What are the aesthetic associations of the chorus girl and showgirl? Parading across the stage in flamboyant costume while high-kicking, singing, and dancing as the audience erupts in applause for the talented beauty that presents itself before them. This imagery summons the thought of dazzling White beauty, especially in the historic sense when Black and White entertainment spaces were segregated by de facto and de jure practices. So, how did Black chorus girls claim a “Black is beautiful” aesthetic before the phrase even came into the vernacular? Through intellect, through performance, and most importantly, through fashion.

“I make these following assertions: That…the chorus girl has been the most active medium in glorifying the Negro woman” [1]

In 1928, Eva Jessye published an article entitled “Chorus Girl Has Helped Glorify Modern Woman.” In this article, Jessye insists that it was the Black chorus girl who set the stylistic standards for women to embrace the femininity that had been denied to them during the period of enslavement, thus playing a crucial role in Black racial uplift. Jessye writes, “[t]he chorus girl has forced recognition of the beauty and charm of the colored woman, not only from the outside, but has awakened the Negro woman herself to her open possibilities.”[2]  For Black women during the twentieth century and onward, the chorus girl provided a new avenue to display feminine identity through metropolitan fashion stylings.

The chorus girl was a unique asset to the twentieth-century stage. Her blueprint was inspired and birthed by the influence of European models and performers. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., who was a Broadway impresario, used the famous Paris revue, the Folies Bergère, as inspiration to produce a new revue called the Follies.[3] One of the most distinctive features of the Follies was the score of beautiful White young women dressed in risqué attire and accessories—an elaborate nod to the style of burlesque. The girls did not perform as actresses or singers, but they were pleasing to watch, thus the chorus girl as a “showgirl” was introduced and became a staple in all shows.[4] Chorus girls were not the highlight of the show initially, the girls served as transitional entertainment and accessories. For this reason, the chorus girl was designed to make a noticeable presence on stage and engage the audience in a way that had not been required previously.   

3 showgirls with large feather headdresses on stairs

Marion Benda (center) and two showgirls in the Feather Number from the stage production Ziegfeld Follies of 1925, 1925, Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The choice of costume for the chorus girl was one that came with some risk. If the attire did not cultivate approval or reaction from the audience, then the presence of the chorus line was fleeting. This was especially important for the Black woman as a chorus girl because the audience’s reaction to attire set them apart from other women and allowed audiences to aspire to exist within this representation of the New Negro woman. Alphonso McClendon writes in Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation that “[e]ssentially, the dress motive was to garner approval from the audience with a distinguishing and aspirational appearance.”[5] In an assessment on the public’s response to the chorus girl, Jessye writes:

Think over the choruses of Shuffle Along…Rang Tang…Can you imagine any sane woman not rushing home to experiment…holding counsel with herself on the advisability of shortening her skirts a wee bit…and that with a little care as to diet and exercise she could have a cut figure like the saucy little pony on the left end?[6]

From this observation we begin to connect the importance of stage presence and self-representation for Black women. In one notable case, the musical Blackbirds presented a version of the chorus girl who did not conform to standards set by those who believed Black women could only be feminine if they had a closer proximity to whiteness. Such was the case with Florence Mills who was previously a soubrette in Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s musical Shuffle Along.[7]  She soon received the opportunity to sing the title song “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” in Lew Leslie’s musical, Blackbirds of 1926. The performance catapulted her to fame and required Leslie to fund the glamorization of Mills. As Bill Egan writes, “Leslie lived up to his promise to provide lavish costumes. Florence has a variety of costumes…Her costumes ranged from elaborate, feathered, African-style garb with fancy headdress…Costumes for the show cost $25,000 of an estimated $60,000 for the cost of the total production.”[8] Florence soon became a fashion symbol for those who followed Black entertainers of the day. To quote Egan:

Anything Florence did was liable to end up as the latest fashion fad. A golden anklet with lock and miniature key that she wore became a popular accessory…There were Florence Mills dolls, and a woman shopping for a certain shade of creamy brown silk stockings simply asked for ‘the new Florence Mills shade.’[9]

19 vintage images of showgirl portraits in sepia

Florence Mills, Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Prior to the rise in fame of Mills, chorus girls existed to further perpetuate the exotic tropes that aided in the subjugation and assault of Black women. The musical sequence In Dahomey premiered at the 1893 World’s Fair and consisted of stereotypical African sounds and imagery.  The chorus line “showed the chorus girls draped in colorful, patterned Kente cloth which offered a sharp contrast to the high-necked, floor-length dresses of the white women at the fair and, through this contrast, designated black dancers as hypersexual.”[10] Years later the sequence would be featured in the 1927 production of Show Boat, a show that went against expectations by not opening with a high-kicking ostentatious chorus line. Ziegfeld served as the producer and chose to invest tens of thousands of dollars into the costume designs for the Black and White chorus girls. Because Ziegfeld was worried that the controversial nature of the show’s plot would disappoint audiences, “he worked to ensure that the aesthetics would not” by hiring John Harkrider, costume designer and art director, to design costumes for the show in a style similar to those worn by the Follies.[11] Ziegfeld’s brand of femininity was arguably the most effective means of marketing to women during the early twentieth century. His decision to focus on the costumes of the Black chorus line in Show Boat exemplified a shift towards marketing to Black women in a way that had previously only applied to White women.

