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Nuclear family: Apocalyptic images of babies and kids outfitted in gas masks during wartime
11.08.2016
12:24 pm

Topics:
History
Hysteria

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A group of children riding their bikes while wearing gas masks, late 1930s.
 
By the time 1939 rolled around in Britain somewhere in the neighborhood of 38 million gas masks had been delivered by hand to homes in the event of a gas-related attack. On September 1,1939, Germany had invaded Poland leaving Britain and France with little choice but to declare war on Germany in order to help stop the advancement of Hitler’s military.

The masks were made to be portable, a rather terrifying aspect of what had become a way of life in Britain during wartime. In order to try to take away some of the fear regarding the omnipresent notion that bombs full of toxic gas could at any moment start raining from the sky to the din of air raid sirens, masks for children were manufactured to be more appealing to kids. In addition to making colorful masks Walt Disney even got in on the gas mask game and designed a “Mickey Mouse” gas mask in 1942. Only about 1,000 of Disney’s offputting Mouse masks were made.

During wartime it was also commonplace for schools to run emergency drills and there is almost nothing more chilling than the photographs taken during such drills that show children, some still clearly in diapers holding hands while wearing gas masks. Unless of course you consider that hospitals would also run drills and were instrumental in helping teach caregivers and parents of how to put their infants into special “baby gas respirators” that covered everything but the baby’s legs.

An image of a baby enclosed within the confines of a gas mask can never been unseen. So as crazy as this world has gotten over the course of this last year or so, the photos in this post are a somber reminder that things can always be (and used to be) much worse. Have some perspective.
 

Nurses in Britain helping test out gas masks for babies (under the age of two), 1940.
 

 

A group of mothers with their infants inside their gas masks.
 
More after the jump…

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The Surreal world of Coco Fronsac
11.03.2016
10:46 am

Topics:
Art
History

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Famille heureuse.
 
In one single day we upload more images onto the Internet than the total number of pictures produced during the whole of 19th century.

In one day—more pictures than a century’s worth of imagery. That’s one heck of a lotta selfies.

Our need for visual stimulus is relentless. We no longer view or experience imagery as previous generations did. The reverence with which some paintings or even photographs were once held is no longer relevant—we view indiscriminately, we consume continuously.

The French artist Coco Fronsac buys old discarded photographs from flea markets and turns them into Surreal works of art. Coco comes from a family of artists. Her grandparents Lucien Neuquelman and Camille Lesné were respected painters. Her parents met at art school. Coco attended art college in Paris before beginning her career as a painter, sculptor and creator of Surreal artworks from found photographs.

Coco takes each photograph—draws on it, paints over it and gives it a new life. If we cannot reclaim our past then we cannot understand our present. These photographs of people long dead, long forgotten have been abandoned, orphaned, thrown to the wind, sent for landfill. We no longer have any interest in them, their subject matter or the lives they lived. By turning these images into art, Coco reconnects the viewer’s relationship with the photo’s subjects. These reinvented images encourage the viewer to take a second look—to enquire about the subject matter and its history. Her intention is to bring people of different backgrounds together and rediscover the connections between us are far greater than the differences.

See more of Coco Fronsac’s work here.
 
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Evidences spectrales.
 
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Ectoplasmes.
 
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Holidays on Mars.
 
More of Coco Fronsac’s work, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Portraits of New Orleans prostitutes, 1912 (NSFW)
11.01.2016
09:33 am

Topics:
Art
History
Sex

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The kids thought the old man creepy. He had spidery legs, walked funny and was kinda misshapen. They told the younger kids he was a murderer, a weirdo and you don’t ever wanna go near his house. The grownups that knew him thought him a miser, a strange one, or that retired guy who’s always taking pictures. He had been a photographer—worked as a commercial photographer taking photos of ships, machines, or whatever the heck he was paid to shoot. Now he walked around New Orleans trying to take pictures with one of those newfangled hand cameras.

His name was E. J. Bellocq—John Ernest Joseph Bellocq. Nobody knew very much about him. He was a quiet man, kept himself to himself—which always sounds like the kind of thing said by neighbors after they find out they were living next door to a particularly nasty serial killer. Bellocq was no serial killer—but he did have a secret life that only came to light after his death in 1949.

