“I learned to dress from the skin out”: An excerpt from Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s American Vaudeville

At the heart of American Vaudeville is one strange, unsettling fact: for nearly fifty years, from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, vaudeville was everywhere—then, suddenly, it was nowhere. This book tells the story of what was once the most popular form of entertainment in the country using lists, creation myths, thumbnail biographies, dreams, and obituaries. A lyric history—part social history, part song—American Vaudeville sits at the nexus between poetry, experimental nonfiction, and, because it includes historic images, art books.

In this excerpt from Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s new book (available and shipping now when ordered from our website), the author conjures Julian Eltinge, who achieved fame as a female impersonator in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Hilsabeck will read from American Vaudeville at White Whale Bookstore on June 16.

The door to Julian Eltinge’s dressing room is painted black. When knocked, it rattles in its frame. He stands in front of a mirror, whitening his face and neck with powder. He’s taken off his clothes (a brown suit hovers against the wall, a pair of brown loafers snug below), his bathrobe hangs loosely off his waist, and he’s dipping a sponge into a cigar box full of white powder and touching it to his skin. He works with the semiconsciousness of an expert. At each touch of the sponge, his body becomes softer, rounder. Curves emerge.

. . . next day decided that I would wear skirts at the entertainment to be given in Reading. Mrs. Wyman became interested, and I worked hard three hours a day for weeks at a time. I learned to dress from the skin out.

All the time he talks, he works away. By now the first layer of powder has stiffened and a second has been loosely applied. He rubs cold cream into his cheeks and forehead, over his nose with two smooth strokes, over his ears and behind them under the little cap covering his hair and then down to his neck, grabs a rag from the dressing table and wipes off some excess cream and then puts more powder on his face with the sponge and on top of that a layer of rouge. “It depends on where you put the paint, not how much you splash on,” he says, not looking at me, focused entirely on the transformation at hand. He rubs blue-black grease paint around his eyes and works it into the rouge and powder, adding contrast to his face, blackens his eyebrows, reddens his lips. Like a painter he dips a sharp little stick into a metal cup, which has been heated over a candle, and transfers beads of a black, sticky mixture to his eyelashes, a little black bead on each trembling lash.

I have made a study of it, the dress, the mannerisms, all the little details that are lost sight of by those who see the performances, but all of which go to make it complete. Only the strictest attention to detail could accomplish these results, and since I made my first appearance with the Cadets in “Miladi and the Musketeer” I have steadily tried to improve my impersonations.

Now he’s screwing his face into knots, pulling it first to one side and then the other, working it like putty, angling his jaw up and down, and, as he does that, drawing faint, nearly invisible lines, which, together, will help him transform into a widow, a bride, a king’s daughter. From there, he turns to his hands. First he shaves his fingers, then he rubs cream and powder into the palms and the backs of the hands and down each finger, thinning them, stretching them out, sanding off the roughness around the knuckles.

The average impersonator does not pay much attention to his hands, but I spend almost as much time making up my hands as I do on my face. A woman’s hands are very different from a man’s, and no matter how good the impersonation may be otherwise, it will be sadly marred if proper attention is not paid to the hands. I made a study of the hands of women in Raphael’s paintings, and following out the shadows and the long, tapering effects . . .

Forty-five minutes and the makeup is done but nothing else yet, a transformation of head, neck, shoulders, hands, and wrists but not waist or hips, no costume, head of a woman but still the trunk of a man, robe hung loosely around him.

The most difficult thing for an impersonator is to use his feet and arms properly. One does not begin to realize the difference between the sexes until he tries this, and I may say that it was my ability to carry my arms properly that got me into the business.

He is a professional and an expert, relishes the details of his craft, describes again and again the tremendous work, the study and practice, that he has devoted to it. And it is true, he is an artist, and I am struck, watching him get ready, by the artistry, above all the fierce attention to detail, because without the parts, without all the little parts, there can be no satisfying whole. And yet the means by which he claims to have arrived at this art, the French fashion plates and the classes, “studying the styles constantly in their kaleidoscopic changes,” as he says, and “trying to keep up to the advanced moods,” seem wrong, or not quite right. He works, he says, from the outside in, through careful study and close observation, a mimic, a mirror. But if he really wants to carry the thing off, doesn’t he also have to work from the inside out, to rely not only on study and observation but also on intuition and impulse? At this point, Shima, his Japanese handler, pads wordlessly into the room, carrying a corset in one hand and a massage prod in the other. Shima goes right to work, applying the prod to Eltinge’s shoulders and back. That done, he slips the corset over his head and tugs on its silk laces, hard, harder, until the frame is satisfactorily condensed.

My waist measure when I get into my corsets is just twenty-three inches, and I have to train myself to breathe almost entirely with my upper chest.

The corset settled, an Empire gown is floated over his winnowed frame—“A woman’s dress must have temperament. To be effective gowns must have personality.”—a pair of high-heeled shoes is brought out from a closet and slipped softly onto his feet, and, finally, a beautiful black wig, raven-black, lustrous, is settled on his head like a crown and fastened with pins.

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