In 1929 the famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart became the first president of the ‘Ninety-Nines’ organization of women pilots. This ushered in an unprecedented decade of female aviation that saw an intrepid group of women fight for equality in the sky as well as the ballot box. It was a decade in which women set speed records (Jacqueline Cochran, 1939), solo flying records (Amelia Earhart, 1935) and beat male pilots at the Bendix Trophy Race (Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes, 1936). Names such as Amy Johnson and Beryl Markham garnered celebrity status and in Hollywood coveted aviatrix roles went to stars of the day such as Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy and Kay Francis.
But despite the unprecedented rise of the aviatrix, there is one to whom the fashion world repeatedly returns. Amelia Earhart was not only the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic (among setting a plethora of other records) but she was also the first woman to receive the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross. Her tall, boyish frame reminiscent of a catwalk model understandably resounds with the fashion world, and she is frequently cited as a muse for collections from Hermes to Prada.
But Amelia did much more than just give good face (and style). Many female pilots used their public standing to advance civil rights, from Pancho Barnes who set up the first union for stunt pilots in Hollywood to Willa Brown, who as the first African-American commercial pilot helped to open the US armed forces to African American men. Earhart herself championed women’s causes through her aviation column in Cosmopolitan magazine. She was also a member of the National Woman’s Party, and an early supporter of the 1923-proposed Equal Rights Amendment, a bill that aims to affirm equality between the sexes under US law which has consistently failed to be ratified; as such it remains to this day a glaring omission from the US constitution.
As one of the women pushing sartorial and occupational boundaries, Amelia also plays an important part in the acceptance of bifurcated clothing for women. Increased popularity in sport and keep-fit fads throughout the 1930s, coupled with the rise of Hollywood increased the amount of women in trousers in the public eye. Not only were movie stars and beach loungers donning pant suits, but sports enthusiasts like golfer-turned-magician Gloria Minoprio also defied convention by wearing trousers instead of regulation skirts to practice their craft. There’s more on golfing style here and you can see more stylishly bifurcated women right here.
But regardless of her social and sartorial achievements, it’s her much-mythologised disappearance for which Amelia is best known. Earhart and her second navigator Fred Noonan had completed three quarters of their round-the-world trip when they vanished without a trace in July 1937. Conspiracy theories, all of which are unsubstantiated, cloud her disappearance in mystique, from espionage to being killed on Saipan Island and even the less sensational claim that she survived the flight, moved to New Jersey, changed her name, remarried and became Irene Craigmile Bolam (more on this here).
In August 2012, new evidencecame to light close to Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific. Investigators have found debris which resembles components of the “landing gear, including a wheel, a strut and a fender”.
Amelia represents adventure, emancipation and the romance of an unsolved disappearance: a heady blend that makes it easy to understand why fashion storytellers consistently fall in love with her. Flight jackets have become a perennial must-have, and despite individual references for each collection they’re always imbued with Amelia’s unique combination of style and danger.
But the romance of the skies holds a fascination for image-makers and fashion luminaries even without a famous figurehead in the pilot seat. The Chanel spring couture collection was staged inside an enormous (non-functional, unfortunately) aircraft, complete with monogrammed carpet and starry sky ‘outside’ the windows. The collection reputedly featured 150 shades of blue (topped you, E.L. James), which has obvious resonance not only with the firmament itself but also references the glamour of the bygone days of the Pan Am stewardess. You can see a video at The Telegraph.
And it’s not the first time that Chanel has used the glamour of aviation at its shows:
Amelia with Harpo Marx; portrait by Edward Steichen, taken for Vanity Fair magazine, May 1932 from Jane’s Oceania; Amelia with Cary Grant
Much as Amelia Earhart has become an icon for the contemporary fashion industry, it’s little known that she was one of the first people to have what we would now term a celebrity fashion line. According to this account in the Huffington Post, Amelia was initially ridiculed for her masculine garb; the androgyny for which 21st fashion lauds her was somewhat less appreciated in the 1920s, despite the elfin ‘flapper’ figure that was in vogue. Allegedly at the recommendation of her husband/manager, Earhart developed an interest in her appearance and even had the good grace to lose the overalls and don some pretty frocks once in a while. The grateful fashion media began to pick up on this and her own range – Amelia Earhart Fashions – debuted in 1934, financed by an American tire company.