In amongst his personal effects were about ninety glass plate photographs stored in his desk. These pictures were portraits of prostitutes from the red light district of Storyville circa 1912. They were portraits—often featuring the same women posed on chairs or standing in rooms where they worked their trade as prostitutes. Bellocq must have had a close—if not intimate—relationship with these women in order to gain their trust and have them pose so willingly. Portrait photography is a work of collaboration. These women are posing as they want to be seen—wearing furs or prized clothes, smiling with a pet dog, lying like one of Henri Matisse’s odalisques, or playing cards. The images are considered and composed. Other than that, we know very little about E. J. Bellocq and the women he photographed.

What we do learn is the historical conditions—the quality of rooms and brothels—these prostitutes lived and worked in around the turn of the last century in New Orleans. The rest we can imagine or fictionalize—as Louis Malle infamously did with his film (inspired by a song) of Bellocq’s relationship with an underage prostitute in Pretty Baby.
 
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More of Bellocq’s photos of New Orleans prostitutes, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
A book to blow minds: ‘The Day-Glo Designers Guide’
10.28.2016
02:07 pm

Topics:
Art
Drugs
History

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Cleveland, Ohio’s Day-Glo Color Corp. is “the world’s largest manufacturer of daylight fluorescent pigments.” They’ve been making their trip-friendly colors since the 1930s. This was right around the time that LSD was first made by Albert Hofmann in Switzerland. Synchronicity is occasionally quite cosmic.

In 1969, the Day-Glo company published a book to illustrate how their paints and inks could be used in commercial concepts. The Day-Glo Designer’s Guide is full of vibrantly psychedelic artwork including some fluorescent takes on Bert Stern’s iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe, a Karlheinz Stockhausen album cover, a Peter Max portrait of Toulouse Lautrec, pop-up flower garden, The Grateful Dead at The Playboy Mansion, Sammy Davis Jr. book cover and a packet of loose Day-Glo overlays and charts for use in lithography printing. It’s amazing how many “straight” corporations jumped on a style of graphics that was so clearly associated with the drug culture of the time. Airlines, banks, the British Commonwealth, food products and department stores jumped into the lysergic pool and hoped that they’d seem a lot hipper than they really were. For most of us hippies it looked like exactly what it was: “the man” was copping our culture. But we were too stoned to care.

In 1978, X-Ray Spex had a UK hit with a celebration of Cleveland’s greatest contribution to psychedelia with the song “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo.” The lyrics absolutely perfect: 

I clambered over mounds and mounds
Of polystyrene foam
And fell into a swimming pool
Filled with fairy snow
And watched the world turn day-glo
you know you know
The world turned day-glo you know

I wrenched the nylon curtains back
As far as they would go
And peered through perspex window panes
At the acrylic road

I drove my polypropylene
Car on wheels of sponge
Then pulled into a Wimpy bar
To have a rubber bun

The X-rays were penetrating
Through the latex breeze
Synthetic fibre see-thru leaves
Fell from the Rayon trees

 

 
So take a little trip down the swirling fluorescent river of Day-Glo with these images from the very rare The Day-Glo Designer’s Guide. I tried buying the book but I didn’t have a thousand dollars to spare. See every page from the guide here.
 

 

 

 
Much more Day-Glo after the jump…

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Factory Girls: The heroic Home Front efforts of British women during World War I
10.28.2016
09:53 am

Topics:
Feminism
History

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The idea British women suddenly started working during the First World War is an absolute myth. Most working class women had always been part of the British workforce—mainly in textile manufacturing, farming, education and the service industries. With the commencement of war, an estimated two million women replaced men in the workplace leading to a considerable rise in the proportion of working women—from 24% in 1914 to 37% in 1918. As a result:

...the number of women employed increased from 3,224,600 in July, 1914 to 4,814,600 in January 1918. Nearly 200,000 women were employed in government departments. Half a million became clerical workers in private offices. Women worked as conductors on trams and buses. A quarter of a million worked on the land. The greatest increase of women workers was in engineering. Over 700,000 of these women worked in the highly dangerous munitions industry. Industries that had previously excluded women now welcomed them. There was a particular demand for women to do heavy work such as unloading coal, stoking furnaces and building ships.

The war gave women greater opportunities—a wider range of occupations and an alternative to traditional roles—which led most notably to a decline in domestic service. From the 1700s to 1911, around 12% of the female population in England and Wales worked in domestic service as cooks, maids, nannies, cleaners, etc. This dropped to less than 8% by 1931—mainly due to job opportunities available for women in the workplace. Half of the women who applied to work at London omnibuses in 1916 came from domestic service. An interesting side effect of all this was the increase in labor saving devices—vacuum cleaners, automatic washing machines and domestic refrigerators.

