Polaire and her 14- (or 15- or 16-) inch waist.

My fingers are flying to finish my HSM #3 project in time, i.e., midnight tomorrow. In the meantime, while researching corsets and corseting practices, I discovered Polaire. This biographical information is paraphrased, primarily from Wikipedia.

Polaire – Émilie-Marie Bouchaud

Émilie-Marie Bouchaud had a tumultuous childhood. She was born in Born in Agha, Algiers, Algeria in 1874. When she was five her father died of typhoid fever and, because her mother was unable to support the family alone, the children – Émilie and her three siblings – ended up temporarily placed with their grandmother in Algiers.

In 1889, her mother began a relationship with a man named Emmanuel Borgia and the family moved with him to Paris. There her mother found work and tried to find domestic employment for her daughter. Eventually however, Émilie was sent back to her grandmother in Algiers. Her mother and (by that time) only surviving sibling Edmond remained in Paris with Mr. Borgia.

In September 1890 she ran away from Algiers to rejoin her mother in France. However, she feared Mr. Borgia and so first approached her brother Edmond. He had started getting recognition as a café-concert singer under the name of Dufleuve and, with his help, she auditioned successfully for her first job as a café singer about the time she was 17.

Tolouse-Lautrec's Polaire

Tolouse-Lautrec’s Polaire

Émilie adopted the stage name Polaire (“Pole Star”), working first as a singer and dancer. Having quickly made a name for herself – Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed her on a magazine cover in 1895 – she briefly visited New York, appearing there as a chanteuse at various venues, but without achieving major success.

Polaire in "Claudine à Paris" de Willy – 1902

Polaire in “Claudine à Paris de Willy” – 1902

On her return to Paris she extended her range and went on to act in serious theatre. Her first major appearance was in 1902, in the title role of a play based on Colette’s Claudine à Paris. A comedic actress, Polaire became one of the major celebrities of her day and later, as cinema developed, appeared in several films.

Throughout her career Polaire skillfully in using her appearance to attract attention. In her early days as a café singer in the 1890s she wore very short skirts and cropped her hair, fashions that did not become common in the rest of society until the 1920s. She was brunette and wore unusually heavy eye makeup, deliberately evocative of the Arab world.

Many artists besides Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured her image, including Pablo Picasso, Antonio de La Gandara, Leonetto Cappiello, and Rupert Carabin.

At a time when tightlacing was in vogue, she was famous for her tiny, corseted waist, which was reported to have a circumference no greater than 16 inches (410 mm). This accentuated her large bust, which was said to measure 38 inches (970 mm). She stood 5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m) tall. (While Wikipedia reports her waist size as 16 inches, Polaire reported her waist as 14inches, while other sources state it was 15 inches. I read a remark insisting a 14-inch waist was impossible, since that was the size of an average woman’s neck. All I can say is look at the photos and compare her waist to her neck. 14 inches looks feasible to me. While the seated photos are likely retouched, the standing photos appear unaltered.)


Her striking appearance, both on and off stage, contributed to her celebrity. For her 1910 appearance in New York she provocatively allowed herself to be billed in the advance publicity as “the ugliest woman in the world.” Returning to America in 1913, she brought a diamond-collared pet pig, Mimi, and wore a nose-ring. Talk of her figure and her lavish overdressing in fur coats and dazzling jewels preceded her appearances wherever she went.

Jean Lorrain (a French poet) said of her:

Polaire! The agitating and agitated Polaire! The tiny slip of a woman that you know, with the waist slender to the point of pain, of screaming out loud, of breaking in two, in a spasmically tight bodice, the prettiest slimness … And, under the aureole of an extravagant masher’s hat, orange and plumed with iris leaves, the great voracious mouth, the immense black eyes, ringed, bruised, discoloured, the incandescence of her pupils, the bewildered nocturnal hair, the phosphorus, the sulphur, the red pepper of that ghoulish, Salome-like face, the agitating and agitated Polaire!
What a devilish mimic, what a coffee-mill and what a belly-dancer! Yellow skirt tucked high, gloved in open-work stockings, Polaire skips, flutters, wriggles, arches from the hips, the back, the belly, mimes every kind of shock, twists, coils, rears, twirls…trembling like a stuck wasp, miaows, faints to what music and what words! The house, frozen with stupor, forgets to applaud.

Now that’s an epitaph!

Carte d'identité (identity card) 30 octobre 1930

Carte d’identité (identity card) 30 octobre 1930

Later in life she was plagued by tax problems with the French authorities and it is said she suffered from depression. She died in 1939, at age sixty-five, in Champigny-sur-Marne, Val-de-Marne, France.