History Fight! Who had the best royal wedding dress in history?

Who doesn’t love a wedding? Trick question! Everyone does. There’s cake, booze and tons of stuff to secretly judge (we all do, its fine!)…sadly though there are also dull great aunts, too long speeches and the fact that wearing heels for more than 3 hours is basically torture.

And THAT my friends is why a Royal Wedding, is the best kind of wedding.

You can not so secretly judge away at every little detail, free from guilt and without any form of shoe based pain! THE DREAM.

So in that judgemental spirit, we’ll be pitting iconic royal wedding dresses against each other to discover which royal bride had the best (and worst) dress in history!

For this we will be ranking each on the below categories (out of 10) 

  • Dress functionality (because everyone needs to be pee)
  • Poofyness (v important)
  • Sass factor (also v important)
  • Ability to look back at pictures without thinking you looked an absolute twat

 I’ll also be taking away 5 points if the dress is so expensive that you need to sell your organs/first born to afford it.

At the end we’ll see which historic wedding dress wins!

Right then! Lets get started!!!! 

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settle in, it’s gonna get messy!

For much of history, wedding dresses were only a thing for the rich. They were a chance to show of wealth and status; because, well..marriage was an exchange of goods between families and the dress was just a chance to show off how awesome those goods were (sad but true!)

So where as poorer brides would wear their nicest dress, rich brides would deck themselves in jewels, embroidery, beading and sumptuous fabrics in all colours of the rainbow.

That’s right, colours! Vivid reds and blues, yellows, even golds. This dress would serve as a girls best dress for a while, so why waste it on a colour that gets dirty crazy easily and is hard to wear again?

Well, logic like that doesn’t matter if you’re…

Mary Queen of Scots

In 1558 Mary Queen of Scots married Francis, Dauphin of France, in a no expenses spared ceremony in Paris.

The coming together of two countries was an auspicious occasion that demanded the best in lavish excess and Mary more than held up her end of things with her dress.

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Hooray for child weddings!

The train of Mary’s dress was over 10 ft long and so stuffed with jewels that it required two ladies maids to hold it aloft at all times!

Mary carried the theme of all the jewels into her accessories, rocking a golden cornet and necklace, both absolutely stuffed with gems.

Yet despite all its rocks Mary’s dress caused quite the scandal; you see Mary…..

WORE WHITE! 

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The scandalous bitch!

Now, in the 16th century white was a colour of mourning, not really the vibe you want for a wedding.

BUT white was Mary’s favourite colour! She thought it made her look amazing and emphasised her porcelain skin and auburn hair; so haters be damned, she was wearing god damn white if she wanted to.

Sadly it didn’t prove to be a great sartorial choice.

Two years after the wedding, Mary’s groom died, which caused the French court to claim that Mary’s white dress was to blame, as her poor fashion choices must have cursed their wedding and killed her hubby!

Rating:

Functionality: 3/10 (you need 2 ladies to carry the dress at all times, it doesn’t say much for how likely you are to be able to pee…)

Poofyness: 6/10

Sass Factor: 10/10

Ability to look back without thinking you looked an absolute twat: 0/10 (sorry, but if people think your dress killed your husband, its not great is it now?)

And I’ll be taking away 5 points for cost, as even for a Royal all those gems are leaving you out of pocket!

Overall: 14/40

Princess Charlotte

Princess Charlotte of Wales was a hugely popular royal; heir to the throne and  a bit of a fashionista – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that her 1816 wedding to Prince Leopold (later King of Belgium) was a big fucking deal!

On the morning of the wedding people lined the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of Charlotte. And when she finally emerged, she caused an immediate stir.

Princess Charlottes Wedding Dress
This is most likely only 1 part of Charlottes dress…but still, so pretty!

Charlottes dress was made of a woven silver thread with intricate embroidered flowers on the hem.

Under the dress was a tissue slip made of the same silver thread and on top was a sheer silk netting. Charlotte’s mantua was an estimated 7.4 feet and she was also dripping in diamonds.  It’s even said that Charlotte had diamonds in her hair.

I repeat. Diamonds. In. Her. Hair.

The whole thing cost an estimated £10,000. Or in a todays money, a cool 800k.

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I’m sorry now…how much?