The influx of women into the job market gave rise to trade unions. In 1914, 375,000 women were members of a trade union. This had risen to over one million by 1918. The only problem here was the fact women were still paid far less than their male counterparts for doing the same job….plus ca change…

More women in work meant more childcare services. Around 100 nurseries were established for women working in munition factories during the war. However, the government of the day did not provide similar services for women working in any other industries.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)—the suffragette movement—which had campaigned for women’s suffrage was split by the war. Originally formed in 1903 by Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU divided between Christabel and Emmeline who supported the war and Sylvia Pankhurst who was against it. The WSPU was not in favor of universal women suffrage but rather suffrage for a small (upper) class section of the female population—”Votes for ladies” rather than “votes for women.”

The war led to changes in suffrage as those males allowed to vote had to be resident in the UK for twelve months prior to any election. As most of the electorate had been overseas fighting in France—this meant there was only a small percentage of men eligible to vote. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 gave votes to men over the age of 21 and all women over the age of 30 who were occupiers of property or married occupiers of property. This was in small part an acknowledgement of the essential work carried out by women during the war—but also in large part due to tireless political campaigning for the right to vote. For if the women’s right to vote had been inspired solely by their actions during the war then surely women under thirty would have also been given the vote. Most women who worked in munition factories or in essential war work were single, in their late teens and early twenties. These young women were actually pointedly denied the right to vote by the Representation of the People Act. Apparently the war effort—as some historians hold—did not really merit a “thank you” to the women who worked on the home front. That would take another ten years before women over the age of 21 had the right to vote, just like men.

As part of the propaganda for the war effort, photographers were sent out to document women at work in factories across Britain. These photographs of women laborers at the Parsons’ Works on Shields Road, Newcastle, were taken between 1914 and 1918, and are held by the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums:

The factory was founded by engineer Charles Parsons, best known for his invention of the steam turbine. In 1914, with the outbreak of war, Parsons’ daughter Rachel, one of the first three women to study engineering at Cambridge, replaced her brother on the board of directors, and took on a role in the training department of the Ministry of Munitions, supporting the increasing amount of women taking on jobs in industry to support the war effort.

These pictures are not stylized as later photographs were during the Second World War for far more overt propaganda purposes. These women are intensely focussed in getting on with their job. Some seem camera shy—but it must have seemed strange to be photographed at work when it was such an ordinary yet essential thing to be doing.
 
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More factory girls on the home front, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
The earliest known depiction of a witch flying on a broomstick
10.25.2016
11:46 am

Topics:
History
Occult

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The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) possesses countless treasures, but one of the most intriguing is certainly the first known depiction of a witch flying on a broom. As with the trope of a stork bringing a family a newborn baby, the image has embedded itself so deeply in our culture that we seldom stop to ask what it means or where it originally came from.

The marginal illustrations of the 1451 edition of French poet Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames (The Defender of Ladies), a manuscript of which currently resides in the BNF, include an image of two women levitating, one on a stick, the other on a broom. In Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, history professors Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters assert that this edition of Le Champion des Dames contains “the first such illustration in the pictorial history of witchcraft.” Elsewhere they call it “the first known illustration of women flying on broomsticks.”

Le Franc’s lengthy poem on virtuous women (I almost wrote “nasty women”) features a section on witches, alongside of which the broomstick illustration appears. Fascinatingly, the two women have no physical deformity whatsoever and cannot be visually singled out as witches—but for the broomstick. Their covered heads is a sign that they are Waldensians, a kind of precursor to the Protestant Reformation.

But why broomsticks?
 

Definitely NOT the first depiction of a witch on a broomstick—it’s from 1910—but it was just too good not to use here.
 
Busting out his Freudian playbook, Dylan Thuras at Atlas Obscura muses that the “broom was a symbol of female domesticity, yet the broom was also phallic, so riding on one was a symbol of female sexuality, thus femininity and domesticity gone wild.” Furthermore, pagan rituals of the day often incorporated phallic forms, and the image of a broomstick between a woman’s legs would have been quite unsettling to Catholics.

The engine behind the power flight lay not in the stick, however, but in the “ointment” or “potion” that was applied to it, which might have included nightshade, henbane or fly agaric magic mushrooms. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber found this reference in the 15th-century works of Jordanes de Bergamo:
 

The vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.

