Style Spotlight: Masked Men

Shocked and Amazed! Vol. 7

Throughout the articles presented here as a dedication to those who have undoubtedly inspired and influenced not only my passions and interests, but also have assisted me in cultivating an ever evolving aesthetic.  While there is an auspicious ode to the women of the past who challenged perceptions of beauty by covering their skin with hundreds of tattoo designs, I feel there are certain individuals who deserve a prominent place in the proverbial aristocratic hierarchy.  Michael Wilson is granted this honor though I never met the man nor have even seen a single performance.  It is his character, however, that managed to reach me through the pages of Shocked and Amazed by way of an interview conducted before his death.  A few years later I was staring at his tattooed face again, this time on the cover of [body mod zine], which had come into my possession through a collection of tattoo magazines once owned by renown body modification artist John Cobb.  He was introduced to me by Enigma one afternoon at the Blue Grotto in West Philly, but that is another story for a different time.  The point is that Wilson stood out from the other heavily tattooed exhibits of sideshow history due to the fact that he had his face inked, and my curiosity of what set him and others apart from all of the other tattooed people dove me to investigate the phenomenon further.

Prince Constantine aka Captain Constentenus

When it comes to notable figures of tattoo and sideshow culture, John Rutherford is considered to be the first professional tattooed Englishman and was covered in broad Maori designs which extended to his face.  His 1828 appearance was followed by James F. O’Connel, the first tattooed person to be put on display in the United States at Barnum’s American Museum in 1842.  Prince Constantine, more famously known as Captain Constentenus, became his successor in the 1870’s and is regarded as the most remarkable of these men due to the degree of tattoo coverage.  He may have even been the most tattooed man of that century, though certainly earns the merit of being the first to have a full body tattoo that included work on his face, scalp, genitals and even the webs of each finger.  Blue and red depictions of native Burmese animals and creatures of eastern mythology were considered to be the made by masters of the craft, the quality revered as being the most elaborate at that time.

Horace Ridler – the Great Omi

Deemed to be one of the most popular tattooed men of all time, the Great Omi began his life as Horace Ridler, a man who served the British Army and earned the rank of major before departing from the military.  In the early 1920’s he found himself in financial trouble and sought out show business as a means of amassing a new fortune.  Thus he began to turn himself into an attraction, though the early work was rather crude.  At the later part of the decade, Horace paid a visit to George Burchett [London’s famed artist] and the wide black stripes were a means of covering those tattoos.  It is said that he endured 150 hours and this dedication in choosing to transform his body is something I admire because of the determination he had to literally make himself into a spectacle.  Nonetheless, it is clear that Omi created an image which played on the natural curiosity of others that still remains as a prominent example of what the human body can endure.

Jack Dracula by Diane Arbus

A contemporary counterpart to this impressive list would be Jack Dracula, also known as “the Marked Man”, who was born in 1935 near the Brooklyn shipyards.  After completing high school he quickly enlisted with the Navy to avoid being drafted into the army and spent four years working as a petty officer.  Following his discharge, Jack returned to Brooklyn in 1957 and took on a number of odd jobs, though his life would be changed forever when he walked into a tattoo parlor on Coney Island.  He was looking to compliment a few pieces that had been acquired during service and wound up having a machine thrust in his hand as he was told to do it himself.  Executing a tattoo on his thigh with success, he soon took up position as an artist at several shops in the area.  This was when he gained the most prominent of his tattoos, which included a black mask that circled his eyes.  He then went on to find employment with Hubert’s Dime Museum in Times Square and Barnum Bailey’s Circus in Madison Square Garden.  Tattooing was outlawed in New York in 1961, causing Jack to exclusively work with sideshows, though dissatisfaction moved him to a town in Connecticut with a prime demographic for an artist and only one shop.  Subsequently that city went on to ban tattooing as well, and Jack had to relocate once again, opening shops in Philadelphia.  He closed up shop for good in the early 80’s and by 2003, his deteriorating health required him to take up residence in Park Place.

Jack’s remembered experiences earns him a place in mid-twentieth century tattoo culture and was even the recipient of discrimination due to his facial tattoos.  During an interview he submitted a well-rehearsed answer that was partially true when asked why he got them.  In a follow up he revealed much more self-awareness and stated “It kept me from getting married.  Women were my weakness and I was a good-looking guy.”  He went on to reveal that his tattoos were intentionally meant to nurture his ostracization from normal convention, yet was more than happy to allow others to invent stories about his reason for being tattooed.  Forming a sense of self was meticulously attached to the conditions that made up his life, though it becomes apparent that he selected an exceptional path while deliberately influencing the way other people saw him as well as the way he viewed himself.

Michael Wilson’s Tribute to Jack Dracula by Dan Nicoletta

Earlier I mentioned the interview Wilson, often affectionately referred to as “Tattoo Mike”,where Jonathan Shaw explains how he broke barriers in the sideshow community by having his entire body tattooed including his face and hands.  Managers did not customarily hire anyone with these areas inked, and though there is a progressive amount of people who have these places tattooed, Mike Wilson became an icon as Coney Island’s Illustrated Man, his image used to sell everything from breath mints to clothing.  “When I was first getting my face and head tattooed,” he states, “I didn’t know of anyone else except for legends like Jack Dracula or Omi.”  He goes on to explain how “at that time it was going over the line” but remarks that he has seen a lot of younger people with heavily tattooed faces.  “As I say in the spiel that I do, and I’ve said it a thousand times, tattoos are like potato chips-you can’t just have one.”  Wilson confesses that he used to draw and paint a lot so we he was quite fascinated with conveying them on his skin.

Here are a few excerpts from that interview where he explains where his interest in sideshow came from and how he accumulated his tattoos:

“Since I was a kid, I was fascinated with sideshow and carnivals and that whole thing, and the more heavily tattooed I got, the more I was reading.  I  was bartending, and a tattooist told me they were looking for performers at the sideshow, and I went down to Coney Island USA and got the job that day.  I already had my face tattooed.  What my boss said at the time was that there were plenty of people who had their bodies tattooed, but no one had their face.  So they put a big mask over me and put me outside on the stage.”

“I remember seeing a picture of Jack Dracula, and as much as I admired how he looked, I wanted something different than that.  I wanted something specifically with designs instead of pictures on my face.  So I started doing research.”

