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Tango teas, trousers and autonomy: images of women dancing with each other in the early 20th century

  • The Queer Tango Project


“Image is dialectics at a standstill” said Walter Benjamin. If early 20th century images of women dancing tango with each other become available to us in a 21st century, digital archive, can they be subject to utopic and, as Benjamin might have wished, generate new meanings, both “destructive” and “utopian”? Historical imagery of this kind has hitherto attracted a conventional, feminist critique: it was generated for the male gaze, with women’s bodies closely entwined in this notoriously erotic dance, all tight-fitting dresses, displays of flesh, and knowing smiles. The Queer Tango Image Archive exists to set the themes addressed by queer tango into broader historical and critical perspectives. These themes include physical intimacy between women while dancing. As Catherine Russell notes, “For Benjamin, the collector is a kind of allegorist, for whom the commodity is detached from its original purpose or destiny, and reconfigured as the memory of the desire that informed its production.” While some of these archival images belong to the libidinous genre, others show an alternative immediately attractive to contemporary critics: imagery of fashionably, but modestly dressed women dancing tango with each other and, the “desire that informed its production” seems to be to please the female gaze. At the height of ‘Tangomania’ before the First World War, tea gowns, sometime with ‘harem trousers’, and often designed by women themselves, permitted the freedom of bodily movement the tango required. Tango teas were feminine domains to which men were admitted on sufferance. These images showed and appealed to women who, in new, cosmopolitan public spaces (so beloved by Benjamin) were asserting greater independence of thought, of action, of association and, arguably, greater degrees of autonomy over their bodies. The burgeoning of digital media renders such imagery available for fresh scrutiny, a process which has only just begun.
Tango teas, trousers and autonomy: images of women dancing with
each other in the early 20th century
Walter Benjamin
In a paragraph about Baudelaire in Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-werk or The
Arcades Project, his masterpiece, unfinished when in 1940 he decided to take
too many morphine pills in the Pyrenees, he wrote
Ambiguity is the appearance of dialectic in images, the law of dialectics
at a standstill. This standstill is utopia and the dialectical image,
therefore, dream image. Such an image is afforded by the commodity
per se: as fetish. Such an image is presented by the arcades, which
are house no less than street. Such an image is the prostitute – seller
and sold in one.1
As translators, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin observed:
To speak of awakening [the past] was to speak of the "afterlife of
works;' something brought to pass through the medium of the
"dialectical image." The latter is Benjamin's central term, in The
Arcades Project, for the historical object of interpretation: that which,
under the divinatory gaze of the collector, is taken up into the collector's
own particular time and place, thereby throwing a pointed light on what
has been. Welcomed into a present moment that seems to be waiting
just for it – “actualized,” as Benjamin likes to say – the moment from
the past comes alive as never before. In this way, the "now" is itself
experienced as preformed in the “then,” as its distillation – thus the
leading motif of "precursors" in the text. The historical object is reborn
as such into a present day capable of receiving it, of suddenly
"recognizing" it. This is the famous "now of recognizability" (Jetzt der
Erkennbarkeit), which has the character of a lightning flash.
Benjamin was immersed in the French nineteenth century from a
cosmopolitan early twentieth. The “dialectical images” embodying “dialectics
at a standstill” I invite you to consider are from the early French twentieth
century and we gaze at them from a globalised 21st. Can we in our own age
use these ephemera of one which has passed to both to get in touch with
Urgeschichte or primal history and so ignite an “awakening to myth”?2
The Queer Tango Image Archive
1 Benjamin, W., The Arcades Project, p. 10
2 Translators’ Foreword p.xii
These images are taken from The Queer Tango Image Archive. The Archive
was set up jointly with Gonzalo Collazo in March 2016 following discussions I
had had with him the year before in Montevideo, Uruguay. We had both
informally collected digital files of historical imagery which, largely devoid of
scholarship, we nonetheless judged related to our 21st century queer tango
dancing. We pooled our collections and have invited others to add
them.3Collazo and I are its curators. Our ambitions for the Archive are modest,
but sufficiently open-ended to allow for the processes to which Benjamin
alludes. In the ‘About us’ section of the Archive website we say:
We do not set out to supply definitive information about each image.
