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The Style Dichotomy of the Early Lady Explorer
The Style Dichotomy of the Early Lady Explorer

by Fran Harris

Early Lady Explorers had a unique, dichotomised style that mirrored their place in history: these were pioneers living at a time before their sex had secured the right to vote. They transported formal elegance into their canvas tents, camel trains and rickety boats inspiring a legion of fictional characters.

But how do you spot an early Lady Explorer from her mien? Here are a few clues:

A Trunk full of luxury. However dangerous or remote the landscape, Lady Explorers were by no means backpackers. Author Georgina Howell wrote that Gertrude Bell had “a pistol strapped to her calf under silk petticoats….her desert table laid with crisp linen” whilst Lillias Campbell Davidson (the author of Hints to Lady Travellers) advised: “It is a great convenience to take one’s own bath with one when travelling”.

Gertrude Bell in Iraq in 1909 age 41

An air of fierce intelligence. These women had immense talent frequently surpassing men working in the same field. Howell describes Bell as instrumental in creating the nation of Iraq whilst Lawrence of Arabia “agonised, faltered and finally abandoned the Arab issue”; Karen “Out of Africa” von Blixen-Finecke saved her husband’s Kenyan farm from ruin and Isabella Bird’s photographs remain an important record of late 19th Century Japan, Korea and China.

A forthright manner. Not one for delicacies, Bell once exclaimed “The devil take all inane women.”

Presence of Scotch, cigarettes and a scowl. Lady Explorers aren’t big smilers. Adele Blanc-Sec, the female Indiana Jones, doesn’t show teeth in a single frame of Tardi’s comic but was frequently sketched recovering from death defying encounters from Paris to Giza with a couple of glugs of whisky and a cigarette.

Adèle looks fierce in the cover of Adèle et la Bête

More about early Lady Explorers:

•    Read Daughter of the Desert by Georgina Howell or Hints to Lady Travellers by Lillias Campbell Davidson
•    Visit for information about the newly digitalised Isabella Bird archives

Fran Harris edits Lady Adventurer

Image sources: main image is of the boat Isabella Bird travelled in (with permission of the RGS); Gertrude Bell; Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec

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Wonderful, well written article

  • Emily
  • 01 Jun, 2011
  • 9:43 am

Freya Stark was another Lady Adventurer who did it with style and daring.
wonderful photos, thanks.

  • Ann O’Dyne
  • 12 Jun, 2011
  • 12:48 pm

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