Photographed at the Coney Island Sideshow by Dan Nicoletta

“I had been getting tattooed by a man named Pat Maninuik in San Francisco; he tattooed me quite a bit, and also did the backs of my hands as well as the work on my arms.  I went to him with this idea about getting my face tattooed and he flat refused.  Then I started making this trek to tattoo parlors in California, and they all refused.  Then when I heard it was outlawed in New York City, I thought I could get it here if I had the money.  So I cam here and met a couple of people and went to Don Boyle and started getting tattooed.  Then I went to FineLine Mike, and he was very nervous to do it because my face was pretty much unmarked.  But finally he agreed, and I really got started.  Other people have picked up from there.”

“Getting my face tattooed really became an obsession.  I was going though all of the files and researching the tribes that tattooed their faces, and at the same time I’m smart enough to know that it was definitely going to change my life dramatically.  I’m the tattooed man all the time, but one thing I’ve learned, specifically in getting my face more and more tattooed, is that during the summertime I keep my shirt on.  I’ve learned to read people.  Getting my face and neck tattooed was something I wanted to do.  My intention isn’t to go out and shock people or get a rise out of people.  It was totally personal for me.  Unfortunately, I didn’t figure out how big of an effect it was going to have on other people, with them getting freaked out or angry.”

“During my spiel, I try to answer all of the questions people have about tattooing and put it in a good light and educate people.  One of the reasons I had to think about it for a long time was that when I was first being introduced as the tattooed man, my boss was painting this picture of this “poor me” individual.  And the more I heard him doing this spiel on me, the angrier and more dissatisfied I got.  I wanted a change, so I could feel proud of my tattoos.”

“I very rarely regret having my face tattooed; I feel like I have really been out in the mainstream in terms of showing my tattoos and explaining them.”

From the Journal of Bison Jack

Touching on the topic of younger individuals who are getting facial tattoos, Wilson stated he is not one to judge but thought “it’s probably wise to be a little older and more experienced in life before you embark on a commitment like that.  It can close a lot of doors.  I’ve had a lot of young guys come up to me and they’re talking about sporting some tattoos on their face and I tell them that they really should be older and really think about it a lot before they choose that path.”

Certainly this allows insight as to what can motivate a person to willingly lend their body to countless hours of being penetrated by a tattoo needle.  Though they are far more commonplace than in the times of those men and women who went that extra mile to showcase not only the quality and quantity of the art, but also played up their ability to endure the pain.  No matter how exaggerated narratives of their origin may have been, there is sufficient evidence to document that they were in fact just as a complex human being as you or I, perhaps just a more colorful version of the same people who know, care for and love in our own lives.

Resources, Reading & Research: Made Marvels – the Tattooed ManCaptain Costentenus – Tattooed Prince, The Great Omi – Tattooed Gentleman,  Of Freaks and Inks: Self-Identifying Jack DraculaShocked and Amazed! Volume 7

Photo credit: 1 – Atomic Books, 2 – BME Encyclopedia, 4 – Jack Dracula, 5-7 – Michael Wilson Remembered

Style Spotlight: Gloomth’s Haunted Circus

Whenever I hear that a clothing line releases something that is supposed to be influenced by the circus, my immediate knee-jerk reaction is to cringe with fear, wonder how much striped fabric will be used and then sigh because I prefer a red-and-black combination over the usual white-and-black that is used for a lot of garments.  It can never be said too many times that I do not believe slapping stripes on something deems it “circus inspired”, especially since such items are readily available and take little effort to add to an ordinary outfit.  There seems to also be something called “dark carnival” that allegedly mixes elements of certain subcultures with…well, I am not really sure because carnival and circus are two very different things.

Personally, I do not interchange the terms because of the meanings I attach to them and tend to be kind of confused by their constant misuse.  Being an active part of a culture that people use as a basis behind costumes and characters, the latter of which people dedicate their time to creating an entire fantasy out of things I have actually experienced, I tend to be amused then realize that this what society thinks being a part of a circus is like.  The point being that it should be understandable why I can easily cast doubt on using circus as a theme and marketing campaign.

With a cheerful invitation to explore a beautiful nightmare, Gloomth presents a collection with “show stopping pieces inspired by a spooky nocturnal circus“.  The designs feature plenty of frills, pompoms and the company’s signature strangeness, each with a name which gives a good indication of where the vision for each piece came from.  Aptly titled Haunted Circus, the line has consistent characteristics that not only makes it cohesive but allows one to truly see the story behind the clothes.

Making a grand entrance is something that I have often enjoyed since first impressions are very important, particularly when it comes to being a performer.  The aim is often to grab attention and one could certainly do that with the Star Carousel dress, which has attributes such as a rounded neckline, gold crinkled taffeta and matching bow on the bust line, as well as a natural waist that flares into a very large A-line skirt.  The skirt is trimmed with ruffles, lace and hand cut, raw-edge gold taffeta stars, while the body of the dress can be made with black-and-white striped or solid black fabric.

Though in the warmer seasons one could get away with leaving legs bare, particularly if they happen to be tattooed, the Winter wind is creeping in and I recommend you try red tights, especially since bold colors are trendy and would really pick up on the lace in the skirt.  Summon your ability to Seduce a crowd with cutout black and white Spectator pumps by Pleaser, five inch stiletto heels that lace up to create a show stopping silhouette.  Flatter your figure and your waist with Sabotage, a black faux fur coat by Iron Fist that will bring our your inner femme fatale.  The jacket has a large collar, faux leather belt that is removable and is lined in pink with black skulls, handcuffs, poison bottles and more!

Maria Spelterini was a daredevil circus performer who was the first woman to cross Niagara Gorge on a highwire in 1897, and so the Spelterini dress is named for her in the hopes of encouraging grand aspirations. The dress is designed with a longer, form-fitting bodice that sits below the waist to give the effect of a slimmer torso, while the black collar curves over the shoulders to frame the face.  It also has a wide A-line skirt which can fit a petticoat beneath, a horizontal band of stripes to break up the pattern.  A raw-edged red heart has been sewn to the front, while the skirt has been hemmed with small white pompoms flecked with gold.  Much like its counterpart, this dress is also available in solid black.

