The Seven Veils Costume
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” … I hate my small breasts. They’re what men watch first – after looking at my face for a second, or two, if they like it, their gaze invariably moves to my breasts, as if to evaluate how much milk may be expected from that peculiar cow. They watch my buttocks too, but my breasts seem like my business card, and they leave much to be desired. That is why I always wear a gold-plated breastplate when I am dancing, as you know – and I always fear the moment when it comes off in bed. I try to deflect the dreaded moment by taking the initiative, for men are so happy to be touched. And I always loved to touch, for men were my happiness and now they are my perdition.” [* Prison letter from Mata Hari to her sister Léonide, who attended her execution]

Margaretha Zelle alias Mata Hari

Margareta Zelle (7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), who under her stage name Mata Hari [Javanese, “Mata (Eye) Hari (of the Day) (=Sun)”)] became the superstar of erotic dance and the world’s premier enchantress in the years leading to the Great War – before Josephine Baker took the crown. She loved men, especially officers.

“I love officers. I have loved them all my life. I prefer to be the mistress of a poor officer than of a rich banker. It is my greatest pleasure to sleep with them without having to think of money. And, moreover, I like to make comparisons between the different nationalities”.

We must point out here, that our quotations of the lady are reasonably accurate and historical, for her well-developed character was evident in her words. She was a good writer with a beautiful hand and composed her own advertising copy. She was well-spoken and surprisingly educated, exceedingly charming and loved to deceive the scores of interviewers and reporters who begged for her gossip. She loved statements tongue in cheek, had a sharp wit and a gift for coining memorable phrases. [Source]

She grew up in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in a somewhat well-to-do family. That changed when her father went bankrupt when she was 13, in 1889, and a few years of confusion followed. After being found half-naked upon her school principal’s lap, schooling was done for. [Much info on these years on the German Wiki page] She grew to be a tall girl for the time, at 178 centimetres (5.84 feet), which certainly helped her to make an impression.

In 1894, she answered a marriage ad by Rudolf MacLeod (1 March 1856 – 9 January 1928), a Captain of the Dutch Colonial Army, living in Indonesia, who sought a wife. “Officier met verlof uit Indië zoekt meisje met lief karakter met het doel een huwelijk aan te gaan” [‘Officer, on vacation from (Dutch) India, seeks a young woman of gracious character to marry’]. The less is said about the marriage, the better. She gave birth to a son and a daughter, but the son died early, perhaps poisoned by a servant. The pair returned to Amsterdam and divorced on August 30, 1902. Child support for the daughter at the sum of 100 Gulden per month was ordered by the court, but Rudolf never felt able to fulfil the obligation.

Broke, Margareta set out to Paris – dreaming of a career as mannequin or model, whatever might turn out. She failed and returned – and then had the idea. We do not really know how and why, but she invented a made-up story of being a trained mystical Indonesian dancer, to gain under this guise more attention than the scores of other attractive ladies who populated the erotically loaded stages of Paris. She invented her own Dance of the Veils, which the Paris public had recently seen in Richard Strauss‘ opera Salome, which had aroused one more big scandal when performed in Paris. The gentlemen (and ladies) of the Haute Volée, considerate about the public morals of the capital had besieged the opera houses to review the artistic permissibility of the act. Some of the gentlemen had to see the performance more than once to come to conclusions.

The problem was, of course, that the Dance of the Veils was, we would say, a “generic” dance – it had no history, no cultural background. It had been invented just at the time, notably by the American dancer Loïe Fuller, who celebrated a sensational debut on December 5, 1892, at the Folies Bergère with dances using light projections and special costumes, which she patented a year later in Paris and London. A few years later the Canadian Maud Allan followed in her footsteps – all of them inspired by the great Isadora Duncan.

Margareta’s difficulty was, however, that she could not afford light projectors, operators or even special costumes, and, initially, her natural talents had to suffice. Such talents she did have, and perhaps it helped that her legend as Indian respectively Indonesian temple dancer could not really be checked by the audience for the lack of expertise.

She was perky, breezy, a real flirt, and well aware of her body, which she flaunted at will. Equipped with such weapons of female mass destruction, it did not take long before she celebrated a boisterous debut at the Musée Guimet on March 13, 1905, whose founder and main sponsor, millionaire industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet she immediately took on as a mistress.

Competition in erotic dancing in Paris was keen, and Margareta developed her act further. Her lover, M. Guimet, had received a government commission to study the religions of the Far East, for his museum, and her “disguise as a Javanese princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood thus fell on fertile grounds. She was photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so. Some of these pictures were obtained by MacLeod and strengthened his case in keeping custody of their daughter. She brought a carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which garnered wide acclaim. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jewelled breastplate and some ornaments upon her arms and head. She was never seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted. She wore a body stocking for her performances that was similar in colour to her own skin.” [Source: Wiki]

In Amsterdam 1915
In Amsterdam 1915

Her comments were open, frivolous and entertaining as usual:

“I took the train to Paris without money and without clothes. There, as a last resort and thanks to my female charms, I was able to survive. That I slept with other men is true; that I posed for sculptures is true; that I danced in the opera at Monte Carlo is true. It would be too far beneath me and too cowardly to defend myself against such actions I have taken. …

The dance is a poem, of which each movement is a word. … In my dancing one forgets the woman in me, so that when I offer everything and finally myself to the god–which is symbolized by the loosening of my loincloth, the last piece of clothing I have on–and stand there, albeit for only a second entirely naked, I have never yet evoked any feeling but the interest in the mood that is expressed by my dancing”.