Instead, we reproduce unaltered the information and opinions supplied
by each image Donor and then encourage Visitors to comment on what
they find. We may add comments of our own. In this informal,
collaborative way we hope that inaccuracies (which may themselves be
interesting) can be identified and a clearer sense of each image’s
significances emerge. Even so, we are wholly comfortable with the idea
that the same image may be open to a variety of interpretations, and
for some of these interpretations to be contradictory or mutually
exclusive. Our over-arching aim is to stimulate debate and support the
development – and the dancing – of Queer Tango!
Collazo is an academic and so am I, but queer tango is not the preserve of
academia and nor is this Archive. We have deliberately not framed it in formal,
theoretical terms, although we are delighted when those who access the
material do just that.4
Early 20th century Images of women dancing tango with each other:
historical context
3 Also in 2015, the Queer Tango Project emerged out of the Queer Tango Book
Project which had been founded by Birthe Havmøller in 2013. The Project consists of
a website, a blog and lively Queer Tango Conversation on Facebook, and The Queer
Tango Image Archive.
4 At the 2016 Queer Tango Salon in Paris earlier this year, where queer tango
activists, teachers and academics were brought together to debate and dance queer
tango, academics Chiara Iorino, Manuela Ritondale and Mauro Coletto applied art
historical techniques to some of the images their paper, “Representation of
Performative Identities: images of Queer Tango”. The present paper is the third to
emerge from it and a fourth will be given later this year. My Paper with Jon Senate
House; my SDHS paper
It is early days. The Archive is less than a year old. The images consist of
postcards, photographs, covers of tango sheet music, magazine illustrations,
private snapshots and so on. Even with a total of less than 100 images,
certain patterns seem to be emerging (although these may be a function of
the tastes or working practices of the image donors, of course). As might be
expected, most of the images are of same gender couples – 31 of women; 41
of men.
Benjamin asserted that the dialectical image “…is afforded by the commodity
per se: as fetish. … is the prostitute – seller and sold in one.” Were these
images generated to be sold? Of the 41 images of male couples, 13 of them
are postcards, graphics or similar and so “commercial”. Of the 31 images of
women couples, fully 23 and fall into this category. It would be interesting to
compare this tango example with a more general audit of historical imagery
divided on gender lines. It is these commercial images of women couples
from the early 20th century which interest me here.
To whom were these images being sold? And what was their attraction?
The Wikipedia entry for “Queer Tango”5 includes one such, captioned
(unwisely, in my view) “Queer Tango, postcard from the 1920s”. In a section
headed “History of the Queer Tango movement”, having acknowledged the
well-known historical images of men dancing tango together, the anonymous
authors of the entry write:
There are also French and American postcards [9] from the first
decades of the 20th century which represent tango between women.
This feminine replica of man-to-man-tango generated much less
literary documentation, yet a more extensive iconography tinged with a
voyeuristic accent of eroticism: [and then, quoting J. Alberto Mariñas]
5 “Queer Tango” (English) accessed 6th
October 2016. The Spanish entry is identical “Tango Queer” (Español) accesed 6th October 2016
"…They are mostly anonymous pictures of women before the
retina of a man one imagines to be complacent with the image
of two women narrowing the distance between their bodies,
something this dance encourages. One cannot see in them any
self affirmation of feminine propriety, but rather, flattery or
seduction toward the male spectator.[…]…"J. Alberto Mariñas,
They dance alone…6
Many of the other images of women couples – artwork and photography,
especially in the form of postcards - seem to confirm that semi-pornographic
images of women dancing tango were, indeed ‘commodity fetishisation’,
images to arouse the ‘male gaze’ and so be exchanged for hard cash. The
image found in the Wikipedia entry is one of a series of similar such images.
They were produced by the London postcard manufacturer with an extensive
American operation, Raphael Tuck & Sons and show artwork by Luiz (or in
the US Louis) Usabal, a Spanish painter more commonly associated with
portraits of Hollywood silent movie stars.