Continue the illusion that you are tall and lean with red and black vertical stripe tights; breaking up the monotony of black and white with a splash of color also makes your outfit more visually stimulating.  The Bordello line of Pleaser never fails to deliver fabulous footwear, so Tempt onlookers with a two tone patent Mary Jane, the movement between the black and white adding contrast to the straight lines of the stripes.  As mentioned earlier, presentation plays a vital role in performance and so there is no shame in flaunting opulence in the form of a Lady Lovecraft deluxe silk shrug made by Lovechild Boudoir.  Crafted from 100% dupion silk, this ruffled shrug is edged in black lace with a soft tulle frill underneath for extra volume; the black, ivory or red would suit this look.  Tie it all together with red silk burlesque gloves from Leg Avenue, the black lace overlay and faux pearl buttons adding to all of the other details.

The third dress of this collection is meant to be a striking casual piece for an eccentric daytime style.  Stimulated by the agile aerial artists of  traditional circus, the Trapeze dress is Gloomth’s interpretation of what they would wear while spending some time on the ground.  Much like the other dresses, this festive frock features vertical stripes offset by an unbleached raw cotton yolk and matching trim around the hem to give it a vintage flavor.  [Black is also available as an option for these accents.]  The cut is said to be remarkably flattering, as it is fitted at the bust and then floats away, while two darts at the front maintain the A-line shape to give you an overall airy feeling.  A raw edged red heart has been sewn to the right front hip, and side hem pockets give you a secret hiding places for all sorts of tricks or treats.

Despite popular belief that when they aren’t performing, circus folk sit around having bohemian parties with tea and crumpets, relaxing is a lot more laid-back than that and can be reflected in an outfit with a Vintage Cardigan by Sourpuss.  This lovely ivory cardigan is styled after those so often seen in vintage fashion magazines with pearl buttons, a removable black rose and pointelle detail on the wrists and hem.  Stimulate optical imagination with sheer Chevron Pantyhose from Lip Service and a pair of black lace Victorian Arm Sleeves.  Compliment with Splendor, magnificent white and black boots from the Funtasma line of Pleaser shoes.  The boot comes to about mid-calf, decorated with ten black buttons and trimmed with black lace; they also have a side zip which makes them easy to put on and take off.

These dresses can obviously be coordinated with the Ringmaster Circus Jacket: black and white stripes bell sleeves, corset lacing, sharp lapels, pompoms, peplum, white tulle, gold stars and a heart applique are just a few features that will make you the center of attention!

As a heartbreaking character of pantomime, Pierrot pines for a lover they cannot have and serves as tragic muse for the PomPom Shirt of the same name.  There are many features that add an air of whimsy to the garment, such as puffed short sleeves, ruffled hem, buttons down the front, corset lacing in the back and a rounded Peter Pan style collar that is actually a strand of gold flecked pompoms, which can also be found adorning the sleeve cuffs.  The red heart that appears on two of the dresses above has been stitched onto the left front, and for those that would prefer the shirt in black can have their wish granted!

For a more dramatic look, wear it unbuttoned over Aviatrix – another Haunted Circus item that is a fun little romper dedicated to female daredevils such as Ethel Dare, known as “Queen of the Air” for walking on the wings of planes – or snapped up tight with the Viola Corset Skirt.  In lieu of yet more stripes opt for opaque tights with a black and white diamond pattern, then slip in to a pair knee high black velvet Ringmaster boots, also by Funtasma.  Then take your choice of black polka dot 6-button length fingerless gloves, red and black stripe fingerless burlesque gloves or black fringe burlesque gloves by Lalas Couture.

The final items of this collection have been combined to create a slightly creepy yet chic look using the Un-Tamer Vest and Sideshow Bloomers.  Many aspects of the unisex vest make it a very visually appealing piece: the black and white stripes trimmed in gold piping, removable gold panels and puffed cap sleeves trimmed with black fringe.  There are two pointed tails in the back and all of the buttons are actually skulls-n-crossbones!  Meanwhile, the bloomers have an elastic waist and leg cuffs, flat front and plenty of ruffles that trim the cuffs and are layered with black scalloped lace in three rows on the back.

Prevent the outfit from being overwhelmed by selecting simple yet effect accessories like black distressed net armwarmers and red fishnet thigh highs with a back seam, both available from Leg Avenue.  The latter can be held up with as set of Too Fast Garters that are black elastic printed with gold stars and have two clips to attach to your stockings.  Check the seams and then slip into a pair of Dame boots, another stunning design from Funtasma that is crafted from golden patent leather and held together with matching lace.  A sheer tulle skirt layered over the bloomers can produce an amusing silhouette, though be sure the length is not too long or they will surely be lost beneath the floof, or now would be a good time to use that gold Lip Service Itty Bitty Micro Mini as a playful belt.

Head wear can go in a few different directions depending on the type of charm you want to infuse into your look.  For example, the two point fold open Garrison style Gaze-Cap by Futurestate or the PVC Wedge by Artifice that is modeled after an air force hat is ideal for those who are into military fashion.  One can never go wrong with a sturdy top hat, particularly one that is as striking as My Heart Belongs To You, made by Rag Dollies Madhouse, a glorious red and black striped hat made from scratch and adorned with an oval fabric picture of a crow, bones and the human heart framed by pleated black ribbon and lace.  The Etsy seller also has a miniature version that is accented by rooster feathers and a bow, as well as the Voodoo Heart, a black and white striped hat seamed with red stitching, pleated black lace and an adorable red plush heart reminiscent of the one that can be found in the Haunted Circus collection.

Overall I would say that these items are definitely wearable whether specifically aiming for an aesthetic influenced by the circus or just wanting to add something different to your everyday wardrobe.  The way an outfit is style certainly is at the discretion of the person wearing the clothes, but I always prefer a look that is unified by a theme.  When it comes to circus it seems rather easy to throw on the stripes, a corset, some heels and a petticoat, yet that is not successfully translating inspiration – it is lazy, tacky and certainly does not represent the way performers actually dress.  Then again I have never been one to fit stereotypes and instead do everything I can to contradict them, but I can also still be pleased when someone gets circus inspiration right.

Style Spotlight: Bearded Ladies

There is undoubtedly a certain standard that constantly looms over the fashion industry which dictates what is popular, trendy, beautiful, attractive, sexy and generally deemed desirable.  While I will write lighthearted articles that tend to feature some of the things because it is what people seem to enjoy reading about, I always maintain that the guides are merely suggestions and one’s personality matters far more than the things they put on their body.  This attitude comes from an alternative lifestyle which embraces equality and is rooted in the sideshow where unusual appearances were not only celebrated but also often what was drew in large crowds and subsequently made the most money.  Whether they were considered too tall, short, fat, skinny, etc. by the rest of societies standards, these women were valued for what others saw as disfigurements and abnormalities – many even became empowered by their roles because they were more popular than the male attractions.  Perhaps the people were fueled by curiosity of how a woman could be afflicted with such ‘horrible’ things yet be brave enough to exhibit themselves and invite strangers to inspect their bodies.