 
“Other hairy places”—sounds like a veiled reference to genitalia, to which the levitating stick of course comes into close proximity.

Matt Soniak found a 1477 reference from Antoine Rose, who, after being accused of witchcraft in France, confessed that the Devil had given her flying potions; she would “smear the ointment on the stick, put it between her legs and say ‘Go, in the name of the Devil, go!’”

Now there’s that crazy witchcraft!
 
Note: The information in this article derives from a better and longer post written by Allison Meier at Hyperallergic, posted yesterday. Highly recommended.
 

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
The Gorbals Vampire: The child-eating monster that terrorized Glasgow in the 1950s
10.20.2016
12:37 pm

Topics:
Amusing
Belief
History
Hysteria

Tags:

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For three nights the children came to the “City of the Dead.” They carried knives, clubs and stakes—even a crucifix. Two hundred or more children came to the Gorbals Necropolis—a large cemetery situated in the south of the city of Glasgow. They were aged between four and fourteen. A few were just toddlers accompanying older brothers on this terrifying hunt. There was a sense of excitement. A sense of danger. Some thought it thrilling. Others were terrified. Most set with a grim determination of what had to be done. They said they were ready—they knew they were ready.  Ready to hunt and kill a vampire.

In September of 1954 the children from the Gorbals district of Glasgow were terrorized by tales of a hideous vampire. A ghoulish beast, he was supposedly seven feet tall with blood red eyes and sharp iron teeth. The children called this creature the Gorbals Vampire. They said it had already killed two young boys—drinking their blood and feasting on their flesh. The police refused to comment but when pressed claimed they had no knowledge of these missing children or the vampire who had eaten them. But the children thought they knew better…

Tales and half-truths spread word-of-mouth: Wee Jimmy had heard it from Rab; and Rab heard it from Billy; and Billy should know ‘cause his cousin’s a policeman.

On September 23rd, police constable Alex Deeprose was called to a disturbance at the Gorbals “City of the Dead”—the Southern Necropolis. PC Deeprose was shocked on arrival to find up to 200 kids roaming the graves looking for signs of a vampire. At first, he thought the children were joking—but when they begged him to help find the vampire and drive a stake through its heart, he realized that this was no joke.

Tam Smith was a seven-year-old schoolboy at the time. He recalled the scene in a newspaper interview:

“The walls were lined with people. We ventured through the gatehouse and there were loads of kids in there, some wandering around, some sitting on the walls. There were a lot of dogs too, and mums and dads with kids.

“We found a place to stand out of the way because there were so many people there. I think the whole of the Gorbals was in that graveyard. It’s hard to put an estimate on the number of people.”

But what had caused so many people to believe there was a vampire in their midst? Ronnie Sanderson was an eight-year-old from the Gorbals when the vampire story first spread through the city:

“It all started in the playground - the word was there was a vampire and everyone was going to head out there after school. At three o’clock the school emptied and everyone made a beeline for it. We sat there for ages on the wall waiting and waiting. I wouldn’t go in because it was a bit scary for me.”

“I think somebody saw someone wandering about and the cry went up: ‘There’s the vampire!’ That was it - that was the word to get off that wall quick and get away from it.”

“I just remember scampering home to my mother: ‘What’s the matter with you?’ ‘I’ve seen a vampire!’ and I got a clout round the ear for my trouble. I didn’t really know what a vampire was.”

 
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The vampire hunt and the story of the two missing children spread panic across the city. Still, the police had no report of any missing children. At the local school the headmaster denounced the story as nonsense and warned children against believing such a ridiculous tale, but the following night and the night after that the Gorbals children came out in force looking to kill a vampire.

The press picked up on the story. “AMAZING SCENE AS HUNDREDS OF CHILDREN RUSH CEMETERY” ran one headline. The Gorbals Vampire was dismissed as an urban myth—an example of mass hysteria. The press began to investigate how this fiction of the murderous bloodsucking monster came about. They claimed American comic books like Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Horror were responsible. These comics with their graphic tales and gruesome imagery were the cause of the mass panic. Yet some academics disagreed stating they had found no reference to any iron toothed vampire in either comic. Instead they claimed there was “a monster with iron teeth in the Bible (Daniel 7.7) and one in a poem taught in local schools.”