Rating:

Functionality: 5/10 (The fact that she didn’t need help to move is a plus, but that 7 foot mantua must have made going through doors a bloody nightmare!)

Poofyness: 7/10

Sass Factor: 8/10

Ability to look back without thinking you looked an absolute twat: 7/10

I’ll be taking away 5 points for cost, as a wedding dress shouldn’t cost the same as a Donald Trump golfing holiday.   

Overall rating: 22/40

 

Queen Victoria

Victoria wanted a lot from her dress. You see, big priority for her was making sure that her dress reflected British industries, which would grow British trade (admittedly a bit of a big ask for a dress!)

More than that though, Victoria wanted her dress to make it clear her new husband was not becoming her subject. See, Victoria was really traditional and in marrying Albert she wanted to become his wife, not his Queen.

So Vic dumped the red ceremonial robes and instead plumped for something demure, simple and British made. Queen Victoria Wedding DressKeen to promote the hand made British lace industry (which was taking a bit of a battering thanks to the industrial revolution!) Vic decided to cover her dress in delicate lace.

And to make the lace really stand out, Vic went rogue.

She wore an all white dress.

Victoria was actually the first British royal to ever wear an all white dress. And it wasn’t to symbolise purity (she wore Orange Blossom to symbolise that!) the white, was just to pimp out British lace.

BUT the trend stuck. Soon brides all over the country were copying the Queen and wearing a white dress for their weddings.

Rating:

Functionality: 10/10     

Poofyness: 4/10

Sass Factor: 5/10  

Ability to look back without thinking you looked an absolute twat: 10/10 (when you start a 100+ year old wedding trend, you kinda nailed kt…)  

As Victoria’s dress was used to promote British industry, I’ll be taking away no points!

Overall rating: 29/40

 

Wallis Simpson

When Wallis Simpson was picking out her wedding dress for her 1937 marriage to The Duke of Windsor (formally King Edward Vlll) she was walking a very precarious tightrope of public opinion.

Everyone was still pretty pissed off that the King had abdicated to be with her, plus Wallis was a two time divorcee, which people weren’t fans of.

Both gossip magazines and the public thought it would be deeply inappropriate for her to wear white, as she’d been married before! Colour wasn’t the only issue facing Wallis.

She wouldn’t be getting a huge royal wedding (In the same way Edward now wouldn’t be getting his huge royal coronation…) so if she stepped out in full princess poof…well…it wouldn’t go well.

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Basics this. But with more pitchforks 

Luckily Wallis wasn’t the fro fro princess type. After all this was the lady who famously said:

 ‘you can never be too rich or too thin’

*not great advice, btw  
Wallis Simpson Wedding Dress

Wallis opted for a simple understated dress in a bespoke pale blue (dubbed ‘Wallis Blue’ as it matched her eyes)

She followed royal protocol, covering her cleavage and arms, but bar that it was nipped in, slinky and all in all, a big two fingers up to the monarchy.

Instead of a veil Wallis wore a hat with a tulle ‘halo’.

Sources from the time suggested the ‘halo’ was to help people warm to her and see her in a less demonised way; wearing a literal halo seems a bit on the nose, but it’s your wedding day, you do you boo.

Rating:

Functionality: 10/10

Poofyness: 0/10

Sass Factor: 7/10  

Ability to look back without thinking you looked an absolute twat: 7/10   

 Overall rating: 24/40

  

Diana, Princess of Wales

Truly the Kardashians of wedding dresses. You can’t get away from it. It’s everywhere. It’s even got it’s own Wikipedia page!!!!

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Designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, Diana’s dress was huge. Both in scale of the global media attention it received (and continues to get!) and in the form of the actual dress.

The train came in at 25 feet. It had thousands of pearls and and sequins sewn throughout its many many layers. Estimates for the dress cost vary, but the latest one (from the designer) is just under £4,500 (at the current exchange rate) which seems a bit of a steal!

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SO. MUCH. POOF!

Within hours of Diana appearing in the dress, brides were calling up for copies and soon a decade long love of meringue dresses was born. 

Rating:

Functionality: 3/10  *cough* 25ft train

Poofyness: 10/10

Sass Factor: 5/10

Ability to look back without thinking you looked an absolute twat: 3/10 (I’m sorry!)    

Overall rating: 21/40

  

So the results are in!