It is said that facial hair on men is associated with attributes such as wisdom, masculinity, sexual virility and a  higher social status.  On women, the beard is something of phenomenal legends and has often led to ridicule, though more recently it is has been acknowledged as a political and fashion statement.  A large majority of men grow hair on their faces as a natural progression of maturity, but there is a very small number of women who have the ability to grow a significant enough amount in order for it to be noticeable.  This growth can be the result of a hormone imbalance, rare genetic disorder and occasionally by use of steroids.  While there were certainly fakes in the sideshow, a few names remain legendary because these women had enough intestinal fortitude to commit to their characterized portrayal of what some may have seen as a novelty act and made it into a successful career.  Todd Browning’s Freaks featured Lady Olga, a bearded lady born in North Carolina who toured with several circuses including Ringling and had worked in a Times Square dime museum.  America’s most celebrated bearded lady of her time was Annie Jones, who acted as spokesperson for P. T. Barnum and worked to have the word ‘freaks’ abolished from the business.  Not only did she display a full, long beard, but grew her hair to over six feet – Annie also expanded her talents to include musical skills and gracious etiquette.  Though she had become  established as a bearded lady at a tender age, Jean Carroll shaved it off for love and acquired over 700 tattoo designs from famed artist Charlie Wagner to become an illustrated lady instead.

Prior to becoming a staple of sideshows, bearded ladies were venerated in mythology and folklore, with documents suggesting that the beard gave a priestess named Athena clairvoyant abilities, while the Middle Ages regarded them as witches.  In the 14th century, a bearded nun was canonized as a saint and the festival of Saint Paula is still celebrated, as is the Feast of Saint Wilgefortis.   Helena Antonia was a courtesan of Polish Queen Constance, though not much more is known other than the fact she was both bearded and a dwarf.  Josephine Boisdechene was among the first women to exhibit themselves during the Renaissance, though she was born with a variant of hypertricosis known as hirsutism, and while in France she met, fell in love with and married a bearded artist.  Adopting the name Madame Clofullia, she became signed by Barnum and appeared in his American Dime Museum as ‘ The Bearded Lady of Geneva’, her feminine features emphasized by a Victorian wardrobe while jewels opulently adorned her styled beard, giving her an overall regal look.

The most prestigious and well known historical attraction is Julia Pastrana, a woman who was excessively hairy – predominantly in the face – and also had what is documented as “ape like” features.  Despite obscure origins and an appearance that earned her the title of ‘Nondescript’, Julia possessed great poise and impressed many with her charm, grace and singing voice.  A reporter in London described her as being “civilized and domestic” as she spoke three languages, enjoyed traveling, cooking and sewing, not to mention willingly lent herself to medical examinations.  During her career, Julia had a few promoters, the last of which was so worried about loosing her as an investment to rivals, he married her in 1875.  Three years later she gave birth to a boy who lived for only thirty-five hours, and subsequently died five days later.  Julia may have been treated like an object by her promoters, but her personal anecdotes give the impression that she was a content woman, though there is a bit of sourness when reflecting on her life events.  None of that can be compared to how both her and her son were exploited as their preserved corpses were exhibited and sold around the world for twenty-five years.  They showed up in a Norwegian chamber of horrors during the 1920s, toured German occupied territories in the ’40s, and went into storage in an Oslo warehouse in the ’50s.  Julia and her son toured Norway and Sweden in 1970, arriving back in the United States one year later when the tour was cancelled due to public outcry.  The exhibition was eventually banned and the mummies were placed back in storage, where they were subsequently forgotten about.

While her life is certainly marred with exploitation and manipulation, there is also the story of Percilla that is based on true love, inner beauty and respect.  Having been born in Puerto Rico with hypertricosis, Percilla’s parents brought her to New York to seek out help from doctors, and her father developed the idea of exhibiting her for profit to take advantage of her appearance.  A showman and promoter named Karl Lauthner took immediate interest in Percilla and subsequently adopted her when her father died.  Lauthner is said to have been sensitive to public perception, disliking when she was called “freak” or “monkey girl” – that latter moniker stuck and was used in promoting her as an exhibit.  While performing in the late 1930s, Percilla met Emmit Bejano who was known as the Alligator-Skinned man, and their ability to see past each other’s physical features led to a blossoming romance.  The pair wound up eloping in 1938, were dubbed the World’s Strangest Married Couple and shared the stage while successfully traveling with several shows for many decades.  Eventually they retired and moved to Gibsonton, Florida where they remained happily in love until Emmit died in 1995.

In contemporary society, the new voice for women with beards is Jennifer Miller, a performing artist who has worked with numerous choreographers, dancers, circuses, and the Coney Island sideshow over the past twenty years.  She is co-founder of Circus Amok, a NYC based political performance troupe which has been the subject of many documentaries, has taught at multiple universities, is widely recognized for her work and has received several awards.  In an interview with Vox Magazine, Jennifer stated that she embraced the idea of having a beard right away, but the decision to do so was not always easy.  She credits her strength to being raised in a feminist environment and finding encouragement from peers, though admits that using the public restroom can be difficult.  “Having a beard is a stigmatized thing,” she says in response to the subject of whether her sideshow status effects the ability to have social relationships.  “I have to deal with that in the way that so many other people have to deal with the stigma of disability”.  An article in the New York Times describes Miller as someone who “confronts her audience head-on as a ‘bearded lady’, in an amalgam of old-time vaudeville and feminist theater” and notes that traditional bearded ladies had a feminine quality to their portrayal.  Miller, on the other hand, rattles expectations as “she parades her beard, forcing the audience to look at it and ask questions”.  When asked why she did not shave, there was no doubt that the answer was complex yet confident when she asserted, “[But] if I didn’t keep my beard, it would be a statement of hopelessness.  Keeping secrets requires energy that’s debilitating, especially when it’s out of shame and fear”.

