Song sheets contain masses of information beyond just their musical content. Social commentary, religious, political themes, and yes, matters related to fashion. Three songs from the nineteenth century caught my eye as I was flicking through our collection, looking for inspiration. As we’ll discover, they also give us information about the performers who brought the songs to life.
Burlington Bertie – words and music by Harry B. Norris (publ. 1900)
The first thing you notice is that the men’s clothes are being worn by a woman, Vesta Tilley. Born in Worcester, she was one of the most famous male impersonators of the music hall era. She started performing on the stage when she was still a child, most of the time in male clothes. She’s reported as saying: I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.
The clothes look well-cut but quite restrained apart from the pink buttonhole and cravat. The gloves are apparently bright yellow, however I suspect this may have more to do with printing limitations than actual colour. I started off by thinking it was a comic song, and a quick look at the opening chorus seemed to confirm this, but then I looked at the last verse and chorus, the references to the Boer War add weight.
When there are symptoms of warlike alarms, And Burlington Bertie sees brothers in arms, … He drops all his pleasures, the polo, the hunt, And just like the rest, he is off to the front …
Is that a war-like officer in the making on the front cover? Somehow, the posture suggests Bertie is about to march off to the front.
All in a Row – words and music by Charles Deane and Fred Leigh (publ. 1894)
This is a very different picture from the day wear of the first song. The clothing might still be largely monochrome, but this time it’s evening wear, with the large group of men having obviously been out on the town. According to the song, they’d won at the races:
We’d lately back’d some winners and with tons of l.s.d.
L.s.d. in this context means pounds, shillings and pence in pre-decimal currency, not anything else.
The man closest to the viewer is a portrait of the composer / performer Charles Deane (the stage name of Edward Saunders). There is very little available information about Charles Deane, which is a pity as he must have been quite famous at one point.
Whether the brightly-coloured coat is there just to highlight him isn’t clear. Otherwise it certainly is a statement coat, mustard yellow or light tan. The totally impractical white gloves, together with the expanse of bright white shirt, collar and cuffs mark him out as a gentleman of leisure, someone who didn’t have to worry about how his clothes washing was going to get done.
Champagne Charlie – words and music by George Leybourne (publ. 1867)
Thirty years earlier than the other two song sheets, this man is perhaps more obviously raffish and fashionable. Certainly he is much more colourful. George Leybourne wrote this song early on in his professional singer career. It was a huge success, and Leybourne was known for the rest of his career as ‘Champagne Charlie’. Unsurprisingly, he continued in the same frame for other songs: Cool burgundy Ben and Moet and Shandon are two examples.
In fact, the champagne producer Moët commissioned Leybourne to write and perform the song as a form of advertising, or celebrity endorsement. Apparently, he agreed to drink nothing but champagne in public. The greatest music hall performers were famous, high-profile individuals, and Leybourne succeeded in promoting champagne as something to be aspired to.
Here’s part of the second verse:
The way I gain’d my my title’s by a hobby which I’ve got, Of never letting others pay, however long the shot. Whoever drinks at my expense are treated all the same: From Dukes and Lords to Cabmen down, I make them drink champagne.
I like the exuberant impracticality of the clothes, particularly what appears to be a shrink-to-fit jacket. Also, the shoes look more like slippers than anything fit for the streets of Victorian London. However, what really makes it for me is the extravagant, almost ridiculous moustache, seemingly draped over the cigar. How on Earth could you eat with that? And I can’t quite see what’s going on with his hair above his ear. It looks as though it might have been in curlers …
And as for his cane … The illustration makes it look like he’s using it as a wand and is about to perform an incantation. I suspect that’s more the Harry Potter influence working its magic on me. He probably just using it to highlight the bottle containing the miracle that is champagne.