La Barette. I’m not talking about the hair clip or the barretta — the square cap worn by clergy men.
Instead I’m referring to a type of rugby played by women in France in the 1920s. As opposed to 7s, it was 10 players on each side and instead of tackling there was tough blocking.
I’ve found that for women, rugby was played behind “closed doors” in the 19th century and likely in Ireland.1 But it did not surprise me that the lady ruggers, as with most sports predominately played by men, were not met with full support.
However, I was surprised when one night of late searching (read: procrastination) I came across a collection of photos from Frédéric Humbert’s Flikr account and his website — www.rugby-pioneers.com. They captured a time when women in France were playing barette and how society editorialized — perhaps sensationalized — the sport.
With Frédéric’s permission I’ve shared some of those images here with you. And since you’re my captive audience, I’ll also share what I find striking about each image. I invite you to tell me which image you like best too!
Fabien Fabiano “rugby féminin” in Fantasio 1924
With the help of Google Translate and my one semester of high school French, I believe the illustration says the following: “‘Press on through the melee,’ shouted the Captain. But as his friend looks she is again a beauty.”
First what an awesome word — melee. “It refers to disorganized close combat involving a group of fighters.”2
To the outsider I’m sure rugby, especially the scrum or ruck, may look disorganized. And I have to wonder if Fabiano is either making fun of our Captain as she is applying lipstick while the other team has won the ball showcasing her as a poor athlete or highlighting a societal view of how women should always strive to be feminine.
Erotic Rugby by Armand Vallée
This piece may be one of my favorites. Barette is supposed to be solely tough blocking but this illustration shows full on tackling. And as a result of said tackling the women are exposing their bottoms and as with the player with the ball she has one breast fully exposed. Yet she cannot be bothered to cover herself or she’ll risk losing the game for her team. She’s the antithesis of Fabiano’s “Captain.”
Something about this image is savage and it thrills me.
The title suggests that the game is “erotic” but only the women in the stands are “aroused.” Some are whooping for the team (or perhaps for women sports), others are leaning in for a better look and some appear to be in awe. The men in attendance are stoic and not amused.
I find humor in this image as I wonder how many men have secretly and not-so-secretly fantasized about cat fights between women turning in to something more. To quote Jerry Seinfield: “Men think if women are grabbing and clawing at each other, there’s a chance they might somehow, you know… kiss.”
Apparently, not the men pictured here.
Fémina Sport à Bordeaux en 1923
Courtesy of Google Translate: “The coach and referee Mr. Andrew Theuriet framed by the captain of the Cadets of Gascony and Dubarry Miss Femina Sport captain, Miss Curabet.”
André Theuriet was an Olympic swimmer and participated in 1908 Olympics in London in freestyle swimming. He was two-time finalist in the rugby championship in France in 1911 and 1913. He was also the co-founder of the first school of rugby in France established in 1924.
This picture was taken as part of a match in Bordeaux in 1923.3
Despite Theuriet’s many accomplishments the women have larger smiles and I would go so far as to say that these women may have been beaming with pride to be pictured with him but moreso for what they represented as women athletes.
Hirondelles v Lille 1924
I believe, again thanks to Google Translate, this caption says the following: “A Regional Barette Match at Elizabeth Stadium/Femina-Swallows beat Lille Rugby Club by 20 points to 0. We see a Parisian on the offensive that threw the disturbance to the Lille.”
Um, ok, so that last bit doesn’t quite make sense but the jist is that the Lille Rugby Club got stomped this game. I also like the juxtaposition of this photograph to Vallée’s illustration. No roaring fans to be found in the seats and no disrobed lady ruggers on the field.
Les Sportives | Journal Illustre Feminin
Here the Lille Rugby Club is pictured in an illustrated newspaper dedicated to women’s sports. They are described as valiant. I would say that any player who decides to play rugby is “adventurous” — one of the synonyms but these women were certainly “bold” as I’m sure they must have received a lot of criticism for choosing a sport that isn’t feminine.
Women’s Sports Federation of France
The Fédération Française Sportive Féminine (FFSF) was founded by Alice Milliat in 1921 “in response to the refusal of the IAAF [International Olympic Committee] to include women’s track and field athletics events in the 1924 Olympic Games.”4
Milliat was “met with a deadlock of several leaders including that of Baron de Coubertin, vehemently opposed to women’s sports.”5
Vehemently opposed — the words make my skin crawl. I admire Milliat for finding her own way and I’m sure the Barette champions who received this were also proud of their combined achievements.
If you have been as enthralled with all this as I have, please watch this video of “Barette / Women Rugby in 1928”.