Women are certainly victims of shame, because no matter what one does with their appearance, it is constantly criticized and held to unsolicited opinions.  Body shaming occurs constantly as an endless barrage of images from magazines, television shows, movies and even pornography are constantly telling both men and women what is deemed acceptable as being sexy and attractive.  Anything that strays even slightly from this warped ‘norm’ becomes the subject of jokes that individuals are expected to take because of their choices.  It is one of the most childish things that someone can pick on because no one is ‘perfect’ and beauty is subjective, so there should not be this exhausting competition to be more or better as you sacrifice physical, emotional and mental well-being for superficial purposes.  There is nothing wrong with change as the evolution of self is a natural process, but make sure that you making them for yourself and not because it is what someone else likes or wants.  You are the most important person in your life, and when you are confident in who you are, I guarantee that others will see it too.  People fear what they do not know and so they tend to revert to a mentality that expresses this emotion with ignorance.  If the women of this article teach us anything, it is that one can face fear with all the grace and elegance of a queen, utilize inquiring minds for profit and tackle gender boundaries with the greatest poise.

Though the image of a bearded lady is still one that can be characterized into a costume – which I personally feel if not done with respect and some level of skill can come off as appropriation – she is still a champion of standing strong against the stereotypes of women that are generally shoved down our throats by the mainstream media.  She inspires an incredible amount of art that has surfaced in a number of mediums such as illustrations, tattoos, screen-print shirts and even jewelry.  If this is not indicative of how empowering people find bearded women to be I don’t know what is, and on a personal level I have to say that I find a bit of happiness seeing that these things are inspired by such an intriguing image.

Resources: The Human Marvels

Photo credit: 1 – Jane Barnell, 2 – Helena Antonia, 3 – Hirsutism

4 – Lisa’s History Room, 5 & 7 – Sideshow Ephemera Gallery

6 – Off To the Circus, 8 – Modern Tattooer

Style Spotlight: Showman

The title of showman is not one easily thrown around in the sideshow business, though there are plenty who would like to believe they deserve the title.  If you ask the right person, they will abhor the notion of being a Carny, mainly due to the extreme stereotyping society associates with the word and the desire to stay far from it as possible.  Which is an understandable opinion, yet consistency dictates that the word is easily applied when it comes to selling merchandise since bullshit rules and the public eats it up so long as you tell them it is the best thing they ever had.  The art is one that I feel is unteachable – you either have it and hone it until everyone is neatly tucked into the palm of your hand while the other one takes their money, or you pull a character and base it on lies because the audience doesn’t know the difference nor does it seem to care.  It might be slightly arrogant of me to say so, but I get rather bored with seeing performers fall into the latter category because it smacks of laziness and getting the most reward out of the least amount of effort.  Not that the hailed Aristocracy of sideshow’s past really had to do more than take advantage of their physical attributes that set them apart from others, but at least they did in a manner that fed into the natural curiosity that drew the public to them, rather than depending on shock value, lowbrow humor and scantily clad bodies running amok on stage.

A showman is not to be confused with a talker, though they share some common themes among their fashion, in that the desired result is to attract attention.  One of the most notable historical showmen is P. T. Barnum, and while he is credited with an illustrious circus career, he did not enter the business until 1871, at which time he was already in his 60’s.  Despite created hoaxes and being described as a scam artist and con man, Barnum loved the public and simply gave them what they wanted to see – extraordinary things from magical lands that were real, living, and could be examined for a small fee.  If people felt cheated, perhaps it is because they were fooled by simple tricks, and really, that is hardly the worst thing a businessman has ever done.  Barnum was also at the forefront of promotion and was known as the ‘Shakespeare of Advertising’, and was one of the first circus owners to utilize trains to move from one place to the next.  While he did not seem to mind entertainers using hype as means to promote, as long as the public got their money’s worth that is, he had contempt for those who made profit from fraudulent deceptions.  Today, Barnum is hailed as an icon of American spirit and ingenuity, and at his death was perhaps the most famous American in the world.

Of course it might seem as though the proverbial shoes left behind might be difficult to fill, especially in an age where one can easily see an endless menagerie of all things strange, odd, unusual, bizarre, grotesque, deformed, and otherwise deemed offensive or unworthy of being accepted by society, for free with a simple click or two.  However, there is a man who  carries an appearance that certainly is a testament to the dedication he has.  It is reminiscent of the image one might generate when thinking of an old timey showman, right down to the wardrobe and expertly manicured facial hair.  James Taylor, most notably known for authoring the Shocked and Amazed books as well as contributing items from his personal collection to the D.C. based Red Palace [formerly Palace of Wonders], which hosts a bevy of sideshow, burlesque and music acts.  He is also recognized as the foremost authority when it comes to sideshow, having interviewed numerous performers from the past and present, publishing them along with personal stories, stunning photos and a lexicon of Carny lingo in a series of nine volumes that have sold all across the world.

The books spawned a documentary, and Mr. Taylor has appeared on quite a few television programs, so it is more than appropriate to say that he has worked very hard to preserve sideshow history while actively promoting merchandise that would hopefully pass the knowledge onto the consumer.  Surely these actions would be supported by Barnum, seeing as how he conducted business in the same manner.  Having the privilege of not only meeting but speaking with Mr. Taylor on more than one occasion, I can say without doubt his presence is amazing and yet his humbleness is amazingly refreshing.  There is no stench of pretentiousness, arrogance of other unwarranted elitism, as he is man pursuing his passion and serves as source of great inspiration.  He deserves not only the honored title of showman for all of his efforts and contributions to sideshow, but also has truly achieved the prestigious ranking among the Carny Trash Aristocracy, despite not actually being a performer.

Technically speaking, the term showman is a title preferred by lifelong entrepeneurs, and there is a fairly firm social division between them and jointiess, who are agents that work carnival games.  Ward Hall is another notable figure in the sideshow industry, having one of the few authentic 10-in-1 traveling shows that exist today, and is perhaps the oldest living showman of modern times.  John Robinson, otherwise known as Utah Showman, has put together Sideshow World, a comprehensive site that is dedicated to preserving the past and promoting the future of sideshow.  The goal is to offer information to the public through reading materials, photographs, videos and so forth.  In a sense, it is a virtual dime museum where one has control over their experience and can stimulate more than imagination though a hefty list of links to personal stories from some of sideshow’s most memorable performers.  It is this dedication that gives hope that this strange art can be archived for future generations, and once again the proprietor is one that gives credit where it is due.