In a way, she helped the public acceptance of exotic dancers as well. She was the first of the profession to be accepted in the high society, not only for her dancing skills (which were not so outstanding, some said) but for her persona, knowledge and use of the media, including risqué photographs – a precursor to today’s celebrities who are famous for being celebrities, not for any ability or merit.

Biographers love to cite newspaper articles of besotted reporters, who described her as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms,” or as “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair” and that her face “makes a strange foreign impression.”

Yet – quite naturally – copycats arose in numbers, and her act slowly lost the intrigue that had been its major forte. Apostles of the public morality accused her of cheap exhibitionism – which surprises somehow, for while exhibitionism it was, it was truly not cheap, compared to the likes of the gentlemen who were allowed to hold her arm and perhaps other parts of her anatomy.

More recently a discussion has opened in regard to her sexuality, concentrating on the mind-blowing question whether she was bisexual, which she probably was and why not? That this discussion has not arisen earlier is perhaps owed to the increasing liberty in which such questions are discussed nowadays, or still our perpetual interest in gossip.

It is known that she had a playful relation to cross-dressing in military uniforms and we have a somewhat problematic article here (for the lack of sources cited), but anyway, here it comes, from a Fandom page [Link]:

“Mata Hari’s own orientation may be of some relevance in the controversy. Mata Hari had innumerable male lovers, and she seems to have been overwhelmingly heterosexual. There is some suggestion, however, that she was not exclusively so. Many of Mata Hari’s lovers were officers, and she herself enjoyed dressing up in military uniform. Mata Hari and the Russian actress Alla Nazimova were also said to be lovers, though they may never have met.

Alla Nazimova

Women, as well as men, certainly found Mata Hari attractive and were aroused by her nude dancing. Natalie Clifford Barney, a wealthy American expatriate, was a well-known hostess in Belle Epoque Paris. Barney, known as “The Amazon”, was also the centre of an artistic lesbian/bisexual circle that included the writers Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette ) and Renee Vivien and the actress and prostitute Liane de Pougy. Barney had a house in Neuilly with a large garden, and she and her friends liked to stage amateur theatricals and dances with lesbian themes there. When she met Mata Hari, Barney was immediately impressed and hired her to dance at her home. Mata Hari gave at least three nude performances (one of them on horseback as Lady Godiva) at Barney’s garden parties. For one such appearance, Mata Hari herself insisted that only women be invited. Colette, who was then struggling to make her own career as a nude dancer, greatly resented Mata Hari and envied her success. Despite this, Colette went to great lengths to see Mata Hari dance, and she was impressed by her legs, buttocks, and torso.

Colette

Colette wrote that one of Mata Hari’s performances at Barney’s house “brought the male–and a good portion of the female, audience to the limit of decent attention”. The American lesbian writer Janet Flanner became a close friend of Barney’s after the war and also talked to many of Barney’s friends who had witnessed Mata Hari’s performances. Of her nude dancing, Flanner said that “The only woman who had that kind of extraordinary style was Mata Hari. “There” was a woman who was equal to any event”. Mata Hari remained part of Barney’s circle and frequently lunched with Barney and her friends. Barney wore mannish “Amazonian” style dresses, and Mata Hari often wore similar outfits while riding. According to Flanner, Mata Hari got a brand new “Amazonian” dress from Barney just before her execution and was wearing it when she was shot.

Natalie Clifford Barney
Natalie Clifford Barney

Natalie Barney had a legendary sexual appetite, and she enjoyed the challenge of seduction. Janet Flanner later denied that Barney and Mata Hari had been lovers, though Barney had so many sexual partners that neither she nor anyone else could keep track of them, and she classed the less important ones simply as “adventures”. Given her association with Barney and her friends, and given what we know of Mata Hari’s adventurous and unconventional nature, it is certainly possible that she at least experimented sexually with women. Many secondary authorities now list Mata Hari as bisexual, and she has become a popular lesbian icon. As in many such cases, however, the real evidence is far from conclusive.

Liane de Pougy
Liane de Pougy

After she was safely dead, Barney, Colette, and Pougy all criticized Mata Hari harshly. They even said that they had never found her attractive. This was a curious assertion indeed, since Mata Hari had performed nude for them three times. Unattractiveness would hardly have earned her two return engagements at the Barney home.”

Renee Vivien
Renee Vivien

Take it or leave it.

Anyway, due to the multiplying competition and the slow vanishing of youth (she had put on a few pounds), she danced less and less – the last time we know of on March 13, 1915 – but concentrated on her career as a top international courtesan. She was seen with bevvies of high-ranking military officers – her favourite companions – but also politicians, industrialists and the like.

She did not change much, but the atmosphere of the continent changed with the outbreak of the Great War of 1914 to 1918. We know that truth is always the first casualty of war, but an almost universal fear of foreign spies came over Europe, and a woman who had lovers in many countries and travelled – as a Dutch citizen, she was neutral – freely around countries whose inhabitants certainly had all kinds of malicious intents against peace-loving Frenchmen – she became to be viewed by many as a security risk.

The spy craze of the Great War is almost worth an article of its own. Every country – at war or not – continually arrested presumed spies, many of which were so cleverly hidden by their suspected employers that they were illiterate, did not speak their sponsor’s language and had no contact to the military.

In the spring of 1916, Russia had sent a 50.000 strong Expeditionary Corps to aid the allies on the Western Front, and one of their pilots, a 23-year-old Captain caught the eye – and the heart – of our heroine.


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To be continued …

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019) * The Prison Letter is fictive.

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