I can reveal that official (ish) best wedding dress in history is: 

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress from her 1840 wedding to Prince Albert!

hooray!
Yay! Look how happy with her win!!

 What do you think? Is this the right pick?

Which dress would you wear? Let me know!

Anna/Anastasia: Russia’s fake Princess

Lost Russian Princess or History’s greatest imposter? The mystery of Anastasia Romanov has fascinated for decades.

Did she die at 17 or live to the ripe old age of 87? Could a suicidal asylum inmate called Anna Anderson, really be a Russian Princess and if so, how did she survive against all odds?

It’s a story with twists and turns for days – and it all starts in a basement in a far flung corner of Russia…

Romanov Family, Russias last royal family. All were murdered in 1918
Colourised image of Russia’s last Royal family, The Romanovs                     (warning the next three paragraphs are pretty bleak…) 

On July 17th 1918, the Russia’s royal family were led to a basement. There they were photographed, lined against a wall and told they were to be executed.

Within seconds soldiers descended. The Father, Tsar Nicholas ll was shot point blank in head. His children, Tatiana, Olga, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei were not so lucky. They were shot, stabbed, beaten and bayoneted, until the soldiers were sure the job was done.

All it took was a few blood soaked minutes and the Romanov dynasty was snuffed out; centuries of royal rule and tradition…gone…just like that.

Or was it?

Anastasia Romanov, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas ll, take one of the worlds first slefies

Anastasia Romanov was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas ll of Russia and she really owned the role of little sister.

Anastasia was the Romanov wildcard. She spent her days getting into scrapes, getting out of those she scrapes and (as shown in the above pic) becoming one of the first adopters of the selfie (see I told you she was the ultimate little sister!)

When the news of the Romanov family murders started to spread, people were desperate for a ray of hope. That somehow someone had gotten out. So you can see why all these hopes were pinned to the Romanov most full of life – Anastasia.

For years the newspapers were full of rumors that secretly Anastasia was alive and inevitably this led to a parade of faux Anastasias, all desperate for 15 minutes of fame and all almost immediately shown to be frauds.

But much like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, everyone has to grow out of the fantasy. As time moved on, the cold hard truth became more inevitable. And so, two years after the Romanovs deaths, Anastasia still hadn’t turned up and hope that she ever would started to vanish.

But then… a young woman jumped off a bridge in Berlin and everything changed. 

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I told you! Twists and turn for days!!!

The woman was taken to a German asylum. With no ID and the woman refusing to say who say was, she became known as:

Madame Unknown

As well as sounding like Marvels next villain, Madame Unknown wasn’t your average German asylum patient, for one thing, she spoke with a Russian accent. She also held herself with an unusual poise and had hastily stitched up wounds.

In the mind of one patient, Clara Peuthert, this could only mean one thing:

Madame Unknown was a Russian Princess!

Clara was so sure of this, that she told everyone she could, all about her friend from the asylum who was totally a Princess!

…and everyone believed her.

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Yeah, don’t look for the logic in this, There is none.  

Soon former Russian big wigs and Romanov servants were descending upon the  asylum to check out this potential Princess.

But Madame Unknown refused to speak to any of them.

Then a former Romanov lady in waiting visited. She took one look at Madame Unknown and declared her too ‘short to be Tatiana’. Madame Unknown stared at the woman and said:

‘I never said I was Tatiana’ 

the drama of it all

Madame Unknown was in fact Anastasia Romanov…well at least that’s what she said. She also explained that she didn’t go by Anastasia anymore, but rather Anna Tchaikovsky.

Names aside, Anna/Anastasia had a lot of questions to answer! First up was:

How the living fuckity are you alive?

Anna said that the bayonets used by soldiers to kill the Romanovs had in fact been blunt and thus had failed to kill her because she was wearing a corset padded with jewels.

Anna fell to the floor and played dead. When it was over, a kindly soldier –named Alexander Tchaikovsky – carried her to safety.

Alexander nursed her to health and the two had a child together, with Anna taking on his last name. However, Alexander died and her child was taken away. That’s why Anna came to Berlin…to kill herself!

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Yup, that all seems fully legit and sound

Aside from this (lets be real – batshit) story, Anna bore a resemblance to Anastasia and could pick out and name Romanov family members when shown photographs.

Anna also spoke in a Russian accent BUT she didn’t actually know a word of Russian.

