education, a life outside the home, and all sorts of other things which might interfere with traditional male supremacy. These conservative men were a lot like the far right conservatives of today’s America in that their public statements were frankly anti-sex while their private lives were often imaginatively scandalous. Their fear of powerful women must have greatly outweighed the lip service they paid to religious feeling and “propriety” because they were extremely enthusiastic about a sex industry dedicated to putting women in their place. What could be more ideal for these men than a naked living statue, a woman who never moved or spoke or made eye contact, a woman using drapes to look like the armless Venus de Milo? It is easy to see how the bruised ego of the English misogynist could be healed by presentations of passive women, the more sexual in nature the better.
It is important to remember that Emma Hamilton’s pose plastique was rather tame compared to those of Victorian England. She was known to undulate around in and endlessly adjust a series of shawls and loose shifts in front of a crowd, but she was never fully naked during her shows and never attempted to look naked. At the time of her famous performances, she was a married woman, albeit one with a scandalous past who engaged in an even more scandalous affair with Lord Admiral Nelson. She had more going for her than her sexual appeal; she performed for mixed audiences and was by all accounts a clever actress with some native talent who reinvented the art of pantomime without benefit of formal training or much of an education.
Victorian pose plastique models were not all as interesting or able to act as Emma Hamilton, but they needed to draw people in somehow, and sex is a very effective draw. The more they took off, the more audiences liked it, the more money they made, and a race to full nakedness could only be slowed by massive protests and government censors. If one woman appeared in only a skintight beige body stocking, or fleshing, then all other women had to do the same and find ways to make theirs look even more like nothing at all. Each show worked to be sexier than the next by hiring more attractive models or by making them appear to be wearing less. Warm pink light was cast onto the models to make the fleshings look as much like skin as possible. While models at first couldn’t get away with baring their real breasts, detailed plaster ones were sometimes built into the costumes.
Due to the sexual nature of their act, rumors abounded about the extra-curricular behavior of pose plastique models. The confusion about exactly who these ladies were in their private lives seems to have been at least part wishful thinking by male audience members- Victorian erotica often featured lurid tales of the sexual misadventures of a woman who performed poses. It is also possible that prostitutes who knew about the desires of their customers were in the habit of claiming that they worked in a pose plastique show. Unfortunately for the fantasy lives of Victorian British men, there seems to have been little to no actual overlap between poses plastiques and prostitution. No record exists among the many women known to have been prostitutes at the time of a one who could also be proven to work in a pose plastique show. The hours dedicated to rehearsing the shows were grueling, and pose models were probably too busy to stay up late soliciting. Finally, these women who generally valued the opportunity to feel like stars knew full well that being caught getting paid for sex would result in immediate dismissal.
However, some pose models working for variety shows did apparently serve a function akin to that of today’s stripper. They would sometimes come down from the stage to have a conversation with individual men in the audience, and the goal of that conversation was to get the men in question to spend more money. One account of a pose plastique model who played Eve makes this clear:
The third tableau finished, Eve condescended to sit near and drink with a sailor ‘half seas over,’ and obligingly infomed him that they performed also ‘The Morning and Evening Star,’ ‘The Three Graces,’ and other beautiful pictures when there was a good company in the room.
The best reason for pose plastique models not to get involved in prostitution was that so much of it took place while they were busy working. The promenades outside of theaters and music halls showing poses plastiques were famous gathering-places for women whose favors could actually be bought, and men who were hoping to do more than just look at naked women didn’t have to travel far. When censors and other reformers tried to shut down theaters showing poses plastiques, they would often mention the large gatherings of prostitutes out front, citing their presence as evidence that the shows were indeed arousing to the men who saw them and did indeed breed vice. It’s unlikely that poses plastiques were directly responsible for the high demand for paid sex in Victorian England, but the first charge seems fair enough.
Not surprisingly, the people most bothered by the poses plastiques were upper-class women. Though their approach was not always well thought out, the intentions of the ladies against poses were noble. They were for the most part concerned about the well-being of the models themselves, who they felt were being preyed upon by rapacious male audience members. Who would marry a woman who had been a pose plastique model? What would happen to her modesty and virtue if she became inured to the work of sexual display for large crowds? What peace could she have if every time she went out she was recognized by fans who thought of her body as public property? Wasn’t she vulnerable to all sorts of sexual coercion from male theater owners and coworkers? What if a simple, uneducated model caught the eye of some sophisticated nobleman who duped her into believing he’d marry her?
