There’s something unexpectedly flirtatious and flamboyant about the smart young men featured in these French postcards.
These French postcards are part of researcher and author James Gardiner’s collection of portraits, erotica, postcards, cuttings and snapshots amassed over a 25-year period. “The models’ poses and the brash colouring applied as make-up give them a very queer, campy look to modern eyes,” says Gardiner, which “in some way spoke of a ‘gay’ past or could be reread as so doing with a contemporary eye.” But, he acknowledges: “The general public for whom they were made would not necessarily have perceived them as ‘queer’.”
Photographic colourisation was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Hand-tinting was mostly done by women in France and Belgium. It was a laborious job, in which each woman applied a single colour to a batch of cards and then passed it to another woman for the next colour to be applied. The cards were small and the artwork detailed, and along with the lead paint, it was an unhealthy occupation.
The young men in the postcards are the epitome of fashionable 1920s style. The slicked-back hair and elegant suits recall popular 1920s Hollywood actor Rudolph Valentino. Valentino was the ultimate sex symbol to his adoring – mainly female – fans. He was not always so popular with American men, some of whom found his flamboyant taste an excuse to speculate on his sexuality despite his two marriages, says author Gilbert King.
The photographic style was widespread, and similar cards exist of women and couples holding Easter eggs. The use of stage make-up and stylised, theatrical poses was part of the interwar studio photography experience. Yet they may not be as innocent as they appear, says Royal College of Arts lecturer Sylvie Bringas, who grew up in France. One reason why religious postcards were so popular was that they gave young people a way to correspond with each other under a veil of respectability. Maybe those flirtatious poses are intentional?