You might argue that this could be considered a bit of an issue for someone claiming to be a Russian princess, who was born and raised in Russia and spoke Russian…yet Anna’s supporters were having none of this, they were adamant that Anna’s lack of ability to speak Russian was down to amnesia caused by her trauma!

But don’t worry, not everyone believed the amnesia line! In fact the majority Russia’s surviving aristocracy didn’t buy into what Anna was selling. And they had good reason not to.

In 1927 a Berlin newspaper published a report that suggested Anna was in fact a missing polish factory worker called Franziska Schanzkowska.

Franziska Schanzkowska and Madame Unknown had an uncanny resemblance and Franziska’s brother swore in court that Anna was in fact Franziska.

Not only this, but after being caught up in a factory explosion, Franziska had been declared insane. Shortly after this diagnosis, Franziska went missing and within weeks Madame Unknown was dragged out of a Berlin canal.

Anna Anderson, wiki
Franziska Schanzkowska/Anna Tchaikovsky/Anastasia Romanov/Madame Unknown/

But despite all of this – some people still believed that Anna was who she said she was.

They believed this for decades! They believed it so much that they took Anna into their homes, where she was nothing short of a nightmare to live with (you know…because she was really ill and getting no help)

They even funded a 30 year long series of court cases, in an attempt to help Anna get the Romanov fortune. Which ultimately proved fruitless.

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Anna/Anastasia in the 1950s

In 1984, Anna (now called Anna Anderson) died in America; 60 years on from being found in the asylum, she still claimed to be Anastasia Romanov.

Then in 1991, the graves of the Romanov family were found (missing two skeletons).

Finally, DNA testing proved that Anna had not been a Romanov

In fact, Anna had probably been a missing polish factory worker called Franziska Schanzkowska.

The mystery finally ended in 2007. When the remaining two bodies of the Romanov family were discovered. One was Alexei and the other was Anastasia.

You’d think this was the end of the Anna/Anastasia Saga…

Nope! 

Still. STILL. People say that Anna Anderson is in fact Anastasia Romanov.

These aren’t only people in one dark corner of Reddit. In 2014 a historian, Veniamin Alekseyev, released a book claiming that Anna Anderson was Anastasia. Because apparently, almost 100 years on, we just cant let this one go. Anastastia Romanov

This was really interesting, where can I find out more? You should totally check out Helen Rappaports book, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (admittedly not a catchy title, but an amazing book)

It gives a great insight not just into the life of Anastasia, but also her three sisters, Tatiana, Olga and Maria.

Mata Hari: Super spy or innocent femme fatale?

Mata Hari’s life has blockbuster written all over it-honestly it’s Oscar bait at its finest:

A small town girl finds international fame as an exotic dancer at the turn of the 20th century. She takes lovers from across Europe and is privy to secrets of global superpowers.

But her glittering world comes crashing down when she is discovered to be a German spy. She is captured, imprisoned and takes her final bow in front of a firing squad in a small corner of France.

It’s Hollywood gold dust! A blockbuster bio pic in the making (seriously someone give Baz Luhrman a call) but is it actually true?

Eeeeer kinda but no….

Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876. Mata was born and raised in the Netherlands. Her Dad made some incredibly canny investments which allowed Mata and her siblings a very comfortable and happy childhood. Everything was great!

…and then her Dad lost all his money and a year later Mata’s Mum died.

oh-no
via giphy

Things were already pretty shit, when Mata’s Dad decided to reveal himself as the literal worst.

As soon as the funeral was over, he shrugged off his old family and started a new one. Sending Mata far away to live with a Godfather she barely knew. At just 15, Mata was on her own.

But she was hardy, she picked herself up and decided to pick up a profession – training to be a teacher.

Unfortunately when it rains it pours and the headteacher of her school had a thing for teenage Mata and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

The ‘affair’ was quickly discovered. The headmaster kept his job (naturally) and a shamed Mata was sent packing. Returning to her severely pissed off Godfather.

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Yeah, don’t look for the logic in this via giphy

Ok so the job hadn’t panned out, but work wasn’t the only thing that could get a girl money and the hell out of dodge. So Mata turned to the Lonely Hearts pages.