Then another story spread about a woman—most probably a witch—who was said to be in league with the Gorbals Vampire:

“There was an old lady who used to carry two cats in a basket. She would go to the graveyard to get peace away from the kids and let her cats have a wander. But she was in there the night we went looking for it and people were involving the ‘cat woman’ with the iron man. It was a shame when you think about it, she was an eccentric with wiry hair, but we called her Tin Lizzie. She was the iron man’s ‘burd’.”

In fact, the press were half right. The story of an iron-tooth vampire had been inspired by an American comic—but not Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror—rather Dark Mysteries.

In issue the December 1953 issue of Dark Mysteries #15 there was a story entitled: “The Vampire with the Iron Teeth.” This was the apparent source of the panic over the Gorbals Vampire.
 
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The suggestion that “nasty” American comic books were corrupting young children led to an unholy alliance between teachers, Communists and religious leaders to demand a ban on sales of comics like Tales from the Crypt and the Vault of Horror to children.

Yet our two eyewitnesses to the events of September 1954 have said they had never seen a horror movie or read a horror comic.
 
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On September 26th, 1954, the Sunday Mail newspaper ran the following story:

VAMPIRE WITH IRON TEETH IS “DEAD”

Read on after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
The ‘Cutting Monster’: Bizarre 18th century illustrations of London’s stab-happy lady stalker
10.17.2016
11:20 am

Topics:
Crime
History
Sex

Tags:


A bizarre illustration/caricature by James Gillray of the ‘Monster’ (aka the ‘Cutting Monster’) assaulting one of his female victims, 1790.
 
Nearly a century before Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of London, a serial lady-stalker dubbed the “Monster” (or the “Cutting Monster”) would attack his first victim in May 1788. During a short walk in the early evening to a friend’s home, Mrs. Maria Smyth had the misfortune to cross paths with a man who, according to a vintage account of the incident, made a loud, lascivious request of Mrs. Smyth. Smyth picked up the pace of her evening stroll which in turn caused her harasser to increase his lurid taunting. By the time Smyth got to her friend’s doorstep the man lurched quickly with a knife and stabbed her in the breast and thigh—something that would become somewhat of a signature move for the Monster.

More than 50 similar attacks by the roving slasher would occur over the course of a three-year period in which the Monster would seemingly go out of his way to stab his victims in the same areas—the breast, buttocks or thigh—after verbally accosting them in the street when they were not in the company of a male companion or chaperone. The slash-happy assailant also incorporated the use of a bouquet of flowers to conceal a knife which he would use to stab his targets in the face when he was able to convince them to get close enough to the flowers to smell them. It’s also been theorized that whoever the “Monster” was. he enjoyed slashing up his victim’s clothing almost as much as plunging his knife into their flesh. As you might imagine the incidents were covered by the newspapers of the day and in 1790 a rather terrifying and wildly out-of-proportion caricature was done by Scottish artist Isaac Cruikshank (pictured at the top of this post) and was published by S.W. Forest, which was based on a first hand account by three women who were attacked by the Monster.

In the summer of 1790, florist—and frequent visitor to London’s many brothels—Rhynwick Williams was picked-up by the Bow Street Runners (who were essentially functioning as an early version of the police during the time) on suspicion of being the man behind the sexually-charged attacks. William’s not only insisted he was innocent but was able to bring forward numerous witnesses that would vouch for his whereabouts during the crimes. As the furor surrounding the assaults had reached epidemic levels around London the prosecution in the case decided that charging Williams’ with “destruction of property” would bring the longest sentence—a possible seven years per crime. The destruction of property in this case being the clothing the Monster had such an affinity for shredding up while attacking his female victims.

The charge didn’t stick and Williams was tried a second time four months later and convicted of “three counts of wounding” which sent him to chokey for six years. Though the attacks all but stopped once Willams was locked up, he would continue to profess his innocence (noted in the 2002 book The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale by Jan Bondeson) in letters from jail where he would cite criminal cases that were similar to the ones he was accused of in an attempt to perpetuate the idea that the “Monster” was still “out there” and that the cops were even covering up crimes to save face. When he was finally released Willams apparently married a woman who wasn’t afraid of sharp objects and according to historians of the case no further references to “Rhynwick Williams” were ever recorded with the exception of one that strongly suggests Williams changed his name to “Henry” so he could avoid further association with the Monster.
 

A strange depiction of London’s the ‘Monster.’
 