The attire of a showman is certainly determined by personal choice, though it tends to be saturated with notes of aesthetics befitting the upper class, displayed with sleek fabrics of the finest quality that are color coordinated and tailored for the perfect fit.  One wants to enter a room with effortless class and be admired for it and not let the clothes do all of the talking.  Tempting as it might be to utilize inspiration, there must be a respect show because the difference between playing dress up and actually being a showman is like the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad.  There is enough evidence that I have presented within these articles which can argue that being a Carny is subjective and everyone is entitled to their opinion of what it means.  However, I feel that adopting the term because the rest of the buzz words that are generally associated with other scenes and subcultures certainly falls into the ream of high grade chicken shit and is definitely not suggested.

Resources & Reading: P.T. Barnum, Shocked and Amazed, Sideshow World

Style Spotlight : Swing Kids

When I began writing this particular article, the intention was to honor specific performers who have inspired or otherwise influenced me.  The criteria applied to potential candidates is certainly strict, because I am not one who touts false support since I see no point in it.  Perhaps others get something out of name-dropping, and I will not deny the fact I mention certain things because that is just the way business works.  However, I have always held pride in my honesty, which has gained me some seriously awesome allies who understand my passion and appreciate the skills I have to offer.  To write about performers I may admire but do not fully believe in would result in a document that was informational, with very little character or personality I feel I do my best to include.  It is that experience which has shaped me into the individual I am, and so offering thanks in the form of a heart-felt homage is something done out of respect.  Choosing the subject was difficult enough that I decided to present this article on a less frequent basis to preserve the integrity of its exclusivity towards prominent figures that are not restricted to circus and related cultures.

There are plenty of fashion revolutions which have appeared throughout history, and for me one of the most daring was the German Swing Youth, more commonly known as Swing Kids.  During the 1930s and 40s Germany suffered under the fascist rule of the Nazis, where Adolf Hitler attempted to compel the people to follow his ideals which would prevent them from becoming influenced by international movements.  Even something as harmless as dancing was considered a menace by Nazi authorities, viewed as a perilous foreign import with roots in “immoral jungle music” and a commodity calculated by the Jewish media in America.  They believed that it could corrupt the youth who would be caught up in certain behaviors that yielded offspring of uncertain parentage as a result of having sex with multiple partners.  Hitler decided to use the National Socialist Party to physically prevent Germany’s youngsters from straying off the Nazi path.

Swing Kids desired a connection to the swing scene, which manifested in having the correct clothing, listening to the right music, understanding slang and being able to dance.  They aspired for a life that was carefree and laid-back like those in America, even though that contradicted the militarized state of Nazi Germany.  A deliberate swagger was adopted in direct defiance of the approved straight marching stride, and their attitude was blamed on Jewish Hollywood movies.  Swing Kids also hated the Hitler Youth, due to the fact that many used their authority to become Little Dictators, and were fully justified in their low opinion of the HJ.  The Nazi solution to what it viewed as an inflated Jewish America forcing decadence upon an otherwise obedient German youth, was to ferociously block American music and culture.

The rebellion against the National Socialist Party began when the Swing Kids adopted liberated ways.  They did not have an intention of effecting others politically, and they admired Western Democracies because they saw America and England as places where swing-loving individuals had the freedom to do whatever they wanted.  Idle conversations with friends, developing new relationships and generally immersing oneself in the swing culture were how Swing Kids escaped from the reality of death camps and military forces that disappeared into Russia and France.  Fearing the prospect of having their good lives cut short, they avoided service.  Instead, they gathered around a portable gramophone and its companion set of must-have swing records, in public places or while out on a picnic.  A police ordinance was put into effect during 1940 that prohibited anyone under the age of 18 to be on the street after sunset.  This did not prevent determined Swing Kids, as they had counterfeit identity cards with falsified ages and dressed in an attire that made them look older.  Due to a police crackdown following the Hamburg Swing Gathering, large groups were highly discouraged, and so Swing Kids took advantage of air-raid duty by utilizing the various buildings to host parties.

The lifestyle of Swing Kids was in absolute aversion to the anticipated National Socialist concept of youth, to the extent that they adopted American ideals of personal freedom, relaxed living and appreciation of the “lower races”.  They were viewed as a serious threat to the Nazi philosophy which sought to isolate Germany, and their reinforced repression caused them to exhibit anti-Nazi behavior which went beyond simply provoking the Authorities.  Street gangs were composed of working class youths who acquired aspects of socialist and communist traditions to construct their own character, though there were also groups such as the Edelweiss Pirates who persistently disregarded Hitler Youth norms.

In 1942, Heinrich Himmler wrote a letter suggesting that the ringleaders of the swing movement should be subjected to beatings and forced labor in concentration camps:

My judgment is that the whole evil must be radically exterminated now. I cannot but see that we have taken only half measures. All ringleaders (…) are into a concentration camp to be re-educated (…) detention in concentration camp for these youths must be longer, 2-3 years (…) it is only through the utmost brutality that we will be able to avert the dangerous spread of Anglophile tendencies, in these times where Germany fights for its survival.

The bold opposition to all things expected of them easily makes the Swing Kids a movement that I can identify with, though there was certainly severe punishment that awaited those who refused to fall in line with the Hitler Youth.  Everything from their clothes and hair to the music they listened to and the words they spoke were done in defiance of the Nazis, to a point where Swing Kids openly mocked them.  While the 1993 film captured the aesthetics of their lifestyle, it is seen as a typical sensationalized version loosely based on facts, with dance scenes that were certainly spectacular but not an accurate representation of moves the Swing Kids actually knew.  However, I find that there are some redeeming qualities such as the soundtrack and a few very poignant scenes which are responsible for motivating me to write this article.  One of them is when Christian Bale’s character is suiting up in his swing clothes, knowing full well he could be heading into potential danger.  The following guide is my interpretation of this classy appearance,  slightly modernized with heavy tones of decadence and an overall air of dandyism.


Swing Kids were effortlessly distinguished due to their prominent demeanor and eccentric clothing, which included one of the flashier traits in the form of an ostentatious haircut, considered to be a signature characteristic mandatory among their members.  The hair was copied from styles seen on favorite movie idols and made Swing Kids very contemporary in the trends of that time.  Males grew “whips” of long locks in rebellion of the standard short military cuts seen among their peers.  These pieces sometimes reached a foot in length and were combed back using sugar water.  Females directly disobeyed the universal braided hairstyle deemed acceptable by allowing their tresses to grow long and loose.

