The Crown Jewel of My Vintage Costume Collection – by Danielle Colby
The historian and vintage lover is blessed with a driving curiosity yet cursed with a propensity for obsession.
For example, have you ever walked into a thrift store or vintage boutique looking for some mundane household trinket, like dishes or picture frames? Only to have the wind knocked out of you at the sight of that one item? You know the one… that one antique you would obsessively read about as a kid but never dare try to own in a million years, because these precious items only exist in museums or private collections.
But there it is, you know exactly what ‘It’ is because you have obsessively studied over its details and nuances since you first heard its story. A history, so unreal, so powerful that it has burned itself into your brain. An impression so intense that your eyes well up with tears upon recalling your fascination with it, and there it is, right within your reach…
This is a story of my childhood fascination with a costume.
Not just any costume! This costume thought precious for its opulence and simplicity. A costume that likely stood in the presence of famed poet, Oscar Wilde and a multitude of artists dignitaries and Royals. A costume fit for a queen, a stage queen called “Cleopatra” or the “Jersey Lillie” or “Lady de Bathe”. This is the unlikely story of how I stumbled upon the costume of the one and only, Lillie Langtry!
Lillie Langtry was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, on the Channel isle of Jersey in October 13, 1952. This famous actress, dancer and courtesan was known for her extreme beauty and esthetic simplicity. While other dancers and actresses would compete with each other, dripping in jewels and fine costumes, Lillie Langtry was known for arriving at social events to win the favor of every man in the room wearing a simple black dress and toned down hairstyle. She was thought to be one of the most successful professional beauties of her day. After multiple marriages, suitors, lovers and international adventures, Lillie passed away in Monte Carlo in 1929.
For some time now I have been collecting fabulous vintage stage, burlesque, sideshow, circus and dance costumes. I started off with little thrift store treasures like early undocumented costumes, in hopes of unraveling their stories in time. Slowly, I was able to compile information to form intriguing stories around these costumes – I love thrift stores for this reason!
I could be broke as a joke and still find something exciting if I scoured every thrift store in town on Tuesday mornings. Especially since not many people in my hometown of the Quad Cities Illinois/Iowa knew or cared about early burlesque and striptease artists.
Being the very first modern day performer to attempt burlesque in my hometown played in my favor for this reason.
Nobody else there, knew or cared about vintage striptease at that time.
Having formed the first modern burlesque troup in that area meant that the fascination would grow. Now The quad cities is teeming with beautiful, bubbly, Burlesque performers and I’m sure, they now scour the area for these vintage costumes.
Eventually my obsession and my budget grew together and allowed me to both locate and afford costumes with some sort of provenance.
As any vintage lover knows, there are varying degrees of provenance. There are hopeful whispers, such as “I heard this belonged to so and so, but don’t quote me”.
There are drop off gems that are difficult, sometimes impossible to track down the history of, as sellers often explain “this performers son brought this costume in. I can’t get ahold of them but here are some details of their story if you want to play history detective” (one of my favorite games!)
Then there’s the holy grail of provenance, when a dealer says to you “this belonged to so and so, I have proof, here are photos, newspaper clippings and the phone number of the living relatives”.
Sometimes you have more intimate historical documentation, a signature or something of that nature. Normally you stand tall on those finds, paying up for that level of provenance.
Rich history, documentation and an historical engraved plaque all came with this extremely rare find I speak of today. Now, I did not find this costume in a thrift store or a vintage boutique. It’s a little more complicated than that. I have been working with a fabulous vintage dealer from Europe for a little while now, Bridget from www.bridgetscabinet.com. She has brought me some of the most amazing costumes I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’m so thankful to Bridget for bringing these costumes to my attention. It’s incredible to find vintage dealers that know your style so well that you want to purchase every single thing they email you pictures of.
Don’t get me wrong, I still tear up those thrift stores on Tuesday mornings whenever I get the chance, but the morning I got this email was a life changer.