These concerned were put forth eloquently during most famous campaign against poses plastiques, launched by Lady Somerset against a travelling living picture show at the Palace of Varieties in London. “It is the performers who call for our intervention,” she said. The Lady was deeply skeptical of the argument that the undressed young women in theaters and music halls just happened to be artistically recreating scenes which just happened to require a minimum of clothing. According to Somerset, the tableaux presented at “violate every artistic cannon.” The poses were not nudity “spiritualized or made ideal by the hallowed creating hand of genius, but palpably gross and disgusting in its suggestive flesh-coloured tights.”
Somerset had the benefit of access to wealth, enormous amounts of free time, and her own mouthpiece in the form of the journal Woman’s Signal. The Victorians frankly expected a woman of her class to spend her days attempting to address social ills through charity work, and she did so enthusiastically. She was a formidable and vocal opponent whose publicity campaigns succeeded in persuading British officials to crack down on what they considered the worst offenders even if they wouldn’t get rid of poses altogether. The Palace manager, Charles Morton, did on at least one occasion eliminate the tableaux he felt were most likely to offend in the hopes of appeasing protesters, who were with the aid of politicians constantly threatening his liquor license.
Defenders of the pose plastique reacted not with arguments about freedom of speech or expression or sexuality, as Americans might today, but with a pack of transparent lies and diversions. A few articles and letters were written about the fact that the dancers and other erotic acts were far more indecent. Critics, including George Bernard Shaw, insisted repeatedly that the poses were not only “works of art,” but “excellent practical sermons.” He went on to explain that “the illusion produced on the ordinary music-hall frequenter was that of the undraped human figure, exquisitely clean, graceful, and, in striking contrast to many of the completely and elaborately dressed ladies who were looking at them, completely modest.” According to Shaw, “Many of the younger and poorer girls in the audience must have gone away with a greater respect for their own persons.” Shaw thought, or rather pretended to think, that erotic performance art would teach the women in the audience modesty.
Another popular argument made by pose plastique lovers was that the models themselves were totally unaffected by their work, actually more likely to remain pure of thought and deed than women making less money who might have to succumb to the seductions of any man who offered to take them away from the harsh working life of the laundries. The Palace manager Morton must certainly have been frustrated at constantly defending his liquor license and business, and he gave voice to his frustrations by pointing out that a woman working for him “was in no danger of being contaminated on his stage, and he thought that their (sic) chances of remaining an ornament to her sex while she was receiving 5 pounds a week were far greater than they would be if she was receiving smaller enumeration for the more arduous task she might be obliged to perform had she a less exquisite shape.”
The models themselves even got in on championing the pose plastique as an art form, something which purity campaigners had probably not expected at all. While Lady Somerset had pictured herself as setting out to save the women involved, these women wanted to keep earning money in whatever way they could. Suzie Kirwin, an American female tableaux manager wrote the New York Herald on August 19 1984. “The honorable avenues of employment open to women are none too many. Lady Somerset, as a philanthropist, must know this. Why seek to close any of them?”
Fortunately for managers like Mr. Morton and for women hoping to make a living as pose models, the theaters were not closed. The poses remained popular, and large swaths of the public either bought or pretended to buy the argument that poses plastiques were not exactly pornographic.
Victorian-era gay men also benefited from the argument that there was nothing sexual about this form of sex work. Many a scene included not just Eve in fleshings, but Adam in fleshings, his body also exposed to the male audience. A few male pose models, such as the equestrian Andrew Ducrow and “The Modern Hercules and the Perfect Man” Eugene Sandow, became popular and toured internationally for audiences which were mostly, but not all, female. Open homosexuality would have been scandalous, but men could perform in lewd situations and costumes for other men so long as everybody pretended it wasn’t sexy.
Unfortunately, the flat denial that anything a pose plastique showed could be pornographic no matter what it looked like didn’t just provide a convenient cover for incidental homosexuality. Many of the variety performers who took part in pantomime shows were a little too young for comfort. A letter to the Lord Chamberlain from a woman who identified herself only as “An English Mother” reads:
A band of girls, about thirty, I should think, from the ages of ten to sixteen, naked to their wastes, perform a dance in hand with just a little fringe of net perfectly transparent & which flies open as they dance… whether they are incased (sic) in flesh elastics, makes no difference, it is meant to appear, & does appear, as if the girls were perfectly nude.
No action was taken as a result of the complaint.