Still another series of postcards, this time from France use photography and
show women dancing together in figure hugging sheath dresses in a range of
poses surely intended to titillate.
And yet… There are to date these two striking images of women dancing
tango together that seem not immediately to fit this model. Just as their more
easily explained counterparts may represent more, as yet undetected
imagery, so too, these might be the tip of small and interesting iceberg. It is
time to explore.
6 On Wikipedia, the link [accessed 6th October 2016] is to a decayed English-
language website where the images have vanished: Its Spanish original has fared better: and the image is found there, with
Firstly, from 1913, a sheet music cover for a tango composed by Ángel
At the centre of the sheet music is an image, signed ‘A. Morel’. In the
ubiquitous flat, Japanese aesthetic style, it shows two women dancing –
tango, given the context – against an idealised background of a grand garden
with a staircase. Like the other examples seen so far, the women are in a
close, if slightly awkward embrace, but what is interesting here is that unlike
those images, there is not a great deal of flesh showing, nor any of Usabal’s
conspiratorial glances in the direction of the ‘fourth wall’ and the male gaze.
On the contrary both women are modestly dressed in fashionable ‘tea gowns’.
The second image is indeed, ‘dialects at a standstill’. It is actually a still taken
from a Journal Gaumont newsreel of 1913.
In it we see a fashionable gathering of smartly and indeed, expensively
dressed women, two of whom, eyes fixed on the camera, appear to have
emerged from glass doors in an unmistakeable tango embrace. Tea is taken.
The key to understanding what might have brought both these images into
being might be the female gaze. As it rested on women’s fashions and what
these images implied about a utopia of social and political changes.
To return to the sheet music: Ángel Villoldo, the Argentinian composer of
Elegancias was famously enterprising. He composed many tangos including
El choclo one of the most famous (and bawdy). Villoldo was sponsored along
with singers Alfredo Gobbi and his Chlean wife, Flora Rodriguez by a large,
fashionable Buenos Aires Department Store, Gath & Chaves to come to Paris
in 1907 in order to make tango phonograph recordings.7 Gath & Chaves was
modelled on the Parisian Gallerie Lafayette. Nor do the sheet music’s links
with fashion retail end there. According to the website BibleTango, Villoldo’s
Elégancias was a tango dedicated to the Spanish-language, fashion
7 Spanish Wikipedia gives the date of the trip as 1903; the website Todo Tango says
shop-also-released-records/ accessed 8th October 2016
magazine, Elégancias which was directed by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén
Darío from 1911 until 1914. and which served the South American community
in Paris.8 What could be smarter, in terms of marketing? Paris was desperate
for Argentinian tangos, not just because tango was fashionable, but also
because, as Robert Henard complained in January 1914, very few tangos
were actually known in Paris, meaning that orchestras were often reduced to
repeating them once they had exhausted their meagre repertoire. [Henard
1914]. Elegancias naturally, included guidance of how to dance tango.
Turning back to the film still, this too, shows 1913 Paris fashion. I have
tracked the original film clip down, but not secured it in time to show you now.
8 From the website of the Spanish language Department of the University of
Con dirección literaria de Rubén Darío y artística de Leo Merelo, bajo la
administración de los banqueros uruguayos Alfredo y Armando Guido, la revista
Mundial Magazine aparece en París en abril de 1911 hasta agosto de 1914. El
emprendimiento es recibido con entusiasmo en los círculos intelectuales de la
época, especialmente, porque cuenta con firmas prestigiosas que la avalan.[if !
supportFootnotes][1][endif] Con una estructura similar a Le Figaro Modes, incluso en
cuanto a su tamaño, comienza un tiempo después que Mundial la revista de modas
Elegancias en la que sólo Darío figura como director. [With literary director Ruben
Dario and artistic Leo Merelo under the administration of Uruguayan bankers Alfredo
and Armando Guido, the World magazine Magazine appears in Paris in April 1911 to
August 1914. The project was received with enthusiasm in intellectual circles of the
time, especially because it has prestigious firms that support it. [1] With a similar
structure to Le Figaro Modes, even in terms of size, starting sometime after World
Chics fashion magazine in which only Dario figure as a director. CORRECT THIS
accessed 8th October 2016
BibleTango, “Tango dédié au magazine mondain Elégancias de la communauté sud-
américaine à Paris, dirigé depuis 1911 jusqu’à 1914 par le poète nicaraguayen
Rubén Darío. Partition imprimée à Paris.”
