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April 17, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Burlington Bertie and Tipping the Velvet

Keeley Hawes (l) and Rachael Stirling (r) as Kitty Butler and Nan King in the BBC's adaptation of 'Tipping the Velvet' (2002)

There’s a post on gender politics in neo-Victorian fiction coming soon, but the purpose of this one is simply an excuse to post pictures of a particular heroine of mine: Victorian burlesque performer, drag artist, and all-round star Vesta Tilley! There’s not a great deal of information out there on Vesta (1864-1952). She was a successful drag artist whose burlesque male impersonations made her rich and famous. Her autobiography, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, is expensively available through the usual second-hand booksellers, while Sarah Maitland’s 1986 biography is out of print, and has been for a long time (though there’s usually a second-hand copy or two knocking about).  But there are lots of fantastic photographs out there.

Even if you don’t know Vesta, chances are you’ll know of a character based on her. Sarah Waters’s first novel, Tipping the Velvet, playfully sets up the knowing winks and nudges of a ‘masher’ act as the burlesque front for a passionate lesbian relationship between Nan King and Kitty Butler. The novels of Sarah Waters are my main research area, but you don’t have to be a devoted scholar to recognise Vesta in Nan and Kitty, ‘mashers’ extraordinaire. Let’s look at some pictures to prove it!

The picture at the start of this post shows Keeley Hawes and Rachael Stirling dressed in the classic ‘masher’ attire of topper and tails. I wonder where they got that idea from?:

Vesta Tilley in 1906 (source unknown)

Sadly, we have no way of telling the colour of gloves, cravat or buttonhole from these monochromatic publicity shots, but it is Nan’s first sight of Kitty, dressed precisely as Vesta (in picture 2) with ‘lavender’ coloured gloves and a rose at her lapel, that causes Nan to call her ‘the most marvellous girl – I knew it at once! – that I had ever seen’ (p. 12: please see bottom of post for full details of Tipping the Velvet)

Though Tilley made her first drag performance aged 16, and was well-known in pantomime from around 1880, the act that Tilley is most remembered for is ‘Burlington Bertie – The Boy with the Hyde Park Drawl’:

Note the tinge of yellow, emphasising Bertie's decadent inclinations...

Bertie was a regular young ‘swell’, a cocky, flash young man with a bit of swagger and a penchant for the ladies. Once again, you hardly have to be a scholar to imagine what that must have been like for the audience, as the young man that they know to be a woman strides back and onstage, urging the audience to sing along with the lascivious verses and tip each other the knowing wink. It’s not at all surprising, then, that it’s exactly this sort of act that brings fame and fortune to Kitty and Nan. As Nan shrewdly observes, it is ‘the sight of a pair of girls in gentleman’s suits was somehow more charming, more thrilling, more indefinably saucy, than that of a single girl’ (pp. 125-6).

The pantomime is (as the brilliant Vested Interests by Marjorie Garber observes) the legitimised form of drag and the respectable face of the music hall, cleaned up and tied with a ribbon for Christmas. Take the kiddies to see the drag act! Whoop and cheer as the ‘Prince’ kisses Cinders!

This picture of Vesta as Dick Whittington gives some idea as to the costumes – ‘the most wonderful costumes you ever saw in your life, costumes of fur and satin and velvet’ (p. 147) – that Kitty and Nan wear when they play Prince and Dandini respectively at the Britannia.

I’m mindful of spoilers – if you don’t know Tipping the Velvet, you should remedy that immediately – but any reader of the novel will know the significance of a bright red soldier costume, of which Nan is particularly vain:

The shopfront, though not a tobacconists, is nonethless reminiscent of the shopfronts of the Burlington Arcade.

Of course, Vesta Tilley’s costumes, her lyrics and indeed, the music hall that made her a star are quintissentially Victorian (it is this, after all, that makes it such a rich resource for Neo-Victorian novels). But the knowing winks and nudges of her performances (and those of others like her) remain with us in the form of drag performance, the increasingly popular burlesque and in the form of the recently (and tragially) retired Dame Edna Everage. I can’t help but notice, however, that the woman-dressed-as-a-man has failed to retain her mainstream popularity. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a living, breathing, neo-Victorian Vesta Tilley.

NB: In a wonderful twist of neo-Victorian-Victorian-neo-Victorian influences, there’s an MP3 download available on Amazon called ‘Tipping the Velvet: A Collection of Historic Music Hall Recordings Inspired by the Novel by Sarah Waters’. The artists are various but the picture is Vesta.

Works Cited:

Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet (Virago, 1999)

Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (Routledge, 1997)

Photographs are gathered from a wide range of sources on my journeys through the neo-Victorian. I am only to happy to credit copyright where required. Please contact me in the comments.


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