Stocked in Macy’s in New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago, the line offered Earhart staples such as leather trenches and windbreakers in practical fabrics that were washable as well as wearable. The selling point was a combination of comfort and style, and Amelia’s ethos was carried through into the range marketed at ‘women who lead active lives.’ My favourite aspect of the collection, and the reason I wish more of it had endured, is the small aviation details that were frequently included, from the use of parachute silk to propeller-shaped buttons. But unfortunately the collection didn’t survive the retail downturn of the Great Depression and the line itself was short-lived, folding before Earhart’s disappearance just three years later. Besides a few examples preserved in a west coast museum and a replica in Kansas, for the most part the clothing, like Amelia, sadly vanished without a trace. Thankfully we have a crop of contemporary designers more than happy to keep her sartorial legacy alive.
“I hate ruffles, and at the price I could pay, that was all I could buy. So I decided to design clothes. They are nothing exciting. Just good lines and good materials for women who lead active lives.” Picture of Earhart fashion label and quote found at the Huffington Post
By Amber Jane Butchart, creator of http://theatreoffashion.co.uk/
Amber Jane Butchart has had a lifelong love affair with dressing up, and is lucky enough to have turned this obsession into a career. She is a freelance writer, broadcaster and trend forecaster, and a featured fashion historian on various BBC productions from Radio 4′s Making History to the Breakfast News. She is a regular contributor to leading trend analysis company WGSN and has written for publications and sites including Fire and Knives, Clothes on Film and Fashion156, and for companies such as British Pathé and Ray-Ban. She also hosts a regular ‘In Conversation’ series at the V&A focusing on issues surrounding the costumed body in performance and fashion, and the results are broadcast at TheatreVOICE, the leading online audio resource for British theatre.
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“Our times may not understand the work you’ve now completed”
This line was spoken at the funeral of Elsa Andersson, who died at the age of twenty five. These words share something of the enigmatic quality that Elsa had, both in life and in death. Her gravestone read ‘First and only female aviator in Scandinavia’.
A slender boy-girl Icarus, a Puck, an adventuress; a fatalist, a yearning, a sign of modernity…one can easily get lost in the mythology. To find the real girl I had to peel away all these veils, added by writers, artists and gender theorists. Here I will add my own sketch of her- as a young woman fascinated by technology, an adrenalin junkie and a true artist, proud and dedicated to her craft.
On a cold January day in 1922, 4000 people gathered to watch an aerial show. This was a popular family entertainment, where all ages and social classes mixed. Picnic baskets were packed and Sunday best put on; it was an event to see and be seen at. It was a spectacular show, demonstrating the success of man in conquering the sky.
A yellow Albatros sails up to 2000 feet, a small figure climbs out onto the lower port wing and waves to the crowds below.
This is the highlight of the show, the famous girl who jumps.
Here she goes head first.
I know something about the capturing horizon of Skane, South Sweden. Like Elsa, I too grew up in this topsy-turvy medley of yellow fields, hills and a sky constantly changing like the sea. There’s a struggle between ground and heaven here. I know something about the longing it can instil in an impressionable child.
Growing up on a farm as the eldest child, Elsa became motherless at the age of six. She grew very close to her dad and his work with the land. It is a time where new technology is revolutionising the farming industry. From an early age Elsa studies the new equipment and techniques that her progressive father invests in. He takes her shooting with the boys and she develops a taste for physical activity, innovation and adventures, preferably all together.
She learns how to drive, and must have cut the image of a pioneering flapper girl in her car, sailing through the Swedish landscape as a teenage girl…
Her brother is smitten by the America bug and leaves for an adventure overseas. Elsa too dreams of America, but when she is 16 her life changes course. She is taken to an aerial exhibition created by Enoch Thulin.