m accessed 6th October 2016; According to Rubén Darío’s entry in Wikipedia, “In
1912 he accepted an offer from the Uruguayan businessmen Rubén and Alfredo
Guido to direct the magazines Mundial and Elegancias. To promote said publications,
he went on tour in Latin America visiting, among other cities, Río de Janeiro, São
Paulo, Montevideo and Buenos Aires.én_Dar
%C3%ADo accessed 6th October 2016; the magazine was still going in 1924
cover.html accessed 6th October 2016
It is of a mannequin parade at the Paris establishment of London fashion
designer, Lucile, the professional name of Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon.
Starting business in London in 1893 after a failed marriage, Duff-Gordon often
claimed to have invented the ‘mannequin parade’, precursor to today’s
catwalk shows. If, as Caroline Evans reminds us she did not, in fact invent
them, she certainly brought drama to them.9 As Hilary Fawcett acknowledges:
…[while] the line of her dresses might have followed the Parisian
directive, the extravagant and erotic nature of both her designs and the
fashion shows which she organized were uniquely spectacular…
Lucile’s sister was Elinor Glyn, who was later to create the Hollywood
‘It Girl’ personified by Clara Bow, and helped to orchestrate Lucile’s
collections and fashion shows. The themes of romance and seduction
were writ large in her work. [p. 153]
The female gaze? An erotic environment? Lucile had adopted the fiction of
inviting her socialite clientele at tea time using “dainty little cards”, as if the
invitation were a social one among equals rather than an opportunity for
commercial transactions and trade.10 She took her rivalry with Paul Poiret and
Jeanne Paquin seriously, opening a branch in Paris in 1911. According to
Lucile’s first Parisian presentation capitalized on the tango craze by
replicating a thé dansant in which her mannequins tangoed
[presumably, with each other] while an orchestra played and the clients
took tea. [p. 278]
Between 1911 and 1913, interest in the tango had only increased and it would
seem Duff-Gordon’s formula continued to have currency. It certainly helps
explain not only the two figures dancing, but also the two figures on the right,
one, seated with a teacup and saucer, the other, attending with a milk jug.
Tango Teas and the erotic
But what of the erotic? A Scottish tourist in Paris and former resident of
Argentina, the politician, Robert Cunningham Graham, published his
9 From Caroline Evans making it plain she did NOT really invent it, but brought it to a
higher state of theatrical perfection.
10 Kaplan and Stowell 1994 quoted by Evans, 2001, p. 274
impressions of the tango in 1914 and they were not favourable. Arriving at a
Parisian hotel the ladies:
…descended delicately from their cars, offering a fleeting view of their
legs covered by transparent stockings, through the slits of their skirts.
They knew that every man […] would be excited by such a spectacle
[…] and even the most virtuous sense pleasure at their capacity to
disturb men’s emotions. […] This is how without a need for the vote,
they demonstrate they are equal to men.
