The funny history of female clowns

Cat Thompson 28 March 2022

From being one of the few acceptable careers for women in the middle-ages to life inside chaotic circuses, here's how female clowns have fared through history 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, buffoonery was one of few careers acceptable for women to pursue in the middle-ages. Otherwise known as a fool, a “buffoon” was often hired to entertain courtiers and, occasionally, such a social standing earned them the right to free speech.

And, according to late political New Yorker cartoonist Dana Fradon in his book The King’s Fool: Medieval and Renaissance Fools, was not uncommon for women to enjoy this unlikely yet rewarding career.

However, in the 17th century, comedians were forced to society’s fringes as their penchant for truth-telling was no longer tolerated among high society and women, bearing the weight of gender prejudice, were rarely among this crowd.

This slowly began to change in the mid-19th century when women began to enter the workforce and, in the circus industry, a growing minority of female entertainers were recruited. They facilitated the industry’s “New Woman” movement which introduced female performers, from aerialists and weightlifters to big cat trainers, into the male-dominated arena.

"Perhaps unsurprisingly, buffoonery was one of few careers acceptable for women to pursue in the middle-ages"

It proved a novel tactic to draw in audiences, shocked and fascinated in equal measure, by the athletic prowess of often scantily-clad women. In 1895, among the women breaking the bias was Josephine Williams or “Lady Evetta” dubbed the ‘The Only Lady Clown’.

Williams, who was from a respected circus family—a perquisite which came in as audiences and critics began to balk at the ‘provocative’ displays—compounded her own immodest brand of shock. One of her favourite tricks, according to a report in The New York Times, was to pose as an audience member in cloak and bonnet and heckle the ringmaster, while claiming the unsuspecting male spectator beside her was her fiancé.

Williams told The New York Times: “I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do and do it just as well as a man. All my people laughed at me when I told them that I was going into the ring as a clown. But they do not laugh now.”

In spite of her optimism, the article concluded: “The men in the clown business rather enjoy Miss Williams’ antics but they do not regard her as a serious competitor or believe that any other women are likely to follow her example.”

How wrong they were. In the 1970s, French-born Annie Fratellini opened the circus school Académie Fratellini—formerly the École Nationale du Cirque and the inspiration behind New York’s infamous Big Apple Circus.

Prior to this, circus-trained Fratellini pursued careers in music and film until she met her film-making husband Pierre Etaix. Etaix recognised her talent for comedy and convinced his wife to return to her circus roots. Fratellini, a self-professed clown from birth, obliged.

The pair formed a double act. Etaix was the white-face “boss clown”—an archetype introduced by the “Father of Modern Clowning”, Grimaldi in the mid-18th century—and Fratellini was his “Auguste” counterpart. Typically, an Auguste clown—which translates to “fool” in Italian—lived up to its name; with its clumsy and mischievous nature serving to undermine the whiteface.

Fratellini’s Auguste was recognisable as the flamboyant clown familiar today. Her trademark make-up—distinct to every clown—was composed of a big red nose, tears, a black mouth and sequins fixed to her eyelids.

Fratellini was been described by contemporaries as “rebellious and “childlike”. When asked if the character she portrayed was male or female, she insisted that “clowns have no gender”.

And, following her less-than-successful debut, she is documented as saying “circus people didn't believe women could take pratfalls, get slapped and kicked and be ridiculous”.

Contemporary clown Lucy Williams, who performs as Dott Cotton, says Fratellini’s values formed part of an early feminist movement in the traditionally male circus industry. “Annie tended to dress as one of the boys. The fashion went from fraternal acts, to seeing a lot of female clowns going for a big red nose—like myself—which takes away the prettiness of the face.

The Auguste is inherently flawed but enthusiastic and can’t help but do fun things like fall over—it was an early feminist performance. You’ve got the whiteface mansplainer who’s all ‘I’ve got the situation in hand’ but the woman says, ‘yeah but I can actually make fun of you’,” explains Lucy.

"Circus people didn't believe women could take pratfalls, get slapped and kicked and be ridiculous"

Like Fratellini, Lucy’s Auguste clown serves to liberate from gender confines. “It’s one of the big reasons people are interested in clowning, particularly women—I think it’s an identity thing”, she says.

“I have so many artistic women saying ‘I want to find my inner child’ but I prefer the idea of a blank slate; it’s about seeing things for the first time and that can be scary, joyous and exciting. Being a clown doesn’t just mean mayhem and chaos, it means looking at things with a different perspective, with an ignorance which will somehow make you find the truth of the matter.”

Lucy’s sentiments seem to echo those of Fratellini who, in 1993, was reported to say: “To be a clown means more than just putting on a costume and making funny faces at the audience; the clown must take the audience on a unique adventure in a strange dimension.”

Lucy Williams is a contemporary clown who performs as Dott Cotton,  photo credit: Harvey Wallbanger

And, far from the weary “party clowns” of the late 20th century, Dott Cotton has certainly traversed a patchwork of unlikely arts mediums, from featuring in music videos to a Vera Wang fashion shoot in her clown make-up.

“I liked that it was something I stood for rather than aesthetic reasons. It was a clever group of people not necessarily just models. It had interesting gender implications; different body types, not typical gender defined models. It was about finding beauty in the strangest of places—maybe that’s where the clown hit for them,” she explains.

Like her clown foremothers before her, Lucy, and many others revolutionising the medieval art form, continues to bring surrealism into the human experience while inviting our own inner clowns to explore it—wholly and without prejudice.

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