Aesthetic Autopsy: Painted Ladies

There was a time when being a tattooed female was quite rare, as seeking to cover the body with a collection of ink was something that men mainly acquired.  Then again, women were looked upon for modesty in general, so sporting tattoos was not really seen as being feminine.  However, there are some women who braved hours under the needle to transform their delicate skin into living artwork, willingly exhibited themselves for the sideshow,  and made quite a substantial income from doing so for curious spectators.  [Even Winston Churchill’s mother had a tattoo of a snake on her wrist, just in case you were wondering if inked ladies were partial to the sideshow world.]  To be quite frank, I enjoy the fact that tattooed women retained a certain elegance juxtaposed with their choice of artwork that covered most of their bodies.  While they may have exposed arms, legs and even a bit of the chest, it was to satiate the inquisitive nature of those who paid the admittance fee.  In order to understand what motivated these woman to not only have their bodies extensively tattooed, but also choose to show them off, there must an examination of history.

According to The Blue Tattoo, Olive Oatman is recorded as the first white woman in America to be tattooed – she had lived as a slave to the Indians who had killed her family, and was traded to the Mohave.  They tattooed her face and raised her as one of her own, the blue marks serving as a cultural symbol and a reminder that she never wanted to go home.  Obviously there are many books dedicated to the discussion of tattooing as an art form, and articles that delve into dates and facts which are highly educating.  However, many of them do not focus strictly on tattooed individuals within the sideshow, and that is why The Tattooed Lady: A History can be described as the first book of its kind.  Written by Amelia Klem Osterud, a tattooed academic librarian with a Masters in history from the University of Wisconsin-Milwakee, there are many photographs inside to accompany a compelling narrative.  One will discover that women with full-body tattoos appeared in the third quarter of the 19th century, and the artwork in general was quite similar to the styles that men favored.

Nora Hildebrandt is noted as America’s first professional tattooed woman and began to exhibit herself in 1882.  It is reported that she was covered with 365 designs from neck to toe, and while it was her father who really laid the ink down, it was common for embellishments to be made when pitching the story to curious crowds.  She was quite a popular attraction among men, but Irene Woodward emerged as another attractive tattooed woman and quickly eclipsed Nora’s fame.  La Bella Angora was a German circus performer from around the turn of the century who enjoyed considerable success as one of the few professional tattooed women of her time.  Meanwhile in America, La Belle Irene strayed from the usual tales of forcible tattooing onstage and instead claimed it was work she wanted that was done by her father.  In reality it had been Samuel O’Reilly and his apprentice Charlie Wagner who were responsible for covering a large portion of her body with tattoos.  Wagner is also recognized as being one of the artists who created and applied over 350 designs on Betty Broadent in the 1920’s.

In today’s society, the tattooed woman is still subjected to exhibition, though it is on a highly sexualized level and as they are often displayed with little or no clothing, which obviously comes down to personal choice and the level of comfort one has.  However, it also feels as though this is expected, as the modified woman is portrayed in a certain way thanks in part to alternative porn sites and competitions where the physical state of the body matters more than the quality of the artwork adorning it.  The fact remains that these images perpetuate stereotypes that are damaging to those women who do not want to be associated with them, because sadly people fail to differentiate between a fetishized fantasy and the real deal.  Instead, the inspiration for this guide comes from the women mentioned here and the numerous others who dared to challenge the perception of beauty and still maintained a sense of glamour and overall classiness.


Capturing the essence of elegance with an early 1900s ‘Victoriana’ Lace Gown might not be suitable for everyone, but I have always enjoyed the contrast between tattooed skin and high quality garments.  For less coverage with an equal amount of modesty, a 1900s bathing suit in white cotton is well-tailored and accented in black – add authenticity and femininity with multiple layers of lace in the Ruffled Calf-Length Bloomers.  Sheer stripe tights are also currently quite popular and would pop with a pair of Funtasma boots by Pleaser, which feature sharp black Victorian style details against gold patent leather. Wearable art is always en vogue, and Ellen Green utilizes vintage leather gloves as a backdrop to her traditional tattoo designs, a fashionable alternative to actually having the hands inked.  Limit accessories to one statement piece, such as this lovely 1920s style black hair band with diamante adornment by Katherine Elizabeth.


The sheer pale color of the lace stripes on the You’re a Peach Dress offers the possibility of layering it over a piece such as Theia’s black beaded cocktail dress.  Elevate this style with Jeffery Campbell’s Damesl Spike, as the studded silver spikes adds a tough, chic edge  – wear them with rhinestone embellished lace tights to make legs look extra long and lean.  A detachable chain on this beaded peach bag makes it functional as a purse and a clutch, while Feather & Petals offers simplicity with a black headband.  Highlight tattooed hands with rhinestone triple finger rings and Tilly’s Full Tilt spiked  bracelets.


Mixing assertive patterns with bright colors is something Jessica Louise does well, and this punk-meets-princess Red Sailor Dress balances a black and white striped peasant top with a red skirt, six buttons and an enamel skull applique.  Extra support for those with a heftier bust can be found in the Push-Up Suspender High Waist Corset Belt, and the slightly textured black patent leatherette will also give you a slimmer, voluptuous look!  Soak yourself in opulence with a pair of Turquoise Satin Rhinestone Teeze Shoes by Bordello, a daring hue that brings a contrasting compliment to the dress.  Be prepared to thwart evil sun rays that will seek to fade tattoos with this stunning Cameo Stripe Eliza Umbrella, and store valuables in a red beaded Victorian style purse.  Ornament an elaborate hair style using a peacock feather hair clip complete with glittering butterfly brooch, and brandish this symbol of vanity on the ears with a pair of Silver Peacock Earrings.

 The most important thing to remember is that style comes from within and should reflect an aesthetic that is a testament to one’s character.  After all, simply putting on an outfit because it features the latest fashion trends might result in a comprehensive look, but it lacks depth and the personal touches that make it a statement.  A little confidence always goes a long way, no matter if you are draped in expensive fabrics or a few thousand dollars worth of tattoos from talented artists all across the globe.

Reading and Research: The Blue Tattoo, The Tattooed Lady: A History, Tattooed Women From the Past, Tattooed Lady History



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