In 1889, pedophilia mixed with pantomime again. London’s Cleveland Street was the location of a gay brothel whose prostitutes were mostly young messenger boys and whose clients were mostly older and highly respected. It was rumored that Prince Albert, the oldest son of the Prince of Wales, was involved, which was even more of a scandal because Prince Albert was second-in-line for the British throne. An equerry to the Prince of Wales definitely had visited the brothel to pay teenage boys for sex. The perception that impoverished young men had been taken advantage of by the nobility and politicians, as well as that the government had made a concerted effort to cover up the whole thing, led to intense public resentment.
Henry FitzRoy, the Earl of Euston, was also accused by the press of having been a client of the brothel, but he defended himself both in the papers and the courts. Eventually, the Earl cleared his name, and the reporter who had published his logical conclusion that Euston went to a working brothel full of adolescent boys to pay them for sex was imprisoned for a year for libel. Euston’s claim was that he had been handed a flier by someone advertising for the brothel which said only that there were poses plastiques inside the building. The Earl said he naturally assumed that the poses would be performed by females and went back to the building sometime later in order to see naked women. Euston swore up and down that once one of the young men had explained to him that he was in a homosexual house of ill repute and not a heterosexual one, he had “called him a filthy blackguard, and threatened to knock him down if he did not open the door and let him pass out at once.”
The scenario Euston described may even be true, and if so, it perfectly illustrates more than a few of the points I’ve made so far. First off, it seems apparent that even if pose models were not prostitutes, at least these prostitutes did lie about being pose models. Second, we see the use of the poses as a rationalization for the sexual display of adult men and even young adolescents.
If a lot of high-flying rhetoric was thrown around in newspapers regarding whether erotic human statues were art, a huge effort was put into creating confusion about their exact purpose on stage too. Producers like Morton, when they weren’t cancelling the most blatant poses in a last-ditch effort to avoid protest, tried to intersperse poses depicting ‘The Morning Star’ or some other nearly naked twenty year old with more traditional tableaux depicting scenes in which all the actors were fully clothed.
Another tactic used was to try and enhance the poses with the most incredible special effects possible. If the argument for poses plastiques was that they were a legitimate art form with a higher purpose than selling sex, then they would be treated as such. A fantastic visual spectacle became the goal, and in the best shows this goal was achieved. The focus was still on erotic depictions of naked young women, but the elaborate sets and costumes involved real effort and accomplishment- they made the pictures interesting to look at even for people who didn’t much care for erotic depictions of naked young women.
An easy and popular way to impress audiences with the realism of a given pose plastique was to dust the visible skin of a model with a white powder which would make her face look more pale and glowing, like marble. This effect was sometimes heightened with stark, cold lghting which made the skin look even more lifeless. Wigs and headpieces were used so that the models’ real hair was covered with the white curls which were so often a feature of Greco-Roman statuary.
Edward Kilyani’s Living Pictures visited the struggling Palace Theater in 1893, and the fortunes of the establishment were reversed by the incredible popularity of the act. Kilyani, to be sure, pandered to what we would call the baser instincts of his audience about as much as one would expect, but his dedication to stagecraft is what kept audiences coming back for more and gained him a certain amount of acceptance. One of the Living Pictures was of Venus, and the model’s arms were very effectively hidden by drapes which perfectly matched the material in the background. One reviewer at the time stated that “the illustration was so perfect as to well-nigh defy detection.” A statue of Aphrodite looked even more still when juxtaposed with the movement of the fountain that dripped water on her. Finally, Kilyani invented “a revolving table, divided into sections, with removable backgrounds led to a remarkably rapid change between different tableaux.”
Poses had been going through a rough patch and were experiencing decreased popularity during Kilyani’s first performance, and his show had actually for a short time enjoyed the status of only exhibit of poses plastiques in London. It is a testament to the awe with which his work was greeted that by the time he left London he had many imitators, and poses were again a very common form of entertainment.
Olga Desmond was performing in London fully naked, without the benefit of fleshings, in 1907, and in 1932 the Windmill Theatre in London did the same for its “Revudeville.” Not only had poses continued despite the protests of reformers and censors, but they had gotten more blatantly sexual as they became more acceptable. Revudeville was viewed by the visiting king and Queen or Norway.
The success of poses was their downfall. Once it was popularly accepted that women could and would appear naked onstage, there was no need to pretend that they were imitating classical art, and there was no reason they shouldn’t dance around a little as they performed- in fact, this was preferable. Eventually, the energetic and straightforwardly lascivious striptease completely replaced the passive pose plastique with its allusions to high art. Almost nobody was impersonating naked statues by the 1950s.