Thulin was an early pioneer of flying in Sweden. He owned the Thulin Aeroplane Factory which was not too far from Elsa’s childhood home. This was a visit that seemed to distil Elsa’s passions. Like a 1970s touring groupie, she chased Swedish air shows around the country, hungry for the thrill that aviation gave her.
It seems almost morbid that families would gather to watch such dangerous shows. The flying machines were rickety wooden structures, held together by little more than piano wires, sailing cloth, spit and hope.
Despite and (partly because) of the dangers involved, Elsa was determined to fly and her father supported her ambition.
At the age of 24, when most other girls were safely married off and busy breeding, Elsa got accepted into Thulin´s flying school. It was an expensive venture, until then only accessible to well-to-do and middle-class men. The fee, roughly equivalent to £200 (and a further £200 deposit for possible repairs of equipment) was paid by her father.
She did not let anyone down. Elsa was an embodiment of her own motto that ‘courage and determination are the best qualities in a human being’. She passed theoretical and technical tests with distinction and also found a social scene where she felt at home amongst the other (all male) aviators.
Elsa was to be Thulin´s last student when he died in a flying accident only a few months after enrolling her. Elsa was given her aviator diploma (now Flying Certificate).
An article from this time, describes how a group of young aviators from Thulin’s School take a journalist with them on a flight excursion up to Gothenburg. They set off on a warm and clear summer’s day and navigate by tracking the railway line. After a while, encounter strong turbulence and the reporter fights a violent nausea and feels how his ears block. Lifting his gaze he describes the sight of Elsa seemingly in her own world engrossed in a book- “Such a curious woman; silent, serene and completely lacking of nerves!” – An interesting observation in a time where nerves and women were more or less synonymous.
Whether Elsa’s next decision is based on a career strategy or a craving for adventure we will never know. What were the prospects for a female pilot in 1921… in Sweden? It seemed like there were none. So what’s a girl with an flying certificate to do? Adventure over, point proven; back to conformity? Not Elsa.
She decides to become a parachutist.
The only parachute expert in Sweden, Raoul Thornblad, is of the popular opinion that jumping is a man’s territory and he refuses to take on a female student. Therefore Elsa packs her bags and sets off to the wild excitement of Weimar Berlin to train under Otto Heinecke, parachuting instructor. Parachuting from aeroplanes was in its infancy, and fatal jumps were far from rare.–
The course only lasted a few weeks. In September 1921 Elsa had her parachuting certificate, despite not having actually done a real jump from an aeroplane. However, in typically dauntless act, she had already enrolled her virgin jump. The jump was to be mere days later during an aerial exhibition in South of Sweden. Elsa was far and away the most novel and titillating act on the bill.
It’s a glorious autumn day and 2000 spectators watch Elsa throw herself out head first (as one should at the height of 2000 feet). It’s a perfect jump and she lands gently amongst the lake grass, a bit wet, but one can assume pretty jubilant.
Perhaps still elated from her first success she returned the following Sunday to do it again. Before her jump, she meets a fellow Swedish aviator, senior in both years and experience along with a German ex-fighter pilot. The men make fun of her choice of parachute, referring to it as a ‘Heinecke sack’.
“ You’d never get me in one of those… not for a million kronor!” exclaims the German.
The Swedish man said he would only use one of those in the face of imminent danger.
“It’s a piece of cake” Elsa cuts back with a smile.
However just before jumping she gives instruction to return her bag to her father “Should I come down quicker than I ought to”
She does get to carry her own bag home, albeit with a twisted ankle that forces her into a short period of rest.
By now Elsa was living like a traveling circus artist. Far from sailing smoothly on her novelty status as Sweden’s only female aviator, not to mention show parachutist, she relentlessly pushed herself and her shows forward. Her performances become increasingly dare-devil. One can understand why many people ascribe her with a taste for self-destruction.
Many have questioned her motives, was it an eagerness to appease a sensation-hungry audience? Or was it, as many continue to speculate today, that she nursed a growing taste for danger, a heightened sense of life when faced with the very real possibility of sudden death?
Was she making a political act for gender equality?
