Archetype: The Lady and the Tramp

The lady and the tramp aren’t real, but they’ve followed me my whole life. The lady is to the manor born, the tramp is a wanderer, dispossessed of any nicer quality. I can switch from one to the other in seconds, with the lilt of my steps, the carriage of my neck and head, the tone of my voice. And so can many of you.

Quite a pair
In a manner of switching. Fragment from a July Notebook

The charm lies in what the anthropologist Marcel Mauss termed ‘techniques of the body,’ skills like one’s mode of walking, handling objects and people, that are not natural, but learned through everyday social interactions. These bodily techniques create an illusory social presence.  For women, alongside their behaviour, these corporeal traits have long informed how they are judged, which narrative category they fit into: Lady or Tramp. Will they be contained within social expectation, or drift on the margins? This is the question that surrounds the heroine of Henry James’ nineteenth-century novella ‘Daisy Miller,’ and unfortunately, one that still defines how women are perceived today.

Pretensions to ladyhood begin with a girl's first steps. Pollyanna Shoe Shop, Parsons Green
Pretensions to ladyhood begin with a girl’s first steps. Pollyanna Shoe Shop, Parsons Green

The lady is above all moderate, distant and admired. She entered my life when I was around 5, in my mother’s advice to avoid clashing colours and prints, and soon after that in my grandmother’s admonition that my cousin and I couldn’t tear the fluff off blankets and throw it at people from the pulpit at church,  because we were ‘ladies’ now. The lady is always on her best behaviour, wanting to please and placate, not make a scene. She’s convenient in those social situations when you don’t really want to be there, just float above things on your good manners. She’s always watchful, of herself in the glass, and of other people. Who are they, and what are their intentions towards her? Because of her extreme choosiness, fussiness if you will, she comes across as sensitive and vulnerable. These impressions are enhanced if she is actually petite- as I am. There are times when  my ability to pass as a lady has kept me safe from the worst that people can do. One man told me that a lot of women could ‘take it’ – his, shall we call it errant love?-  whereas I was ‘delicate’, could be easily damaged and therefore had to be protected. Did these ‘tough’ asbestos-skinned hussies really exist, or whether they were a convenient invention for this man?  I was suddenly put in touch with some inverted nineteenth-century system, where my apparent fragility became my strength.  My ability to be read as a lady was an unfair, guilty privilege, but could also shroud me from experience and isolate me.

The ladies from the tramps... why should he decide? c.1960 illustration of Oscar Wilde's 'The Nightingale and the Rose'
The ladies from the tramps… why should he decide? c.1960 illustration of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’

The Tramp is a nomad, who rubs up against the world in as many ways as she can. As a little tramp I pretended to be orphaned, and trailed around my other grandma’s garden barefoot with tangled morning hair, in her electric-shock inducing, nylon nighties. These 1960s satiny relics, coloured in lurid shades of pistachio and confetti pink that had long died out, liberated me from my navy blue and polka dot uniform and made me Queen of a slatternly kingdom. With nothing better to do, I  daydreamed and played solidly until noon, when I was taken on some educational outing or other. The tramp is giddy with freedom and permissiveness- she strews her possessions (and other people’s) around her in meandering disarray, masterminds pranks that she may not get away, with and appears not to care what you think. She gives into the impulse of the moment, using her present vitality and her future death, as an excuse. She spills a lot- laughter, tears and the occasional obscenity.

Meandering flora, Backstreet Passage bordering Chelsea College of Art
Scattered flora, Backstreet Passage bordering Chelsea College of Art

At best, she’s  mysteriously creative, like Emily Bronte who trekked across the moors, sparred with dogs and wrote a melodrama beyond the capacity  her meagre life-experience, or as in touch as Juliette, Brigitte Bardot’s character in And God Created Woman, who repeatedly kicks off her ballet shoes so that she can run better, love better, feel the warm ground beneath her feet. At worst, she’s the heroine of that Rolling Stones song, Backstreet Girl, a slave to her passions and socially marginalised. She’s too ‘common and coarse’ to be part of the singer’s ‘world’, but there when he fancies having her ‘around.’*  Folded into the song’s lulling cadences, is the dismal fate of ‘some chick’ Mick Jagger knew, someone who strayed right into the trap laid for her by narrator. I’d like to think that in the style of many a tramp, she escaped and found a way to tell her own story, in her own words

Chez Tramp... The French House, Parsons Green
Chez Tramp?… Yard, the French House, Parsons Green

Lady and Tramp stories are continually re-interpreted and re-invented for a new age. I recently saw two London exhibitions that inadvertently referenced the subject.** Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon at the National Portrait Gallery  pays homage to woman who bought some trampiness into static notions of ladyhood as she continually evoked the Cinderella narrative of rags to riches, whilst retaining the rag-girl’s waifishness and pluck. Hepburn’s appeal lay in her enormous doe eyes (blue, not pitch black with twin globes of reflected light, as some photographs suggest) which gave her a vulnerable, expectant look,  and her encyclopaedic range of expressive movements: ungainly coltish strides and tumbles metamorphose into dynamic spirals and gaited runs, and back again. Like many revered 1960s icons, Hepburn projected  a tramp-like pep and emotional freedom, whilst having a proverbial briefcase of ladylike tricks to fall back upon. In Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), she plays a prostitute, but holds herself like a ballerina, while in Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957) her awkward adolescent persona is a mere shell for the sparkling, gracile woman inside. Trampiness here acts as a spice, something that can be delicately added to a textbook lady for flavour and interest.

All in the techniques. Jane Fonda and Unknown 'Suitor' by Peter Barch, 1967
All in the techniques. Jane Fonda and Unknown Suitor by Peter Barch, 1967

The Foundling Museum’s The Fallen Woman exhibition tells the stories of women who strayed from Victorian ideals of female chastity and then as a result of a pregnancy, were found out. The success of these women’s petitions to have their illegitimate babies adopted by the Foundling Hospital depended upon an all-male panel’s judgement of the mother’s virtue. The letters exhibited, demonstrate the pressure to prove that the pregnancy was a result of chance, violent encounters with the unnamed ‘F’ who ‘would have his will.’ While there is no doubt that many women were raped, not every sexual encounter results in pregnancy, and some accidents were a consequence of prolonged consensual affairs. As exhibition curator Lynda Nead has explained, evidence of the mother’s sexual agency or desire, was completely eradicated from the story. Instead, the mid-nineteenth-century paintings on display, obsessively meditate on the luminous swell in the woman’s drapery, which barely conceals her bump or bundle. The shamed women were repeatedly portrayed braving the elements in flapping cloaks, so unlike the insect-shaped upholstery that their respectable peers wore. Here, the journey from lady to tramp seems a formulaic game of consequences. But it’s important to remember that each experience of straying was unique, and that some women subverted the paintings’ prescriptions in their flights from convention.

The lady and the tramp are close, so close, that they sometimes turn up in the wrong places . The lady has embarrassed me at edgy parties, where she stands ballerina-erect, preciously wrinkling her nose at the weed on the football table. The tramp arrives half an hour late, breezy and provocative to a sober meeting with work superiors. In these situations the lady and the tramp feel less like personas than perfumes, diffuse, concocted and potent.

Gamine sketch from a borrowed Vogue, c.1951, at the National Portrait Gallery
Gamine sketch from a borrowed Vogue, c.1951, at the National Gallery Cafe

*Mick Jagger, who wrote this song in 1966, said the ‘French cafe style’ melody and lyrics about some ‘chick’ he knew, came easily. Its strangest line goes: ‘Please come right up to my ears, you will be able to hear what I say…’

** Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon

The Fallen Woman