Aged 18 Mata married Rudolph “John” MacLeod, a twice her age, almost constantly drunk officer in the East Indies Army. I think you’ve probably guessed after that description- but- Rudolph was a notorious dick.

Mata Hari marriage
Great moustache. Still a dick.

Rudolph was jealous (despite constantly sleeping with anything that moved) and an all around abusive drunk who regularly beat his wife.

Despite the numerous marital issues, the couple had two children, Norman and Non and the whole family moved to Indonesia where Rudolph was now based.

As with everything until this point…tragedy soon struck.

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Seriously, it’s going to be a never ending stream of shit via giphy

In 1899 Mata awoke to the sound of screams. Immediately she ran to check on her children, only to find both Norman and Non convulsing in intense pain, a doctor was called but it was to late for Mata’s eldest. Two year old Norman died in front of her.

The cause of Norman’s death was shrouded in mystery. Locals theorised that the boy had been poisoned either by a soldier that Rudolph had ruthlessly beaten or by the child’s own Nanny (who Rudolph endlessly harassed). A more modern theory is that the children were being treated for syphilis (caught thanks to dear daddy Rudolph) and were accidentally given an overdose of medication.

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It always comes back to Rudolph!

The couple were barely hanging on by a thread and just couldn’t continue after Norman’s death.

Rudolph drank even more and blamed his wife for their sons death. Mata descended into a deep depression, struggling just to get through each day. Yet somehow, she clawed her way back to life and found the strength to finally leave her husband.

woohoo!!
Don’t get too excited, it’s all about to go to shit again! via giphy

But Rudolph wasn’t done being a monumental ass hat just yet! Mata had custody of Non, but (of course) Rudolph wasn’t paying his half in full. This was pretty shitty behaviour, escalated dramatically when Rudolph never returned Non after a scheduled visit.

Mata didn’t have the connections or funds (after all she’d essentially been a single mum) to fight for her daughter.

Worse, when she confronted Rudolph, he came at her with a bread knife; Mata narrowly escaped the encounter with her life.

It was one knock too many and Mata lost her will to fight. So she gave up. Hoping that Rudolph would do right by their daughter, Mata did what felt like the only option left to her – she ran away.

‘I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris’

Surrounded by the glittering lights of Paris Mata worked to reinvent herself. She joined the circus, entertaining the masses as a horse rider.

With the circus not paying much, Mata needed to earn extra to support herself, so made up the rest by posing as an artists model and dancing on the side.

And it was this dancing that would be her making.

When told audiences that when she’d lived in Indonesia she had trained with local dancers.And it was these ‘exotic’ moves she bought to Paris.

Mata Hari dance
Presenting Mata Hari

Mata Hari was born and Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was all but dead.

Mata was a Princess of noble Indian birth, raised in Indonesia and trained from childhood in the ancient art of dance. Her near naked dances weren’t for titalation – they were sacred religious acts.

Now this is obviously entirely horse shit concucted by Magaretha…but damn it sold tickets!!

Soon Mata was an independently wealthy woman, a huge achievement in this period.

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via giphy

With money came men. Dazzled by Mata’s beauty and mystery, Europes most powerful men flocked to her side. With the ability to speak multiple languages, as well as a fast wit and ambitious streak – Mata had her pick.

She chose military men. Girl apparently had a type. Mata Hari stand

As WW1 dawned Mata was reaching her late thirties. With younger imitators snapping at her heels, she slowed down on the dancing and instead supported herself as a courtesan, sleeping with some of Europes military mights.

She hopped from country to country, living a lavish strings free life. But when wartime hit this had to change.

Well….it should have changed.

Mata continued flitting from country to country (thanks to her neutral Netherlands passport) she slept with high ups from across Europe, no matter what side they fell on.

Now I think we can all agree: this was not a smart plan.

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via giphy

Ok now here’s the thing: this next part is a bit of a cluster fuck. See some historians think Mata was a spy, some don’t and some think she was passing on information on the odd occasion but wasn’t a spy.

See what I mean…cluster fuck. So let’s just focus on the concrete facts here!

We know that Mata had access to all kinds of information from pretty much every major player in WW1 (because she was in the bed of pretty much every military higher up)

In 1916 Mata was detained during a jaunt to London and taken to Scotland Yard for questioning. The British had been tipped off by French Authorities that Mata was a German spy, an accusation she refuted under interrogation.