Black and white portrait of showgirl in small feather headdress

Publicity photograph of Florence Mills in costume for the stage production Blackbirds of 1926, 1926, Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. 

In contrast, Irvin Miller’s revue Brown Skin Models was deemed “the greatest colored revue” and featured only attractive Black women and talent without the use of minstrelsy tropes. The primary focus was on the line of women who modeled their fashionable costumes then “walked across the stage, and posed.”[12] The revue was unique in that it brought about new aspects of modeling that had not been exercised by producers. The chorus girls were considered to be works of fine art and as the “contemporary couturier’s clothes model” because of their ornate costumes coupled with unrestricted sexuality.[13] Some girls would pose in elaborate costumes composed of feather boas and headdresses, while others would pose unclothed, using studio drapery as the only prop. Blanche Thompson, who was the lead showgirl-model and Miller’s wife, made the costumes for the show that were used for the dress promenade scenes. Brown Skin Models chorus girls posed “in revealing costumes, including transparent netting” as a rationale for the show was that it was meant to toe the line of fashion and nudity as art.[14] By the 1930s, half of the show consisted of the showgirl-model posing on stage, allowing the Black woman performer to represent an aesthetic of femininity whose success did not depend on blackface, jungle references, or purposeless nudity.

An article in the New York Amsterdam News praised the presentation and quality of the chorus girls, stating that “[w]ith a cast of some twenty ‘principal entertainers’ a chorus of eighteen of the most beautiful girls in America, and scenery and costumes costing from $12,000 to $14,000, the ‘Brown Skin Models’ is the most gorgeous musical comedy which Miller has ever produced.”[15] In most publications, the Brown Skin Models were often photographed in glamorous hats with long pieces of fabric hanging off of the side.[16] Conveniently, underneath one review of the show sits an advertisement for “Odessa Ladies’ hats, dresses and gowns” which were sold nearby in Harlem. This subtle placement displays the shift of the chorus girl as an influence on growing consumer culture.

Black and white photo of 11 showgirls on stage

Maude Russel and her Ebony Steppers – 1929 Cotton Club show “Just A Minute,” Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.

Chorus girls walked the line between celebrity and patron, and their use of costume as fashion did not represent status, wealth, or respectability. Rather, their fashion represented the ability to achieve the very ideals that had been robbed from the Black woman by way of the stereotypes imposed by enslavement. As Jessye notes: 

The chorus girl has forced recognition of the beauty and charm of the colored woman, not only from the outside, but has awakened the Negro woman herself to her own possibilities…[Our] brethren…reverently paid homage to the white woman as the epitome of all that is beautiful in the deadly sex…But the [Black chorus girl] of today…studies to originate, imitate, improve…she buys clothes to dress her personality as well as the figure.[17] 

When the Black chorus girl stepped on stage she consciously utilized dress and costume to further redefine the “New Negro” woman, setting the stage for fashion as activism in the wake of modernity.[18]

References
  1. Eva Jessye, “Chorus Girl has Helped Glorify Modern Woman: Manager of Dixie Jubilee Singers Says Chorines have Forced Recognition of Colored Woman ‘She’s the Type,’ Says Miss Jessye,” Pittsburgh Courier (Pittsburgh, PA), Aug 25, 1928, 1.

  2. Ibid.

  3. The original name for the revue was the Follies of 1910. In 1911, Ziegfeld would attach his name to the show turning the Follies to the Ziegfeld Follies.

  4. Ziegfeld made multiple distinctions between a “show girl” and a “chorus girl,” often favoring one term over the other depending on the talent in question. Articles also point to Ziegfeld’s defence of girls who could model avant-garde fashion on stage without the presence of singing or dancing.

  5. Alphonso D. McClendon, Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation (Bloomsbury, 2015), 5.

  6. Jessye, “Chorus Girl,” 1.

  7. A soubrette is a glorified chorus girl that had multiple talents. She was generally paired with a male dancer which allowed her the opportunity to eventually develop into a solo-artist.

  8. Bill Egan, Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen (Scarecrow, 2004), 108.

  9. Ibid., 174.

  10. Bethany Wood, “Capital Complex: Valuations of Femininity in 1920s Stage Adaptations from Women’s Culture,” PhD diss., (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012), 109.

  11. Bethany Wood, Women Adapting: Bringing Three Serials of the Roaring Twenties to Stage and Screen (University of Iowa Press, 2019), 139.

  12. Elspeth H. Brown, “The Commodification of Aesthetic Feeling: Race, Sexuality, and the 1920s Stage Model,” Feminist Studies, vol. 40, no. 1 (2014): 89.

  13. Ibid., 87.

  14. Elspeth H. Brown, Work! A Queer History of Modeling (Duke University Press, 2019), 69.

  15. Ibid., 7.

  16. “Irvin Miller’s ‘Brown Skin’ Models here Next Week,” New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938) (New York, NY), Jul 07, 1926, 13. 

  17. Jessye, “Chorus Girl,” 1.

  18. The “New Woman” of the early twentieth century referred to the women that sought radical social, economic, and political change. This term referred to White women and did not consider the plight of the Black female experience. Thus, the “New Negro Woman” was set in contrast to the “New Woman” through an understanding of the ways in which race played a vital factor in producing obstacles in Black women’s struggle for gender independence.