Maybe the girl just liked to feel the wind in her hair…
She got signed up as a parachute performer with a new aerial company in Orebro, Sweden. Amongst fellow aviators she is known and appreciated for her sprightly and courageous nature and the passion that she invested in her art.
Cold Sunday in January 1922, 2000 feet in the air.
4000 people below, her biggest crowd yet. The jump she has planned is a new style, that she has never done before. She has planned her boldest and most showy jump yet. She’s going to jump standing from the wing, rather than from the cockpit.
She is upbeat, excited and focused. Left hand holding onto a rail on the lower port wing. Wave to the crowd. Jump, head first.
A few somersaults, a black speck in the air. A figure that is meant to change shape into that of a jellyfish as the parachute folds out…
Those with binoculars have witnessed the struggle she had with a cord, that was stuck under her arm. Elsa is a heartbeat over the tree tops when the parachute finally begins to unfold.
And she crashes. But she will forever keep falling and flying in the imagination of the masses. With all the ballads, stories and films she continuously inspires, her story is more that of a momentarily arrested movement than a work completed.
By Cecilia Lundqvist artist and mask maker (currently learning the aerial hoop)
Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit
Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit
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You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet Satellite. Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker.
The marvellous accomplishments of Beryl Markham’s are manifold. Ernest Hemingway’s admiration of her memoir and disdain for her character, her possession of the first commercial pilot’s licence in Kenya, her being first female licenced horse trainer in Kenya, and her triumphant, difficult, pioneering flight against the prevailing winds from England to North America are amongst the sagas that render Markham an enthralling, awe-inspiring character.
West with the Night (1943) is Markham’s memoir, however her third husband, a Hollywood ghostwriter, claimed it as his own work after their divorce. After falling out of print, the book was rediscovered thanks to a comment by Hemingway in his published letters and subsequently republished in 1983, drawing great critical attentions and topping bestseller lists. A decade later Markham’s first biographer, Errol Trzebinski, reinforced the claim.
The full quote from Hemingway to his publisher friend reads:
“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With The Night? …She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”
Hemingway seems astounded and almost a little gleeful that such an ‘unpleasant’ woman has turned out such a spectacular writer. The praise is gushing and the self-deprecation unusual in Hemingway’s discussion of another living writer. If Markham was not the sole mind involved in the creation of the work, then, and if she willingly deceived the press into believing the piece her work and her work only, an unfortunate rupture is created in her tale.
A restaurateur named George Gutekunst was advised by Hemingway’s son to have a look at the father’s published letters, and from the above sought a copy of the memoir, which then shot to success with the quotation (sans insults) proudly on its blurb. It seems to me highly probable that Raoul Schumacher (the husband) did indeed string together the sentences that form Markham’s book, yet it also seems to me that this creates yet another facet of fascination with the now deceased Markham, and that it is more interesting to imagine the apparently unpleasant, demanding and selfish character sitting down with her husband to compose a book.
Her story is astonishing: her childhood talents for hunting with a nearby tribe, her lifelong passion and prowess with horses and her prominence within the aviation world all demonstrate an indefatigably competitive woman. Unfortunately, the common interpretations of her character are either as a despicable woman:
“She was a positively awful wife and an almost criminally negligent mother. She never even bothered to meet her two grandchildren. “
According to a 1987 biography, Straight on Till Morning, by British writer, Mary S. Lovell, she was as ‘promiscuous as an Able Seaman on shore leave.’ ..or as a paragon of female freedom, her infidelities and solo successes celebrated as a woman against men.
Markham’s accomplishments and personality, then, are continually analysed through her femininity. It seems a shame, as almost any post that you can find about her will state, that her figure has become marginalised in aviation history and it also appears that this is through the difficulty of defining her as exemplary in either a positive or negative light. Her life was full and extreme. She had many lovers and three marriages, the first at age sixteen. Her transatlantic flight was a result of a dinner party chat whilst Markham had no plane; another guest offered her one of his, on the condition that she made this journey and she promptly obliged.