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Extract from Mata Hari’s interrogation (released in 2016 you can find the whole thing in the National Archives)

But Britain and France weren’t convinced and at such a delicate time in global politics, these weren’t exactly people you wanted gunning for you.

Though not concrete, there was anecdotal evidence to support the spy theory.

In 1914 the Germans supposedly offered Mata money in return for secrets of those she bedded and the French had put forward a similar offer.

So was Mata a spy? A double agent? Just trying to see what she could get?

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Who knows at this point there are so many different theories and strings to keep track of!        

So with the spy theory still hanging over her, Mata was released from Scotland Yard.

Free? Sadly no.

The heat was too much and Europes political powerhouses from all sides were keen to get their hands clean of the embarrassing tangled web that had become Mata Hari.

The French intercepted a (almost definitely purposefully leaked) German message detailing the actions of spy H21. The French figured this spy was Mara Hari and so on February 13th 1917 French officers marched into her Paris hotel room and arrested her.

‘I am innocent….someone is fooling me’

Mata Hari’s trial was, at best, a joke. At worst a formal slut shaming exercise.

Mata admitted to taking German funds to spy, but argued that she hadn’t actually carried out these acts. She just took the money.

The French weren’t having this and claimed that her actions directly resulted in the deaths of up to 50,000 men.

I think it’s worth noting here that at this point the war was not going well for the French. They were suffering massive losses and their men were turning against them.

The French needed a fall guy. So they created the ultimate villainess.  Mata Hari seating

Not only was Mara Hari on trial for spying but her lifestyle was on trial. Her accusers claimed she regularly bathed in milk at a time when there wasn’t enough for French children to drink. Her bed hopping and sensual dancing proved her lack of morals, which itself was proof she would be happy to spy.

There was never going to be a good outcome of this for Mata. And there wasn’t, she was sentenced to death.

Mata Hari arrest.jpg
Picture of Mata Hari whilst incarcerated

On October 15th 1917 Mata Hari woke at dawn in a small corner of France. She wrote two letters; one to her daughter Non. Then she dressed and was led outside to where a firing squad were waiting.

Mata refused a blindfold and stood unbound, staring directly at her executioners. Shots were fired and she fell. Her final curtain call.Mata Hari side

Mata Hari’s story is one that shows just how easily manipulated history can be.

Once held up as an example of loose morals and villainy, documents released to time in with the WW1 centennial show a very different story. One that is still being pieced together.

Personally I don’t think she was a spy. I do think she was privy to a silly amount of information from all sides and I think she occasionally leaked this information to whatever side she was with at the time.

But this isn’t Hollywood. Mata Hari wasn’t a master spy. She was just a person, who had flaws and made some really shitty choices that she paid the ultimate price for.

This was interesting, where can I find out more? Check out Pam Shipman’s book, Femme Fatale which gives even more background on Mata’s early life.

How the Harlem Renaissance woke America

The Harlem Renaissance was a game changer. as a much a cultural awakening for the African American community as for the United States as a whole.

Thrusting black voices into pop culture, creating a new crop of black artists and cultural icons and most importantly; fostering a pride that hadn’t been allowed to exist before.

Negro American Magazine
A 1928 copy of Negro American Magazine, fearing civil rights campaigner, Erma Seweatt

The first generation of people born free had a fight on their hands. Removed from the shackles of slavery, they were still oppressed and persecuted in their own country.

So, it shouldn’t come as a huge shock that throughout the 1920s and 30s many chose to leave the Southern states and instead head for Northern cities like Chicago and New York, where things were a whole lot more progressive.

Faced with these new bright lights, they didn’t back down. Forming communities and using art, literature, theatre and music to express themselves, their history and their future.

Strange Fruit

One of the most acclaimed artists to come from the Harlem Renaissance is the one and only Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday .jpg

Billie came up during the renaissance and it was here she grew her voice. Famed for touching upon subjects other singers shied away from; perhaps her most iconic song is Strange Fruit.

Recorded in the late 1930s, Strange Fruit deals with lynching. Blunt and unflinching it soon became a protest song.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze

Though Billie feared repercussions for performing the song, she felt compelled to continue singing. After all it was the the truth, not just for her, but for everyone in America.