I woke early in the morning, as usual. I’m not much of a sleeper.
It was lovely outside so I enjoyed a hot cup of peppermint tea and sat out on my patio to check my email.
I always get excited when I see emails from Bridget because I know there will be something beautiful inside. I also tend to get a little bit anxious as well because there are too many beautiful things for me to afford.
On this day however, when I opened that email and saw the costume that belonged to the world famous dancer, courtesan and actress, Lillie Langtry, my throat tightened and my lips trembled as tears welled up in my eyes. I was struck with wonder at how this costume was not already in a museum. I knew then, I needed it! Like a junkie needs a fix, like a mean old Rummy needs a drink, like a fish needs water. It wasn’t the most financially responsible decision I’ve ever made in my life, however it is one of the most exciting – and that is worth something. I pulled the trigger immediately, I told Bridget ‘Yes! I’ll take it!’
I waited for what seemed to be a lifetime for this costume to arrive from Europe. Anybody in the antique business knows European customs is purgatory for snail main. My packages can stay in customs sometimes for a month or more.
The day it finally came, tears rolled down my face as I tried it on with hands trembling. You heard that right, I immediately tried it on, and yes I washed the dishes in it because, because, well… because I needed to (don’t look at me with eyes of judgment and don’t make me explain myself).
As I tried it on I realized it fit me to a T!
I couldn’t believe it, not only did I find this costume with concrete provenance but it actually fit my body! This was a surreal experience. I felt like a queen, I felt invincible!
I figured, if this is one of the original costumes Lillie wore in the Cleopatra production in 1890, there must be a photograph of her in it somewhere.
I remembered seeing this costume or one remarkably similar to it in a few old photographs. One of these photographs hung on my wall when I was just a teenager. I had no idea who the model was, I just loved costumes!
Fully determined to find this photo, I scoured the internet and every book I own on burlesque, Belle Epoch, early French theatre and costumes from that era.
Interestingly, I found Lillie wearing costumes quite similar to this one but not this exact piece. However, I did not fret, as many theaters and Burlesque houses had multiple costumes made for these performers in case one should break or get lost. Usually no two costumes were exactly alike (unless used for group routines) since that would be a waste of money.
The costumes tended to vary slightly but give the same desired esthetic impact.
Not only that but it was common for the theaters to keep the costumes to be able to reuse them in future productions. Actually, many performers could have worn this costume after the “Jersey Rose” had left the theatre. What I found really intriguing is that the only photograph I found that looks like it could be this costume was of the queen of the later “Belle Epoch”, the original Mata Hari!
Born August 7, 1876 Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod, world famous by her stage name Mata Hari, was an exotic dancer of Dutch descent and courtesan who was thought to be a spy for German forces during World War I and was brutally executed by firing squad in October 15, 1917, in Vincennes France.
Mata Hari inspired a slew of imitators by 1910 who banked on her name and stole her image as she had notoriously stolen from dancers in the indies, claiming to be a Javanese Princess, of royal descent among other claims of “exotic” heritage. All of these claims untrue. Obviously, there was no Internet at the time so nobody was the wiser.
I cannot say for certain that the Mata Hari wore this costume, but I do know for certain that It did originally belong to stage queen “Cleopatra”, Miss Lillie Langtry. And I do know for certain that theaters held onto these costumes for as long as possible to get as much use out of them as they could. Meaning dozens of famous performers or even unknown performers could have worn this costume after Miss Langtry left the building.
I have enclosed for you some photographs of this costume in multiple different variations; including Lillie in a similar bejeweled contraption and the original photographs of Mata Hari in a costume remarkably like this. Also, the photographs that we took during a video film shoot to document my vintage costume collection.
Could this costume have actually been worn by two of the most famous dancers and courtesans in history, or did they simply have remarkably similar style?
To read more on Mata Hari and Lillie Langtry I recommend these books and articles.