Looking at the frame and not the picture
When she emerged from the feat she was an acclaimed hero, despite landing in a bog rather than New York City, and despite being mapless and radio-less in a near-failing plane. In her jobs, both equine and aviatory, she was always a world-class, record-breaking pioneer. To me it is these parallel successes that are the most phenomenal thing about Markham, and the fact that she was a tempestuous woman, whether likeable or not, is merely a fabulous narrative framework within which to situate these achievements.
The authorship controversy, too, is fascinating yet seems to have been detrimental to Markham’s image and renown rather than a part of these. If Schumacher wrote the book the narrative perspective is nonetheless so utterly and entirely Markham’s that she desired to proclaim the text her own. Now, autobiographies can ever-increasingly be assumed to be the work of ghostwriters, and that Markham’s ghostwriter was her own husband surely situates the text more intimately with her self and makes it all the more intriguing as a historical document. In terms of content it seems that Markham made omissions in order to exaggerate her accomplishments (for example neglecting to mention the siblings that shared her wild childhood) but it has never been argued that the exploits that are detailed contain untruths.
Higher than sex
My contention is that the relatively minor place of the autobiography in literary history is a similar case to Markham’s marginalisation in aviator history. Both are slightly too vastly full of possibility and excitement, and no work has ever been done which thoroughly and fairly situates them. Nonetheless I suspect that the fact that the brilliance of both the book and the woman have been unable historically to speak for themselves remains unfortunately due largely to the gendered approach that people have taken to both.
By Emily McCarthy
Writer, tutor and research student of the Wellcome Trust’s utopias, built and unbuilt, at the London Consortium
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‘Pilots are almost by nature individualists, and the First World War gave these men the opportunity to let their extrovert personalities have free rein. This took many forms: wild and riotous living, hair-raising stunt flying, a constant attempt to debunk authority, “brass hats” in particular, and last but not least the extraordinary private markings of their aeroplanes. ‘
This generalisation of the character of pilots, whilst happily coincident with the devil-may-care, skilled but anti-authoritarian, anti-hero so prevalent in popular fiction (Han Solo in Star Wars for example), is not borne out by fact. Thus it is startling that the ‘extraordinary private markings’ which actually were adopted by thousands of individual aviators in the First World War should have come about primarily due to the action of a man who was profoundly respectful of authority and a member of the aristocracy (Nowarra & Franks 1958), described by Ernst Udet (the highest scoring German pilot to survive the war) as ‘the least complicated man I ever knew. Entirely Prussian and the greatest of soldiers.’ (Udet 1935 p72)
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So inexorably tangled is this man with the image he created through the medium of his aeroplane that his very nickname, now almost shorthand for the Great War Air Ace, references his work with a paintbrush. ‘The Red Baron’ is arguably most famous today as Snoopy’s imaginary opponent in Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip (Schulz 1950-2000) he has also featured in several films, most recently an eponymous German production of 2008. This is all due to the fact that in early 1917 Manfred von Richthofen painted his aeroplane red; A seemingly random act by a man in thrall to military ideals and almost by definition, the epitome of the non-creative spirit. So why did Manfred von Richthofen paint his aeroplane red? Can this and other decorated German fighter aircraft be considered an example of applied art?
Read Britain’s top female aerobatic pilot describing her favourite aeroplane here
In 1917 the aeroplane was barely ten years old and the first instance wherein one aircraft had intentionally destroyed another had occurred less than two years previously (Gunston 1975). Despite the very short time frame involved, another pilot had already painted his entire aircraft red and achieved passing fame. His name was Jean Navarre and he much better fitted the ideal of the mercurial anti-establishment figure. He would become known as ‘The Sentinel of Verdun’ and was briefly France’s premier fighter pilot before a medical board declared ‘Lieutenant Navarre’s mind is deranged’ and he was removed from active service (Sykes 1937).