The second panel from Cruikshank’s depiction of the ‘Monster’ featuring his victim outfitted with protective ‘copper bottom.’ And yes, ‘copper bottoms’ were a thing back in the 18th century though they were used by women to ‘enhance’ their appearance.
 

The ‘Monster’ (now with three heads) attacking a pair of ‘old maids,’ 1790.
 
More of the Monster after the jump…

Posted by Cherrybomb | Leave a comment
Disturbingly lifelike gender-bending mannequins
10.10.2016
12:47 pm

Topics:
Art
History
Sex

Tags:


Pierre Imans’ ‘lesbian’ mannequins that were featured in an exhibit called the ‘Streets of Paris’ in 1920.
 
In the early 1900s, a mannequin cost about $15 and it was around that time that Parisian artist Pierre Imans’ unconventional mannequins started to appear in windows around Paris. Imans would not only create the first mannequin of color (that was modeled after the great Josephine Baker) he also created a pair of lesbian mannequins (pictured above) that were part of an exhibition at the Moulin Rouge called the “Streets of Paris” back in 1920. While Imans’ creation were probably not so shocking for the far-ahead-of-their-time, progressive Parisians (Paris was the place everyone was getting their kinkly BSDM wear from during that time after all), they were still rather unconventional when it came to their appearance.

Imans’ mannequins drew somewhat from an Art Nouveau perspective and their forms had elegant modern lines and chiseled features. Many of Imans’ mannequins also possessed a sort of asexual look with the male mannequins having rather feminine features while his female models sported short masculine haircuts and menswear-inspired clothing. Even Imans himself didn’t care for the use of “labels” and preferred to operate under title of “sculptor” often using the phrase “Les Cires de Pierre Imans” or “The waxes of Pierre Imans” to describe his business. So revered was the Frenchman that upon the third exhumation of Saint Marie-Bernarde “Bernadette” Soubirous (or St. Bernadette whose initial claim to Catholic fame was seeing an apparition of the Virgin Mary eighteen times) Imans was called upon to create a wax imprint of St. Bernadette’s face and hands so that the body would not show signs of decay where it remains to this day on display in a crystal coffin in Nevers, France.

To enhance his already spookily realistic mannequins the talented French master sculptor would use real hair for his models including eyelashes and eyebrows, glass eyes and teeth made of porcelain. Vintage creations by Imans’ sell for thousands of dollars and even promotional photographs of Imans’ mannequins sell for a tidy sum of cash on various auction sites such as eBay. I’ve included a variety of images from Imans’ vast catalog (that spanned more than three decades) of his more intriguing mannequins for you to stare at while waiting for them to actually move, below. 
 

 

 
More mannequins after the jump…

Posted by Cherrybomb | Leave a comment
Mata Hari: Sexy photographs of the original femme fatale
10.07.2016
01:01 pm

Topics:
Dance
Feminism
History

Tags:

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James Bond would never have made a great spy because too many of his enemies knew his identity. Great spies are anonymous—as any fule kno. They carry out their work covertly. Only their handlers know of their existence and their stealthy actions.

At her trial for espionage in 1917, the dancer and courtesan Mata Hari was described by her accusers as “perhaps the greatest woman spy of the century.”

She was charged by the French of spying for the Germans during First World War. It was alleged her cunning double-dealing had been responsible for the deaths of at least some 50,000 soldiers. Her actions were denounced as unmitigated evil. Her liberated sexuality deemed a cover for her career as a spy and worse—a threat to the moral substance of the honorable French people.

In truth, the French were shitting themselves. Their country had been invaded by Germany. They were dependent on the Allies to defend their homeland and defeat the might of the invading German army. If this weren’t humiliating enough—after the failure of the Nivelle offensive in 1917, there was widespread mutiny among the French troops. It looked as though France was about to capitulate under the strain and surrender to the Germans. The country needed a scapegoat to distract attention. They needed someone who could be blamed for undermining morale and destroying the fantasy of French military superiority.

Step forward Mata Hari. A woman who was not so much a spy but rather the victim of weak duplicitous men determined to sacrifice her life for their government’s failings.
 
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Mata Hari was the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle who was born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands on August 7th, 1876. Margaretha’s biography is as much the story of a strong independent woman as it is about a woman dealing with the failure, stupidity and brutality of the men in her life.

Raised in an affluent household, Margaretha moved to the Dutch East Indies and married Captain Rudolf MacLeod when she was eighteen. MacLeod was a brutish drunk who regularly beat Margaretha. He kept a concubine and was riddled with syphilis.

