I read this richly textured book before I visited London because I thought it would deepen my experience of Soho, that vibrant, trendy, and also seedy part of the city that I had visited several times without knowing much about its history. I was not disappointed. What most excited me about the book were the stories it tells about women who entered into Soho's pleasures and public spaces between the late nineteenth-century and the end of WW II, spaces and pleasures that had been reserved for men-about-town, both hetero and homosexual. Not surprisingly, many of the women entering into Soho's public and clandestine spaces were sex workers or erotic dancers, who satisfied, acted as safety valves for, or displaced attention from men's sexual desires. (Erotic dancers at the Empire Theater, for example, acted as a "cover" for men seeking other men or ladies of the night in the back of the theater).
But the skimpily-clad or, in some cases, nude dancers had more in common with each other than displaying themselves to men. While earning a living, they expressed pleasure in their own bodies and in their sexuality and helped shape new ways of seeing the female form--as mobile, powerful, autoerotic, and energized. This was a shift in imagination about women's bodies that ultimately helped change the way women were seen as actors and citizens by others and by themselves.
Erotic dancers like Maud Allan also drew respectable women to their performances, thereby opening up London pleasures and even night-life to a new female clientele. Allan's dancing inspired respectable women to take up dancing too, by attending tea and dinner dances and using their bodies in public with greater freedom than before (Some women also got their men to attend dances with them, thereby domesticating some of these men's "about town" experiences). But the women of Soho were not just dancers or sex workers. They also ran nightclubs and trained dancers to appear to be offering sex while setting strict limits on their behavior. Other, more respectable, women policed nightclubs for moral turpitude while also taking in the shows. Some women sold clothing as merchants. Others, newly in the work force, bought the latest fashions on Soho streets. Still others worked as speedy waitresses called "Nippies" who kept the various populations at Lyons restaurants in line. In interesting and unexpected ways the women whose lives are detailed in this book contributed to what became the new, more liberated woman.
Much of the book's brilliance lies in the way it teaches readers how to see culture and women's experience in all their complexity. Walkowitz tells us that cultural practices don't have a single trajectory and then shows us in striking detail how many practices were reinterpreted and used for different purposes. Feminists, for example, initially disapproved of Allan's erotic dancing and then used dance and theater for their own political purposes. Nights Out is a deeply rewarding read. Pour a glass of wine, take your own night out, and prepare to savor it.