Since I first posted about the wonderful Vesta Tilley (a year ago today, actually), I have developed what I guess you could term a slight obsession. In part it was a natural progression of my interest in Victorian/Edwardian theatre and performance, but it was also given a violent shove into serious courtesy of the wonderful Lyric Theatre Hammersmith production of Tipping the Velvet with the wonderful one-to-watch (Teessider!) Sally Messham as Nancy.
Born Matilda Alice Powles, Vesta Tilley was the stage name she adopted when performing her male impersonation act. She first wore male clothes on stage at just five years old, and she continued to be popular for over thirty years.
As well as performing in music halls and theatres in pantomimes (both male and female roles) and her own male impersonation act, with songs including Following in Father’s Footsteps and characters like Burlington Bertie, Vesta worked tirelessly during the First World War, so convincingly that she was nicknamed ‘Britain’s best recruiting Sergeant’.
Conscious that her masculine dressing (which was said, after a while, not to follow male fashion but to dictate it) be seen purely as an act and not something she indulged in full time, she was always careful to look exceptionally feminine off-stage. She never cut her hair short but wore it plaited into tiny braids and coiled around her head under a wig.
Incredibly popular and one of the most highly paid performers of her time, her farewell tour took a year to complete between 1919 and 1920, and at the end she was presented with a book of farewell signed by nearly two million fans and well-wishers.
So, here is my (current) collection of Vesta postcards… Lucky old eBay sellers have had rather a large chunk of my wages recently with buying these, so I’m hoping no more come on for sale any time soon!