At this time Richthofen was on the Eastern front so there is little reason to suppose he was aware of the all-red aircraft of Navarre (Nowarra & Brown 1958). Manfred von Richthofen was born in 1892 and ‘grew up in an atmosphere comparable to that of the son of an English country squire at the turn of the century. His pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing were not dissimilar’ (Nowarra & Brown 1958: p9) His father was a Baron and an officer in the Prussian army and his mother was a wealthy heiress (Richthofen 1917) Manfred was a member of the ruling classes; he was not an anti-establishment figure. Much of his autobiography is taken up with accounts of hunting; his subsequent prowess at destroying aircraft is treated essentially as an unusual form of game shooting. Manfred went to military school as a cadet from the age of eleven and was serving as a lancer by 1911. In 1915 he transferred to the air service. He flew for a time as an observer before training as a pilot. By the time of his death in April 1918 he had shot down 80 aircraft, officially more than any other pilot of the war. At this point he had been flying an all red aircraft for about a year (Wohl 1994).
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Richthofen’s autobiography was first published late in 1917. It is partly a work of propaganda but there is no reason to suppose that the sections that do not deal directly with the war as it was being fought had any external influence. Richthofen describes painting his aeroplane thus ‘It occurred to me to have my crate painted all over in glaring red. The result was that everyone got to know my red bird.’ (Richthofen 1917) This was just the first of several all-red aircraft that he would fly. It is interesting here that Richthofen states what the result actually was but not whether this was the intended result. Also it is not clear whether he meant, by ‘everyone’, his squadron (whom he was now leading), the German air service as a whole, all the armed forces of both sides or, really, everyone. It is certainly the case that his fame, or rather the fame of his aircraft, spread rapidly. In early 1917 Richthofen contrived to crash his aircraft next to the British machine he had just forced to land, ‘I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, “Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it “Le Petit Rouge”.’(Richthofen 1917)
Evidently, if Richthofen’s aim was advertising then he had succeeded. Indeed he succeeded rather too well for ‘the English had put a price on Richthofen’s head, with the stipulation that the red machine is shot down’. Or at least that was what was believed by other German pilots (it was not true) (vanWyngarden 2004) Before long, under the guise of protecting their leader from being singled out by the enemy, the whole squadron wanted in on the act as recounted by Manfred’s younger brother Lothar:
‘It had long been our wish to have all the aeroplanes of our Staffel painted red, and we implored my brother to allow it. The request was granted for we had shown ourselves worthy of the red colour by our many aerial kills. The red colour signified a certain insolence. Everyone knew that. It attracted attention. Proudly we looked at our red birds.’ (vanWyngarden 2004: pp12-13)
This shows that the colour red now signified a certain merit. One couldn’t just paint one’s aircraft red, one had to earn it and one is proud of it. Also the psychological connotations are plain to Lothar, even if his older brother hadn’t bothered to mention any. Red attracts attention and signifies ‘insolence’. The red of the aircraft is a statement, not a practical consideration. When Richthofen painted his aircraft red it could have been argued that it served to make him, as leader, instantly recognisable to his squadron mates. Richthofen himself said that a leader’s aircraft should be easily identifiable. This squadron-wide move by contrast looks like pure chutzpah in the face of the enemy.
What is not clear is that the enemy read it exactly in this way however. It is worth remembering that when Richthofen painted his aeroplane red, Europe was still a continent of Edwardian values and his action was more socially outrageous than it might at first appear. By way of example, in Death in Venice, written five years earlier,Mann writes that, as his mental state collapses, Asenbach’s ‘necktie was scarlet, his broad-brimmed straw hat encircled with a many-coloured ribbon.’ (Mann 1912: p263). This in direct contrast to the sober clothing of the rational German titled author who is definitely not in the business of falling for beautiful boys; Or the sort of man who paints his aeroplane red?
‘A very amusing thing occurred. One of the Englishmen whom we had shot down and whom we had made a prisoner was talking with us. Of course he inquired after the Red Aeroplane… there was a rumour that the Red Machine was occupied by a girl, by a kind of Jeanne d’Arc. He was intensely surprised when I assured him that the supposed girl was standing in front of him. He did not intend to make a joke. He was actually convinced that only a girl could sit in the extravagantly painted machine.’ (Richthofen 1917)
Perhaps: Not the reaction of a man impressed with the brio of his opponent as a combatant so much as admiring the bravery of some kind of aerial transvestite in parading about in a suspiciously feminine aircraft. In the first English language edition of Richthofen’s autobiography, C G Grey, the noted aero journalist, can’t entirely suppress a patronising tone on the subject:
‘Their leader chose to paint his little Albatros a brilliant pillar-box red. The others painted their machines according to their fancy. Some had yellow noses, blue bodies and green wings. Some were pale blue underneath and black on top. Some were painted in streaks, some with spots. In fact, they rang the changes on the whole of the paint-box.’ (Richthofen 1917)
Grey makes it plain the effect that Richthofen’s red aeroplane had on his comrades. Apparently unworried by the gender concerns of their opponents, German pilots painted all their aircraft in a great variety of colours, a tiny handful of which are depicted in the appendix. What is particularly surprising about this is that the German army, an organisation stereotypically famed for its discipline should allow this to occur at all. It would appear that the fame of Richthofen and his all-red aircraft effectively precluded any objection to encouraging other pilots to emulate the hero. The British high command, by contrast, ‘regarding uniformity as a virtue, viewed the unorthodox in aircraft markings with as much distaste as variations in airmen’s uniforms’ (Green and Swanborough 1981: p8).
The example of the ‘Seven Swabians’ Fokker D.VII flown by Wilhelm Scheutzel serves to represent the aesthetic development of the short-lived era of individual aircraft decoration from the broad stroke abstraction of Le Petit Rouge. Corporal Wilhelm Scheutzel (a corporal it should be noted – nearly the lowliest rank of all), destined to shoot down a single enemy aircraft, decided to decorate his aircraft with the Seven Swabians from one of Grimm’s more obscure fairy tales. It is unusual amongst its contemporaries in that it depicts human figures but apart from that it can be considered relatively typical. The Swabians in question, all carrying the same lance, fall in a river and drown after mistaking a rabbit for a dragon. It serves no practical purpose – It certainly isn’t camouflage nor can the scheme be considered as a practical means of identification. In fact it would be hard to say that it serves any purpose at all save to appeal to the taste of the pilot. As a propagandist tool the Swabians are not a symbol to inspire fear in an opponent or martial enthusiasm in an ally. It refers to an act of militaristic incompetence by Germans. The Swabians were stupid and died. The dragon was a rabbit. The image is comical, charming, pretty even. It would not look out of place on a child’s bedroom wall. Scheutzel’s aeroplane delights in a self-deprecatory joie de vivre that contrasts with the circumstances of its creation in the midst of the bloodiest industrialised war the world had yet seen.
How to explain this phenomenon of which Richthofen was the vanguard and remains the standard bearer? Could the decorated fighter aircraft be an example of folk art?
It is unlike any other movement in any field of art before or since, indeed it is quite separate from later examples of aircraft decoration or graffiti. In the Second World War aircraft, particularly American, were often decorated with various painted decorations, which became generally known as ‘nose art’, and this has received some academic attention. Most of it was profoundly sexual in nature and much was simply the work of pin-up artists such as Vargas and Petty copied onto the aircraft’s skin (Ethell and Simonsen 2003) ‘Army Air Force Regulation 35-22 officially sanctioned nose art as a means of “increasing morale”; however, the regulation was meant to curb the suggestiveness of the nose art particularly in the field’ (Bilsing 2005: p20). There was no need with the German aircraft of the First World War. Figurative elements are minimal at best and there is not a woman in sight . This may say a good deal about the preoccupations of contemporary German society and that of America in the ‘forties but it does, I think, make the German work more interesting. It is abstract and often based solely in colour. It is does not consist of the application of a decoration onto an existing colour scheme, though it may contain decorative elements. There is very little copying. It is not functioning in the same way as ‘nose art’.
Sometimes the schemes contain elements of heraldry or chivalric devices but it does not fit easily into a heraldic tradition. It is true that some pilots were from the aristocracy, Richthofen himself for example, however most were not. Shields, dragons and other heraldic figures are used without regard to their historic function but for their aesthetic appeal or generic warlike or fierce qualities. Historically-
‘each participant in a passage of arms, whether of a warlike or merely sporting character, wore a coat of arms on his shield… and on the trappings of his horse. This was the only means of distinguishing him from other combatants’ (Neubecker 1979: p14)
National markings had rendered this function obsolete, thus whilst the combatants of this war might serve to render their aircraft distinguishable it was generally for their own benefit and not to render them recognisable to others.
The First World War produced a plethora of what is now known as trench art which fits into a folk art tradition exemplified by the scrimshaw work of sailors (Saunders 2003). However, trench art is defined as ‘objects made by soldiers…from the waste of industrialised war, and a host of miscellaneous materials’ (Saunders 2003: p9) Richthofen did produce trench art: ‘a lamp which I made from the engine of an aeroplane I had shot down. I fitted small bulbs into the cylinders’ (Richthofen 1917) but his and others operational aircraft are not the ‘waste of industrialised war’ nor are they ‘miscellaneous materials’. A better comparison would be the mass of ornament that covered wooden fighting ships until the mid nineteenth century. Like a fighter aircraft the ship is simultaneously a conveyance and a weapon. However the decoration of warships was applied during construction and carried out by craftsmen (Dodds and Moore 2005), the aircraft of the Great War were mass-produced and decorated by their pilots.
Cars are also mass-produced and some are extensively redecorated by their owners in a process collectively referred to as customisation and Cooper 1994 discusses this practice as an example of ‘working class art’. The awkward reality of the pilots of the Great War is that they were not generally working class (some were). Richthofen was an aristocrat, most were middle class. Despite this, they were functioning in an unusual situation that served to break down the greater extremes of class distinction so I feel the comparison is not unwarranted. Indeed is it possible that these aircraft represent a very specific form of outsider art? In The Artist Outsider Gerald L Davis states ‘“Outsider art” seems to be one of those pleasantly unambiguous phrases intended to represent exactly what it describes, aesthetic creations produced by people trained outside of a fine arts tradition.’ (in Hall and Metcalf Jr 1994) These decorated aircraft as aesthetic creations fit this definition. However I think that describing the phenomenon as outsider art is, frankly, erroneous. Nonetheless Dubuffet argues that Art Brut was
‘produced by people immune to artistic culture in which there is little or no trace of mimicry … so that such creators owe everything – their subject-matter, their choice of materials, their modes of transcription, their rhythms and styles of drawing, and so on – to their own resources rather then to the stereotypes of artistic tradition or fashion’ (Dubuffet 1973: p91)
The artist-pilots were entirely reliant on their own resources and materials, down to the very canvas they used – the literal canvas their aircraft were covered with. These men were not the outsiders in the sense of the insane or the disenfranchised that so fascinated Dubuffet. Nonetheless, that the pilots were people from diverse backgrounds who found themselves in a unique, dangerous and new situation is undeniable. Their aesthetic response was also new and unique. The notion of the outsider here is that the rarefied qualities of their experience placed them outside (quite literally, at times, above) the rest of society and rendered them therefore different, though different as a group. The particular accident of their nationality and the attitude of those who governed them created the environment in which their work could flourish.
I think it is fair to say that this represents a totally unique form of folk art and Richthofen a totally unique artist-creator. It has no true precedent and it lasted barely two years but during that period became so popular amongst its practitioners that by the time it ceased it had become virtually universal amongst an absolutely specific band of soldiers. What is certain is that it can never happen again. Writing in 1957 Barthes had this to say about the pilot of the past compared to the modern ‘jet-man’ pilot of the fifties.
‘the traditional hero, whose whole value was to fly without forgoing his humanity (like Saint Exupéry who was a writer or Lindbergh who flew in a lounge-suit). But the mythological peculiarity of the jet-man is that he keeps none of the romantic and individualistic elements of the sacred role’ (Barthes 1957: pp72-73)
They may not have written like Saint Exupéry but they painted like there was no tomorrow. The tragedy of their particular school is that for so many of them, Richthofen included, there wasn’t to be one.
By Ted Ward
Illustrator, historian and founding member of Uke Attack! Uke Attack!