Evil Whiteface Circus Clowns
Inspired by this article and thanks to Jeffrey Field for bringing it to my attention.
A beloved fairy tale — some versions of it anyway — starts off with a Queen sitting in the windowsill doing embroidery. She accidentally pricks her finger and she quickly sticks it in the snow. (She’s a Queen and presumably too well mannered to suck it.) Looking at the result she promptly wishes for a child with “skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony.”
To me having a child that looks like a corpse with lipstick doesn’t sound too appealing, but back in the day pale skin was a sign of beauty and class. And Snow White was famously the fairest of them all.
Being in the sun gives you a tan, and tanned people were the peasants who worked outside in the fields all day. But, if you had money then you could afford to be indoors all day and the sun never touched your skin. If you were pale, that told everyone else your status in society. The paler, the better. To a point where people were poisoning themselves with lead and arsenic in order to powder their skin white. (Which went really well with the belladonna women dripped in their eyes to widen the pupils, and the organs they displaced with their corsets…Plastic surgery sounds downright sensible doesn’t it?)
So from about the Renaissance up to somewhere in the twentieth century the social cues were pretty clear; high class is pale, low class is tan.
It’s not exactly spelled out, but kind of hard to ignore, when you look at the classic pairing of the whiteface clown with the auguste clown, the whiteface — with not a bit of their skin color showing — is the high status clown, and the auguste clown — with a tan and/or reddish base for the makeup — is the low status clown. Not just that, but clothing wise, it’s the whiteface that wears the large ruffled collar and pompoms and the auguste who wears the ill fitting (too big or too small) costume.
And copied directly from wikipedia when googling “circus clowns”
In strict classical European circuses of the past, the augustes were never described as clowns because, technically, they were not instigators but recipients of the comic doings. The augustes are the ones who get the pies in the face, are squirted with water, are knocked down on their backside, sit accidentally in wet paint, or have their pants ripped off.
So we have a clown showing all the old signs of high class — the whitened skin, the extravagant clothing — who torments the poor tanned (or sun burned) clown who’s not even considered a real clown. Whiteface is getting his laughs at the expense of augustes. Even when you think of the later developed ‘birthday clown’, what you picture is probably a character getting laughs by pulling pranks on other people.
Try Googling “evil clowns” and the overwhelming majority of pictures and drawings will be some twisted version of the whiteface clown. But that’s the natural progression of the character. Art imitates life, and it is really hard for me to see whiteface clown as anything else but the thinly veiled villain of the people. You can blame a serial killer for giving clowns an evil side, or you can argue that evil people will naturally be attracted to playing a role that requires some evil.