Once inside the hotel, “the atmosphere is charged by the emanations of the
flesh and the fumes of whisky”. There is worse to come: “Lesbos had sent her
legions and women exchanged intelligent looks […] The color of their cheeks
accentuated when their eyes met, unexpectedly, those of another priestess of
the secret cult.”11 He goes on to lament the mixing of French and English with
North Americans, Hispanoeamericans and Jews; the men “murmuring into
[women’s] ears anecdotes that made them laugh, embarrassed”; and the
general, self-contained quality of such events, oblivious to the more serious
concerns of the wider world.12 As Marta Savigliano notes:
The ambience of the tango-thé as described by the Scottish traveller,
was indisputably decadent. For him, that meant: rotten rich, up to the
point of uniting racial, ethnic, and national enemies; highly sexualised
when considering proper heterosexual manners; sexually deviant, in
that women could show desire for one another; gender transgressive,
in that women played seduction openly just as they craved for the vote;
and unpoliticized, in that everyone ignored the most basic of world
Lesbianism at tango teas? Possibly. I offer two scraps of evidence to support
the idea. The caricaturist, Georges Gousat, better known as “Sem”, was
famous for savagely satirising French society. In 1913, he published
Tangoville sur Mer, a book of cartoons based on what he saw (or what he
imagined) while on a trip to the fashionable resort at Deauville. In among the
many other famous figures shown dancing tango were three same-sex
couples. Nijinsky dancing with the Jewish impresario Gabriel Artack – a
11 Cunnigham Graham, Robert, Buenos Aires 1938 (orig 1914) quoted in Savigliano
1995 p. 115
12 Savigliano, p. 115. The ‘accusation’ of unhealthy, cosmopolitian co-mingling, like
the thé dansant itself, was also levelled in London (Niva) and New York
sketch at once homophobic and casually anti-semitic13; the famously camp
music hall artist, Felix Mayol with his arms around the equally famous more
robust music hall star, Dramen; and finally, Madame d’Artex dancing with Lise
Radoline. I have found nothing out about this couple, save that they are
shown together in other cartoons by Sem.
The second piece of evidence is the less well-known tango scene from the
1921 Rudolph Valentino film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
purporting to show a Parisian thé dansant in 1913. It may or may not be
accurate, but in a few short minutes it depicts Cunnigham Graham’s
accusations, almost as if they were a check list including – be quick or you’ll
miss her – a butch, monocled lesbian taking tea with her simpering, feminine
Returning to the cover of the sheet music, the overall design is that of the
cover of the fashion magazine itself. It is not unreasonable to believe most of
the readers of Elegancias were women and that Morel’s artwork is inserted
into a position where those women readers might normally have expected to
see an image of the fashions of the day. Is this sheet music aimed at women?
Quite probably. Why else did the magazine sponsor Villoldo to use the fashion
magazine’s name excpt to appeal to women? The image is there to make the
sheet music more attractive and so more saleable. So why an image of two
fashionably dressed women dancing together, rather than one fashionably
dressed woman alone, or one dancing with a handsome man? I discount the
possibility that they sought to appeal to a lesbian market as being vanishingly
unlikely for mainstream publication, but I am always open to persuasion.
Looking at the image again, it is hard to tell if it is, or was intended to be erotic
at all. I sense not and that these women are first and foremost friends
practicing their tango technique. It is worth remembering that many of the
purchasers of sheet music bought it for the home. At home, there might not
be a man willing to dance – but there might be another woman who shared
your passion for fashion and for the tango. Secondly, if Lucile’s – and perhaps
13 Bellow, J., Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russe and the Parisian Avant-garde,
Ashgate, London, 2013, p. 66
other mannequin parades – included women dancing in fashionable tango tea
gowns, from Elegancias’ point of view, it would increase the association with
the purchasing of fashion, rather than just its more abstract enjoyment.
Finally, if these are indeed, friendly women dancing, the image might,
arguably, have been seen as less controversial that that of a woman in the
arms of a man. Thé dansants and tango lessons like the tango itself, had
attracted controversy. Women were paying to be in the arms of a man of their
choice, and the man, as we have seen, might be foreign, exotic, young,
attractive and not their husbands. The gendered vector of capitalist exchange
was, for once, reversed and it might have been the image of the man who
could be seen as “the prostitute – seller and sold in one”.
Do these images indicate some signify some limited form of increased
personal freedom?
