VALESKA SURATT and Women’s Control over their Visual Presentation, 1900-1920
Valeska Suratt was one of four women in show business during the first 20 years of the 20th century who controlled every aspect of her visual presentation and representation. She, Annette Kellerman, and Eva Tanguay share certain career trajectories. Alla Nazimova is a separate case. Suratt, Kellerman, and Tanguay all made their reputations in vaudeville and determined the signal features of their styles there. All were daughters of lower middle class families and lacked refined voices and easy manners. All would play leads in Broadway musicals and revues. All would make films during the second decade of the century. All cultivated reputations as sexual provocateurs.
Suratt is now best known as a silent screen vamp, a black widow in a spider web gown.
Yet she was the most adventurous explorer of feminine visual personae on stage or screen. Born in Owensville, Indiana, on June 28, 1882, Valeska moved with her family to Terra Haute, Indiana. There as a teenager she first encountered the world of fashion working as a retoucher in the Clare Sisters Photography Shop. Avid to own the sorts of dresses worn by the fashionable subjects of the Clare Sisters’ sittings, she saved her money, moved to Indianapolis, and trained as a milliner. An acute student of design and a skilled seamstress,
via Broadway Photographs.