Gold Diggers courtesan jewelry of Mata Hari
What series about famous French courtesans would be complete without mentioning Mata Hari? Mata Hari gave her name to our language and culture. The very name has gone down in history and is synonymous with a woman using seductive charm to spy on men and betray her country. A Mata Hari is a beautiful woman, who exploits her power over men to cause death and destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth of the real Mata Hari.
Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Holland in 1876, Mata Hari had an ordinary childhood growing up in a middle-class family with ups and downs, but nothing outrageously out of the ordinary. At the age of 19, she married herself off to a Dutchman, MacLeod, living in Indonesia. What should have been a successful step into comfortable respectability, became the turning point of her life. Her Dutch husband was abusive and partially to escape the misery of her life with him in Java, she began to learn about the local culture, customs and especially dance. It was at this point that she took the name Mata Hari, meaning 'eye of the day'. Eventually, Mata Hari returned to Europe, settling in Paris, where she eventually became an 'exotic dancer' in order to support herself.
At that time, during the very early 20th century, very little was known about the Far East and Indonesia/Java, which was enough to stir interest. Mata Hari milked her Far Eastern connections to the full, embellishing many false personal details about a part Hindu, part Malay background. In addition, the promiscuous Mata Hari took things a lot further. Appearing almost nude with a few jewels strategically placed, she mesmerised the public. Flaunting her body, she was the theatrical rock star of the day. In addition, Mata Hari was 'kept' by wealthy and powerful men and clearly she belongs in the class of courtesan which we have been discussing.
And then the First World War broke out. Mata Hari was involved with many men and being Dutch, could move about more freely than many others in Europe. Potentially, she had access to both foreign lands and foreigners. What exactly happened is shrouded in the mists of war and deliberate misinformation. What is known is that she was asked (actually emotionally blackmailed) to spy on behalf of France, her adopted country. She was requested to compromise the German Kaiser's son, whose role in the army was exxaggerated for publicity reasons. In fact, any knowledge Mata Hari had was minimal and probably no more than anyone could have read in any newspaper. However, France was losing badly and neede a scapegoat. Doing exactly what she was directed to do ie make contact with the Germans, Mata Hari was arrested as a spy. In a rigged trial where Mata Hari was not even remotely defended, she was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death by firing squad. Even her death was misreported with the papers describing lurid outfits chosen by her for the occasion. As years passed and secret documents were declassified, it has become abundantly clear that Mata Hari was a scapegoat and not vaguely guilty of betraying France, let alone being responsible for 50000 French deaths as it was claimed at the time.
What is not to be doubted is Mata Hari's wanton exhibitionism during her hey-day in Paris. Not only was she an artist's model, but she posed for tons of 'photos and the internet is bursting with pictures of Mata Hari in various degrees of nudity and assumed exotic dance poses. Many of these pictures show Mata Hari naked from the waist down. Her upper torso, arms, neck and head were all lavishly adorned with bucket loads of jewels. I did not find any reports about this jewelry, so we do not know whether it was genuine, fine jewelry made of precious materials, or costume jewelry. Whatever the materials, the designs are fascinating. We are all familiar with the superb jewelry made for Sarah Bernardt (another exotic dancer and actress) by Rene Lalique and Georges Fouquet according to the designs of Alphonse Mucha.
design of Alphonse Mucha
Clearly, there is a strong afinity between the design and exoticism of Mata Hari's jewelry and the Art Nouveau designs of Alphonse Mucha and shared by many others. Another interesting feature of Mata Hari's jewelry is that she is invariably seen wearing a jewelled bra. yet again, we are reminded of later jewels as worn by today's attention seekers and even one designed by Elsa Paretti and made by Tiffany & Co. It is reported that Mata Hari always wore the jewelled bra because she was embarrassed by her small breasts. How odd for someone as flamboyant as that.
Take a look at some of the myriad 'photos of Mata Hari to be found, albeit in black and white on the internet.
Her poses are meant to imply an Indian nautch (dancing) girl or temple dancer, but seem to be more a confusion of themes than anything specific or authentic.
She wears an elaborate head-dress in the form of a bird with swags of pearls looping over and through her hair. She doesn't simply wear earrings - she wears enormous jewels like ear muffs that begin well up on the sides of her head, above her ears and that feature peacock feather designs. These peacock feather designs are echoed in other jewels such as the slave bracelets on her upper arms and the birds or aigrettes above her forehead. If Mata Hari believed that 'less is more' when it came to clothes, her attitude to jewelry was the opposite - more is more. If a distinctive jewelry theme does not emerge clearly, this lady clearly believed that with jewelry, more is better.
Despite sophisticated culture vultures, audiences lapped up Mata Hari and her act. Many emulated her. She was adored and worshipped and ultimately, when times got tough, like so many of the courtesans we have written about, she was exploited and discarded in the worst possible way.
While no consolation to Mata Hari, her life and life-style inspired dozens of movies, plays, books and records. She is one of the few people in the world whose name became an adjective in general use. Rest in Peace.