Margaretha had two children with MacLeod. A son Norman-John who died at the age of two from complications relating to treatment for his inherited syphilis. A daughter Louise-Jeanne died at 21—again from complications from her inherited syphilis. To escape her husband’s drunken brutality, Margaretha studied traditional Indonesian dance. She adopted the name Mata Hari—meaning “eye of the day” or “sun.”

The couple separated in 1902. Mata Hari moved to Paris with her daughter where she supported herself as an artist’s model. She also worked in a circus and more importantly started performing as an exotic dancer.

Mata Hari adapted the traditional dance she had learnt in Indonesia to choreograph her own risque routines—a modern Salome discarding her veils. Mata Hari was a pioneer of modern dance—along with that other leading light Isadora Duncan—her exotic dances broke the rigid formality of ballet or even the can-can.

By 1905, Mata Hari was a dance star performing all over Europe. She sent audiences into paroxysms of ecstasy with her “feline, extremely feminine,” “thousand curves and movements,” a graceful wild animal with “blue-black” hair. Her dances almost revealed her naked form—only her breasts remained hidden as she was self-conscious about their size.

Mata Hari was courted by rich eligible men—as well as by many two-timing cads. She became a courtesan—which is a posh word for a high class hooker. It would be this access to upper echelons of politicians, high-ranking soldiers and wealthy industrialists that later led French and British authorities to think Mata Hari was a spy.

By 1915, Mata Hari felt too old to continue with her erotic dance routines and retired from performance. She was in love with a Russian pilot named Captain Vadim Maslov. When Maslov was shot down and blinded in a dogfight over the Western Front, Mata Hari asked for permission to visit him in hospital. As a Dutch national living in neutral Netherlands during the First World War, Mata Hari had to seek permission to travel to and from countries involved in the conflict. As Mata Hari had been continuing her relationships with some of her wealthy admirers in France, she had come under suspicion by British authorities due to the number of trips she made to and from the Netherlands. When she applied to the French authorities for a visa to visit her young beau, Mata Hari was coerced to become a spy for the French.

The deal went something like this—If you want to see your hot young BF then we want you to fuck some information out of a few German colonels. We especially want you to fuck the German Crown Prince Wilhelm and get all his secrets. Mata Hari was also offered a bagful of cash. It may have been the cash incentive that made her say “Okay, sure. When do I start?”

The problem with the devious French plan was that Crown Prince Wilhelm knew nothing. He was an idiot. A wastrel who liked whoring, drinking, playing soldiers and pulling his pork. How the French military intelligence (the Deuxième Bureau) thought they could learn anything useful from Clown Prince Wilhelm is utterly baffling. However, Mata Hari went off to Germany in a bid to get the inside skinny.

Unfortunately the Germans knew Mata Hari was a spy and gave her bogus information. They also exposed her as a double agent—letting the Deuxième Bureau know Mata Hari was actually their agent. Of course, she wasn’t. Mata Hari was just a useful pawn in a terrible game.

The French were suspicious. In December 1916, they gave Mata Hari some information about six agents in the field—five of whom were double agents working for the Germans. The sixth was a double agent working for the French. When the sixth agent was arrested and executed by the Germans—the French firmly beleved that Mata Hari was a spy.

On February 13th, Mata Hari was arrested and charged with espionage. She was quickly put on a show trial. It was a deeply one-sided affair—Mata Hari had literally been found guilty before questioning even began.

Captain Georges Ladoux—the man who coerced Mata Hari into working as a French spy—prepared the case against her. It was a win-win situation for Ladoux. Either Mata Hari seduced the Crown Prince and found out useful information or she took the fall as a double agent and raised the country’s morale. Hoorah! Ladoux himself was later arrested and charged as double agent, but he was eventually acquitted over a lack of evidence.

The trial of Mata Hari was given front page coverage across France. The press worked in cahoots with the French authorities to tell the accepted—or rather authorized—version of events. Maslov could have saved her—but he was embittered by his blindness and refused to testify in her defence.

Though there was never any real evidence against Mata Hari—her final script was now written. Mata Hari the world’s greatest and most evil spy was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to death. Mata Hari was executed on October 15th, 1917. She refused to be blindfolded or tied to the stake. She blew kisses at the firing squad. She was just 41.
 
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More photographs of Mata Hari, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
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