Selecting the appropriate clothing to correlate with foreign swing trends was complicated for the Swing Kids, as their muse was scarce American and English film clips or magazines.  The film stars were decked out in the latest fashions with mannerisms which coordinated with their idol status, and Swing Kids imitated them.  [German movies portrayed an atmosphere of peacetime and luxurious living – audiences disliked films with propaganda so the industry avoided them, instead providing an appealing escape from the war.]  Clothing and accessories that Swing Kids felt were essential in creating suitable wardrobes were difficult to find, so cheap quality and second-hand items became alternatives.  However, many Swing Kids also implemented their talent of creativity, and some even resorted to theft in order to obtain whatever could not be purchased.  This criminal activity certainly pales in comparison to the fact that Nazis were busy slaughtering millions of people, but should not be overlooked in examining the actions of Swing Kids as a resistance to the Nazi regime.  These rebels flagrantly celebrated their differences from mainstream society, and within the movement itself, individual clubs were distinguished by wearing handmade identity badges.

Recreating the swing style for men begins with an elegant purple pinstripe double-breasted suit jacket reminiscent of the 1930s zoot suit, which Swing Kids often had altered to tuck in at the waist for that Hollywood “tough guy” look, and it is coordinated with a pair of deep rise trousers worn baggy and with the cuffs turned up.  Layering a soft yellow-and-white striped cotton dress shirt with white collar and cuffs is a nice way of adding contrast to the ensemble.  The light grey vest is optional as it is likely to be tossed aside when the urge to hit the  dance floor.  A sleek black tie with diagonal white stripes captures the pattern of the suit while a boldly printed handkerchief should find its way folded into the suit pocket.  Vintage styled suspenders and ostentatious shoes with crepe soles are essential for comfort, especially while dancing.

Accessories are just as crucial to the Swing Kids aesthetic, as they  truly capture the personalities of the individual wearing them and varied depending on the cities in which they lived.  The 1930s style Trilby is a toned down version of the fedora and makes a wonderful all-purpose hat, while carrying an umbrella was almost obligatory and added to the Anglophile favoritism.  A traditional English bent Apple shaped pipe and light grey wool trench coat are excellent ways of finishing off this look – tucking a foreign newspaper into the pocket is an extra bonus for authenticity.  This vintage maroon and gold paisley print scarf with fringed edge and a pair of purple diamond patterned trouser socks ensure that the ensemble is loaded with flamboyance.  If one finds a tie to border on the side of boring, a brilliantly hued striped silk Ascot is considered to be fashion forward and brings a hint of aristocratic flavor.  Speaking of which, a set of Cuba Black cufflinks, mother of pearl vintage sword tie pin and the Frederique Constant Art Deco mens wristwatch are an easy means of giving the outfit a personal touch.

As mentioned earlier in this article, women were also quite active on their stance against the stereotypes of traditional beauty, mainly by wearing excessive makeup and leaving their hair loose rather than braiding it.  However, I feel many of the things covered in a previous guide could also be applied to Swing Kids style for women.  Overall, the ostentatious attitude may have been based on fantasy and coveted care-free lifestyles, but considering the circumstances that surrounded the movement, one can understand how it was far more appealing than the alternatives.  For all these reasons and more, the Swing Kids aesthetic is one that I feel can be incorporated into Carny Style while paying homage to those who were persecuted for their love of swing.

Photo credit: 1 –, 2 –, 3 –

4 –, 5 –, 6 –

Resources: German Swing Youth, Swing Kids

Style Spotlight: Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

There are a number of things that come into consideration when deciding whether or not someone embodies the aesthetics of Carny Style, and as the articles presented here so far have gathered is that these can be clearly defined by a rational guideline.  For me, a large part of this also comes from how one is presented to the public as well as how one acts outside of that realm, because you never know who is watching or what they might see.  It would surprise many to know that it is very easy for a performer to put on a front – after all, a large part of what makes a successful sideshow act is the fine art of bullshit.  However, I have had the pleasure of encountering some genuinely amazing individuals who treated me with nothing but kindness.  Impartial as my opinion can be, I feel confident that others would agree this month’s spotlight is more than deserving of the praise presented here.  They are elevated into my personal collection of Carny Trash Aristocracy and have served as great inspiration for several years, for which I offer my utmost thanks.


My introduction to this extraordinary troupe came in 2004 when I was honored with a position among their volunteer crew that assisted in their Palace of Variety which was located on 42nd Street and had been considered the last vaudeville house in Times Square.  It was not only an incredible opportunity to be a part of this project, but also an intimate experience with some of the nicest people I have ever met.  Their dedication and passion for the arts is something to be admired, and it is certainly not difficult to witness hours of preparation and practice succeeding to entertain audiences with ease.  Presentation is a large part of performance, which is often left to who can do what the best or shout about it the loudest, but I prefer animated words delivered from a character that makes the act interesting.  Throw in a visually stimulating outfit and punctuate the actions with appropriate music, make sure there is ample audience participation and that is what I consider to define a well-rounded production.

They have been together for about sixteen years, performed all across the country and continue to support circus, sideshow and other variety arts in a number of ways.  There are enough people who put on this facade but are motivated by greedier desires which I feel detracts from all of the positive aspects of the community.  It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Bindlestiffs have this position in what could be argued as a fictional hierarchy, but I have seen generosity, sincerity and for a brief moment in my life I truly felt that sense of belonging among people I could relate to.  The lack of judgment and genuine acts of courtesy   speak volumes of their constitution and serves as an example of quality which I feel is important when representing any culture.


One of the main components of this troupe is Keith “Bindlestiff” Nelson, who has two distinct characters on stage.  The first is Mr. Pennygaff, a suave smooth-talking gentleman straight from the hottest vaudeville review with the ability to charm audiences, swallow swords, juggle clubs and even presents an amazing top act.  The cut of his suits are slightly exaggerated, but that is to be expected for such a caricature.  The colors are primary hues that are accentuated with pinstripes or plaids.  A collard shirt and matching tie, coordinating bowler and vest along with two-tone shoes complete the ensemble and it certainly stands out when there is not much else on the stage.  Additionally, such items can be translated into contemporary wardrobes by obtaining well-fitted suits and key pieces that can easily be formed into a variety of looks by simply mixing and matching.  The acts themselves are riveting and can be noted for great dialogue that places humor in just the right places.