Strange Fruit became a stalwart Billie Holiday number for her – yet her record company refused to print it.  Strange Fruit .gif

Remember this was the 1930s. The civil rights movement was just a seed. Such public protests were unheard of and tended to end with, well, lynching. But Strange Fruit couldn’t be contained, eventually being released as a single by Comodor.

Strange Fruit remains a protest strong and a vital reminder of this dark time in Americas history. But it’s still banned by some.

When English singer, Rebecca Fergerson, was asked to perform at Donald Trumps inauguration, she agreed…if she could sing Strange Fruit. You can guess what Trump said.

wanker
He said no (because he is a wanker)

Shuffle Along

In an era when ‘one black per bill’ was the theatrical norm, musical Shuffle Along high kicked in and smashed every existing idea of what African Americans could contribute to theatre to shittery and back.

Shuffle Along Chorus
The chorus of Shuffle Along taking a break from ass kicking

Now I know musical theatre doesn’t seem like the tool with which groundbreaking cultural change occurs

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Much rainbow, such social change

But forget what you think you know. Shuffle Along contains absolutely no technicolor dreamcoats, no needy scarred blokes living below opera houses and no jazz hands (ok fine-maybe some jazz hands)

Produced and written by an all black team and starring a black cast, Shuffle Along shook shit up when it made its debut on the early 1920s, with many of the cast enjoying their Broadway debut (including the incredible Josephine Baker!)

The musical revolved around a mayoral election (of course!) but the politics wasn’t confined to the stage. Shuffle Along 2.jpg

Shuffle Along took off, engaging with theatre goers from all backgrounds. It proved to Theatre bigwigs that even with a cast and creative team who comprised of waaay more than ‘one black’-the public didn’t care; they wanted to pay to see the show. In fact they wanted to see more shows led by African American casts and creatives!

Bigger than that (and it’s a pretty big biggy) the huge popularity of Shuffle Along led to the 1920s desegregation of theatres. For the first time, black theatre goers didn’t have to watch from way up in the gods; at Shuffle Along they could sit up at the front.

woohoo!!
See, isn’t musical theatre great!

The Cotton club

For all the groundbreaking being done uptown, racism still existed in Harlem as it did across America. One such hot bed was popular night club, The Cotton Club.

Cotton Club Dancers.jpg
Ok it looks fun…but trust me its not!

As it’s name suggests, the cotton club wasn’t a haven for any form of equality, with the clubs owner, gangster Owen ‘the killer’ Madden wanting his club to ooze ‘stylish plantation’ and insisting on only playing ‘jungle music’ for his all white patrons.

Owen Madden.jpg
Surprising that someone with the middle name ‘killer’ is also a cock

But there was light! For all the Cotton Clubs racism, it’s all African American workforce was tenacious and somehow managed to turn the clubs stage into one of modern jazz’s early breeding grounds.

Acclaimed musical pioneer, Duke Ellington, served as the Cotton Clubs band leader during the late twenties. There He formed one of history’s greatest jazz orchestras and soon their music took over Americas radio stations.

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Duke Ellington

After Duke left for far greener (and less racist) pastures, a new bandleader was appointed-the equally groundbreaking, Cab Calloway. Cab brought drama and flair to the clubs music, in addition to call and repeat scatting that can be seen in still iconic tracks like Minnie the Moocher.

Cab Calloway.gif
Now those…those are moves.

Yet despite the acclaimed music on stage, the Cotton Club remained determinedly segregated. So it’s perhaps no bad thing that it was forced to close during the Harlem race riots of 1935.

The seeds of civil rights

1935s Harlem race riot effectively ended the renaissance. Much like the Cotton Club, Harlem was a hive of contradictions. Whilst it’s art celebrated the community and was applauded at the highest levels, many of Harlem’s occupants were essentially living in slums.

Things were uneasy. And After rumours ran rife that a young Puerto Rican teen had been beaten to death for shoplifting, the riot was sparked.

Harlem Race Riot 1935.jpg
Police arrest a man during the 1935 riot

The renaissance art left its impact though. It lay a groundwork of pride and built a clear community voice that would be developed when the civil rights movement started to emerge following WW2.

The music, theatre and talent of this era would become forever synonymous of black culture. Whilst WW2 waged on and civil rights waited, the renaissance artists work served as a lingering reminder of everything that could be and one day would be achieved

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