Contrary to popular belief, tattoos have a rich history in high society
n the middle of the Roaring Twenties, writer Carl Van Vechten pitted aristocratic urban fashion against provincial American values in his playful novel The Tattooed Countess. Set in 1898, the book detailed the return of European society darling Countess Nattatorrini to her hometown of Maple Valley, Iowa. The countess, known as Ella to her mother, wore makeup and smoked cigarettes. When her sleeves were turned back, she revealed "a skull, pricked in black, on which a blue butterfly perched, while a fluttering phylactery beneath bore the motto: Que sais-je?”
Just as Ella provocatively asked, “What do I know?” we must ask, “What do we know?” in order to understand the connections between tattooing, fashion and society. Each successive generation, even its bastions of genteel living, inevitably falls to the allure of body art. Each gravitates toward particular icons. Each looks to ink as a way of inducing (or perhaps simply seducing) interest from lovers and occasionally the public, too.
Today, tattoo art’s appeal remains connected to experience and savvy. Well-chosen ink speaks to interest in cutting-edge design and artists who are pushing the craft and medium to new places. This natural evolution always correlates to wider trends in clothing and advertising and values of what is fashionable in the moment.
By the end of World War I, tattoo shops had proliferated across the American landscape, and tattoos became a surprisingly standard method of self-expression. Artists rushed to acquire high-tech equipment to attract a broad client base that ranged from young enlisted soldiers to society ladies spurred by aristocratic fashions in Europe. Early 20th-century tattoo books provide a record of what was considered beautiful back then: Portraits of lovers embracing, either in farewell or return, were common among both men and women, but ladies—then as now—also preferred softer designs. Bracelets, butterflies and pierced hearts were de rigueur.
At the turn of the 19th century, the New York World newspaper estimated that 75 percent of society ladies were tattooed. Two prominent and well-chronicled examples are Jeanette Jerome, better known as Lady Randolph Churchill and the mother of future British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, and socialite Aimée Crocker. Lady Churchill had an elegant snake tattooed around her wrist, and Crocker wore a similar “bracelet,” each donning ink like custom couture jewelry that could be covered up under the real thing should the need arise. Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, says, “The fabulously wealthy 19th-century railroad heiress Aimée Crocker used to swan around Paris and New York society events showing her red and blue tattooed wristlet.”
At a time when group identity often trumped individual expression, these women used the origin of their tattoos as evidence of their rebellious nature and unique style. “Crocker was tattooed by an assistant to the well-known artist Samuel O’Reilly,” Mifflin continues. “But she told the New York Daily News that she’d been tattooed by a 20-year-old guide she fell in love with after divorcing her fifth husband and taking off to India.” The fashionable sex appeal of tattooing in that era was propelled by a sense of adventure. Crocker’s tattoos expressed to peers that she was daring, in the know and remarkably well traveled—in short, that she lived a life to which others should aspire.
Tattoos, for all their ubiquity in the early 20th century, still commanded an exotic air. Savvy artists sold tattoos in spaces befitting their most sophisticated clientele. In London, Sutherland Macdonald operated out of a Jermyn Street parlor. His studio was decorated in fine Turkish style, reflecting the era’s love of all things from the Far East. Back in New York, O’Reilly was regularly featured in the mainstream press and celebrated for inventing the electric tattoo machine, a rotary device that brushed aside hand-poking and brought tattooing into modernity. O’Reilly even hired Japanese artists to work in his shop, presumably with the intent of attracting uptown clientele to his exotic Chinatown location.
In the new millennium, tattooing reflects not only the greater freedom of improved techniques but also fresh notions of what’s fashionable. Artists like Amanda Wachob, who specializes in soft, brushstrokelike abstractions, and Stephanie Tamez, a former graphic designer with an uncanny ability to reproduce typefaces on the skin, provide clients with extraordinarily elegant tattoos that connect seamlessly with the most seductive high-fashion pieces. Both women promote tattooing as an artistic venture against rough-hewn, tough-guy perceptions. However, the mood isn’t high meeting low. Instead, the tattoos are indelible reminders that the current vogue marries vernacular traditions and erudite ideas in perfect harmony.
NICK SCHONBERGER is a graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and a coauthor of Homeward Bound: The Life and Times of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry.