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Madame Delait, the bearded lady

Clémentine Delait found fame in the early 1900s

Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Clémentine Delait was a French bearded lady who found fame in the early 20th century, making the most of her physical attributes while playing with notions of gender and creating her own celebrity.

Clémentine Clattaux was born in 1865 in Chaumousey in the Vosges region in eastern France. During her teenage years, she began to develop more hair than usual for a teenage girl, especially on her face.

Such hair growth is a rare but naturally occuring condition, known as hirsutism or hypertrichosis. There can be many causes: from ovarian cysts to medication or other conditions.

Little was known of such hormonal conditions in the 18th cenutury. Bearded women thus challenged people's notions of gender, as well as race.

White women with hair on their faces were questioned on their gender - were they men or women? Black women who had hair on their faces were racistly perceived as evidence of human's evolution from apes.

Many bearded ladies came to public attention as part of circus shows, such as Barnum & Bailey. These shows presented people with naturally occuring conditions as a 'curious collection of freaks', a rather exploitative and unfair way to describe them. This poster from 1899 shows one such bearded lady.

Madame Delait, however, took more control over her image.

In 1900, she visited a carnival and saw a bearded lady, but was not impressed by her stubble. Having shaved her face from an early age, Clémetine Delait and her husband placed a bet that she could grow a better beard.

In 1885, she had established a café in Thaon-les-Vosges with her husband, who was a baker. The beard bet brought many customers to the Delait's cafe, who changed its name to Le Café de La Femme à Barbe (Café of the Bearded Woman).

From then on, she began to wear a curly beard.

In 1904, she received permission from the authorities to wear men's clothes, as it was illegal for women to wear masculine clothing.

Taking advantage of her fame, Delait posed for many photographers who published postcards of Madame Delait, the Bearded Lady. She poses in the photographs, adopting both traditionally feminine and masculine gestures and clothing.

During World War One, she worked for the Red Cross. French soldiers in World War One were known by the nickname Poilu, which means hairy. Madame Delait was perfectly placed to be adopted as a mascot - many postcards featuring her circulated during the conflict.

black and white photograph, bearded woman in a long coat standing by a small airplane

After World War One, the Delaits adopted a daughter, Fernande whose parents had died in the Spanish flu epidemic. They opened a haberdashery in Plombières-les-Bains.

As her fame become international, Madame Delait was invited to join PT Barnum's circus. She declined, deciding to stay with her husband who suffered from rheumatism. Instead, she travelled around Europe, meeting many famous personalities inlcuding royalty and heads of state.

She became a widow in 1928, thereafter re-opening a bar where she stars in cabaret shows.

In 1934, Madame Delait's memoirs were published, compiled by local journalist Paul Ramber. You can read them here (in French).

Clémentine Delait died in 1939, aged 74. On her gravestone, the text reads, 'here lies Clémentine Delait, the Bearded Woman', as she wished.

Women's History France