Kinko the Clown is a silent character, which means he must find other ways of communicating his story of woe to the audience.  The difference between a hobo and tramp clown lie within their perspective attitudes and variations of costume.  A hobo clown is a ‘devil-may-care’ vagabond content with his life on the road and what few personal possessions he may have.  A tramp clown believes himself to be a victim of circumstance and that this condition is caused by others.  It is safe to say that Kinko falls somewhere in the middle of these, and provides some sort of hope in his saddened smile.  The look of this type of clown is directly inspired by the appearance of homeless migratory workers who road freight trains in search of a temporary job or new adventure.  Even the makeup is inspired by the faces of these travelers, which would be covered by soot from riding coal driven trains – after wiping the soot from the eyes and mouths, they would appear white in contrast.  The main difference in costume is that the tramp’s will appear more tattered and dirtier in comparison to the hobo’s,  but they are both composed out of a suit and tie in dark colors, worn and patched with gloves and a hat.  Kinko wears a rope around his neck, perhaps in lieu of a tie or as an means of expression about the corporate work force.


The other founding member of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is Stephanie Monseu, aka Philomena Bindlestiff.  She makes an excellent ringmistress and emcee, capturing the audiences attention as they are brought into a world of imagination where circus, sideshow and other variety arts surpass imagination.  Her skills include the bull whip, juggling, fire eating, walking on stilts and singing, not to mention a larger-than-life personality and quite a collection of tattoos that I personally feel prevents her from being just another stage prop as is quite common among the females in this business.  Her style is both elegant and classic, not to mention that she makes quite a few of the outfits herself.  From beaded evening gowns and small top hats to corsets, frilly petticoats and heels, every choice is bright, glittering and overall fits her body well, which is also quite important since ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ are only cute when they are part of a burlesque routine.


The other members of this outstanding troupe may change over the years, but each and everyone has their own unique personality and style.  The shows are not strict to adhere to specific genres, but rather utilize acts and to tell a story presented in a variety of formats.  Even budding artists have a platform to showcase talent with a cavalcade that extends the opportunity towards today’s youth.  If circus, sideshow and related arts are to have any sort of future as a certifiable means of employment, then we must learn to respect it and treat it as such.  For me, the Bindlestiff’s have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that this is their lifelong mission, and I can only hope to have a fraction of their success.  Truly they serve as inspiration both on a personal and professional level, but they also set the precedent for the Carny Trash Aristocracy.  After all, it’s perfectly acceptable to be oneself, excel at what you love while keeping in mind where you came from and supporting the future of this culture.

Resources –,

Photos: 1 –, 3 –, 4 –

All Others –

Style Spotlight: Lucky Devil Thrillshow

From the first moment I ever set eyes on Tyler Fyre at the Coney Island Sideshows By the Seashore, it was obvious this man knew what class and style was without any shadow of a doubt.  His stage presence was the first I can remember being exposed to, and it was just as impressive as the clothes he wore.  As the legend goes, his career began as an outside talker and then eventually moved inside the building that was once home to the Dreamland Circus Sideshow where he performed the Human Blockhead, sword swallowing and a stunning fire eating routine to Man Or Astroman?  He teamed up with Keith Bindlestiff for a brief show called Lucky Stiff at the Pussycat Lounge in 2004, and I attended a few of these shows that featured sideshow, burlesque and a whole lot of debauchery.  His Lucky Devil Circus Sideshow morphed into the Lucky Devil Thrillshow which he shares with his lovely wife Thrill Kill Jill.  While I am not here to write a biography of Tyler’s career, I just wanted to make note of the fact I had the chance to interact with him on several occasions and always found him to be quite the polite gentleman.  It’s not just the clothes or the acts he presents on stage; he is a true showman and hence the reason I find he is suitable to serve as an example of Carny Style.

Tyler’s signature look is a bright red suit paired with a black shirt and red tie, a combination which immediately grabs the eyes and commands attention.  While he has sported other styles over the years, this one I feel best fits the character and personality that he portrays.  Even though he is noted as a brilliant sword swallower and master of fire, he has never lost the ability of being silver-tongued and provides a flawless pitch every time he opens his mouth that is quite reminiscent of the old school talkers.  They were always sharply dressed, often with a straw hat or  bamboo cane which they used to draw in curious crowds.  Transitioning from the bally stage to the main one require refinement and results in ensuring that spectators will have something appealing to look at.  The suit is as timeless as sideshow itself, and for me, Tyler wears it effortlessly whether he’s sliding solid steel into his stomach or flirting with fire.

Thrill Kill Jill certainly makes for sultry eye candy, especially wearing a corset and swallowing a sword.  She also creates bright fire balls and dances with deadly serpents, and at all time remains demure even though she’s showing off skin.  Unfortunately sex sells over talent, but I do believe there is a way to exude sensuality and make use of certain assets without coming off like a cheap stage prop.  While not everyone will agree with my opinion, I understand the point of having a lovely lady to seduce the audience with glittering costumes that don’t leave much to the imagination.  However, it can also be done in a way that’s not focusing entirely on the T’n’A, and I feel that Jill pulls that off wonderfully in a red and black corset paired with coordinating bustle. bra and heeled shoes.  She has a gypsy look as well for the snake charming, and while I have seen quite a few performers sporting similar belly dancing costumes, her raven locks and pale skin are reminiscent of the old school tattoo flash of a gypsy woman in profile.

Together, Tyler and Jill make an aesthetically pleasing couple whether they are on stage or posing for a publicity photo.  Their firey red outfits are a testament to both their skills and personalities, and while I have yet to actually see them perform together live, they are without a doubt one of the pairings in sideshow.  In fact, they have the honor of ranking high among the Carny Trash Aristocracy for their incredible showmanship, fabulous style and what seems like one hell of an entertaining show.  From my few interactions and what I have heard, they are amazingly wonderful people, which is rare to find in a business that is rampant with shit talking and other juvenile behavior.  It is for all these reasons and possibly even more that I am unable to think of at this moment that I selected them as the subjects for the premiere of this article, setting the standard of class and elegance for sideshow performers.

Lucky Devil Thrillshow

Photo credit: 1 –, 2 –, 3 – Prof. James Mundie , 4 –