Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ali Ben Haggin: High Priest of Costume

So you're back, eh? This post will be educational. However, it involves such tantalizing topics as nudity, so I'm sure you'll like it.

Clearing throat, organizing cue cards....

Recently, I find I have a renewed interest in early 20th century burlesque. True, there is something magical about burlesque in general, but I just want to talk about the costumes. While doing a bit of reading on the Ziegfeld Follies, the same three names kept popping up: The first - Erte - I had heard of and already knew to be a costume designer; The second - Lady Duff Gordon (otherwise known as Lucille) - I had heard of, but not in association with costumes; and the third - Ali Ben Haggin (or alternatively Ben Ali Haggin) - I had never heard of at all. Who was this mystery man/woman?

As soon as I found out the following about HIM, I immediately developed a fondness for the man. Apparently, during the height of the Follies, New York laws forbade the combination of nudity AND movement on stage. Since nudity of the non-moving kind was still allowed, Haggin decided to stage a series of elaborate tableaux, also known as tableaux vivant. Not only did Haggin stage these frozen melodramas, he often costumed them and elaborately so .The tableaux became a smash hit with Follies patrons as they depicted sweeping historical scenes, half-naked women, and patriotism, which we all know Americans love. This excerpt from Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show by Rachel Schteir illustrates this last bit brilliantly:

As the war intenstified, posing undressed began to be considered patriotic. If a woman stood naked posed as the Statue of Liberty, she was doing her duty for the American troops. Indeed, a record number of woman volunteered to be "undraped" in the 1917 edition's centerpiece. In the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, which opened after the United States had joined the war, the curtain opened on a darkened stage to reveal a huge, revolving globe with Kay Laurell perched on top, breast exposed. Little French girls in rags, a dying soldier attended by Red Cross volunteers, and a trench over which doughboys charged amid devastating gunfire completed the scene. Gazing down on a Ben Ali Haggin set piece designed to look like the world burning, Laurell was supposed to represent the spirit of France, strangle inspiring the choreographer Ned Wayburn to dub her "the American Venus." (p. 66)

Whoa. Pretty juicy and thought-provoking stuff in my opinion. But I thought you said Ali was a costume designer?!?

Well, I'm getting to that. Apparently our little Ali was quite the Renaissance man - society portrait painter, director, set designer, costume designer, and most importantly, flamboy-ant!

He's an elusive figure, and I can't find much in the way of photographs of his designs, but I think this teeny tiny reference to him in a NY Times article dating from April 24th, 1921 says it all. I've posted the article in its entirety because it is so very interesting:

The young woman who wore the legend "Honi soit qui mal y pense" on her left shoulder and displayed an almost naive disregard of costume, proved at the Fakirs' Ball in the Commodore Hotel last night that conventions are only relative. As Professor Einstein, who is living at the same hotel, would put it, speed and motion and even the density of covering matter can be judged only by relation to surrounding objects, and when there is only one long Queen Anne skirt present such voluminous drapery becomes abnormal.

So it happened that eyes smiled upon the legend, dropped, and the smiles grew broader, and then turned to the girls dressed as the mad hatter and the court page and the white rabbit. There were costumes which cannot be classified, but which caused chuckles of appreciation, and caused one girl to shift her hand to a bejeweled waist and mutter, "Well, I'll be darned." And when one asked where the rest of the costume was she said sweetly: " My dear, there isn't any more; that's all there is." But, as was said, these things were mere matters of relativity, and for lack of contrast nobody paid much attention to anybody else except to laugh, and who ever said mirth was immoral?

And if more proof were needed a dozen plain clothes men stalked through the corridors and ballroom like blue law Judges and did not even blink an official eye. One or two were actually seen to smile. The blue laws were relegated to the limbo of forgotten things early in the evening. There was a huge tomb built in the center of the dimly lighted ballroom, at the corners of which glowed orange and blue lights. On top was the blue book of doom, and promptly at midnight a ghoulish figure climbed up to it and turned its pages while 200 persons hissed a long, shrill whistle of disapproval. Whereupon the figure straightened up with a laugh, cast off its dismal robes and stepped out in white, shimmering tights and bade the dance go on. All blue laws were promptly forgotten.

Swirling around the tomb until 4 o'clock in the morning were Assyrian and Egyptian priests, tramps and "rubes," little girls and Cossacks, and just girls with more or less, generally less drapery. The little French maid with the legend on her shoulder was typical, for in front she appeared a French maid, but from another direction she was just girl. Neysa McMein was one of the most Goyaesque Cossacks who ever stepped out of a painting, and Ruth Martin wore one of those costumes which no feller can describe. There was Ben Ali Haggin, stalking about in an Egyptian priest's garments, and George Casey of Life, and Reginald Vanderbilt, who had one of the merriest parties in the boxes. Somewhere in the dancing crowd were others from Fifth Avenue as well as Greenwich Village; but what do names matter when all that could be seen were laughing faces; flopping short skirts, silken knickerbockers and sometimes a bare leg that was lost in a second as the dance went on?

When the music ended at four o clock there were roars of protest, for a Fakirs' ball was never known to end until the sun came up. The crowd scattered to their apartments, and all over town until the day was well started there were parties of revelers who would not be denied their full night of frolic. And it is said by a few choice spirits that some of their number were seen in full regalia as late as 11 o'clock yesterday morning refusing to let the ball become a memory.

Well, very interesting indeed. If anyone can track down some pictures of Haggin's designs, I would be thrilled to see them. Until then, I'm going to scour the web for more information on the indicators of his work. My next educational blog will be devoted to design drawings from Erte, Lucille, and Haggin.

- VaVa

Here is the costume that inspired my research on this subject:

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