Mica Nava, links the ballet russe, tango and the activities in London of the
American retailer, Gordon Selfridge, to argue that in the retail arena, a
popular, commercial cosmopolitanism emerged which critiqued “imperialism,
snobbery, traditional hierarchies and narrow nationalisms”. Much of it was
fashion aimed at women: “Three quarters of the store exists to meet the
needs of women” asserted Selfridge who famously supported women’s
suffrage and who, on 1st July 1913, held a tango ball in his Oxford Street store
for 5000 guests which lasted until 5.00 am, when breakfast was served.14
Nava tacitly agrees with the conclusions of fashion Historian, Beatrice
Humbert that “tango was the detonator of a new morality, that it promoted the
liberation of women and provided them with a venue to exhibit their sensuality
in public.”15
Caroline Evans suggests:
When the haute couture houses began to show their clothes on live
models, these figures were mirrored by the dummies of the department
store windows. The clothes they displayed were bought by middle- and
14 Nava, pp.32-33
15 Nava p. 34
upper-class women. As active consumers of luxury goods, these
women can be construed as subjects of the society of the spectacle;
yet, when they turned themselves into a vision by donning their
purchases they became, simultaneously, its object and image too.
Yet the fuller picture is less clear cut. Evans continues:
Contrary to her assertion, Lucile’s parades, like Poiret’s in Paris, were
intended for male as well as female viewers, the former “lured by the
prospect of inspecting flesh as well as fabric” (Kaplan and Stowell
1994: 119). Lucile’s coup was to commodify sensuality through her
gowns and their presentation.
Early 20th century Images of women dancing tango with each other:
contemporary context
At the outset, I asked: Can we in our own age use this historical ephemera to
both to get in touch with Urgeschichte or primal history and so ignite an
“awakening to myth”?16 In The Arcades Project Benjamin wrote of collectors:
The collector…makes his concern the transfiguration of things. To him
falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their commodity
character by taking possession of them. But he bestows on them only
connoisseur value, rather than use value. The collector dreams his way
not only into a distant or bygone world but also into a better one-one in
which, to be sure, human beings are no better provided with what they
need than in the everyday world, but in which things are freed from the
drudgery of being useful. [Benjamin, p. 9 emphasis added]
I would argue that The Queer Tango Image Archive successfully helps fulfil
this function. By drawing together hitherto scattered images relating to the
themes of queer tango – a concept alien to the pasts out of which they
emerged – we can not only apply contemporary connoisseurship and indeed,
scholarship to develop a sense of what each may have meant in the past but,
freed of their original commodity functions of satisfying the male gaze, or even
the female gaze, the imagery is made available to us to be used as
imaginative props for all manner of contemporary utopias. The Urgeschichte
is perhaps the shifting of tectonic plates over centuries with regard to the roles
16 Translators’ Foreword p.xii
of women and their sexuality in society. The dialectic, brought to a standstill,
the detailed interplay of the forces and ideas which effect of hinder the
change. These images already had digital currency before the Archive was
created and their myriad contemporary uses attest to their ability to be used
as signifiers of “tango history” or “authenticity” or “heirs to the erotic tradition”
and indeed “lesbian history” or even part of “the ‘history’ of queer tango”,
whatever that is. The Archive may hasten the furnishing of these utopias, and
these utopias may be instrumental in destroying some of the very habits of
thought, prejudices and assumptions which may have brought some of the
images into the world in the first place.
Benjamin, Walter. 2002. The Arcades Project. Rolf Tiedemann, (ed.) Howard
Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Translators). New York: Belknap Press.
Henárd, Robert. “Une Enquête sur le Tango.” In La Renaissance Politique,
Littéraire et Artistique. 3 January 1914. Reproduced in Une Histoire de
%20une%20enquete.htm accessed 09 October 2016.
The Queer Tango Image Archive. Accessed 29 May 2016.
Nava, Mica. 1998. “The Allure of Difference: Selfridges, the Russian Ballet
and the Tango.” In Visceral Cosmopolitanism: Gender, Culture and the
Normalisation of Difference. 19-40. Oxford and New York: Berg.
Russell, Catherine. “Dialectical Film Criticism: Walter Benjamin’s
Historiography, Cultural Critique and the Archive.” Transformations
Journal of Media & Culture – Benjamin and the Virtual. 15, (2007) accessed
July 15 2016
Saikin, Magali. 2004. Tango und Gender: Indentitäten und Geschelchterrollen
in Argentinischen Tango. Stuttgart: Abrazos Books.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.