The intimate London exhibition paying homage to a legendary lesbian nightclub

Zara Toppin’s exhibition ‘Coming Out’ inspired by 1930s lesbian club, Le Monocle (Isobel Van Dyke)
Zara Toppin’s exhibition ‘Coming Out’ inspired by 1930s lesbian club, Le Monocle (Isobel Van Dyke)

Is it possible that the lesbian nightlife scene was better one hundred years ago than it is today? Or is it just that 1920s Paris is more appealing than the one permanent lesbian bar in London? Not that there’s anything wrong with that particular bar, but there’s only so much UK Top 40 that we can take.

A century ago, it wasn’t uncommon for Brits and Americans to journey to Paris for its vibrant, bohemian, and surprisingly queer, nightlife options during the interwar period. Salons were very popular: gatherings held by prominent figures in art, literature, design and photography, that would see creatives come together from across the globe to discuss ideas, to challenge and find solace in one another, to collaborate, and maybe even to fall in love. One of the most famous salons that swept Paris during the early twentieth century was run by extravagant lesbian poet, Natalie Clifford Barney.

‘Coming Out’ by Zara Toppin (Isobel Van Dyke)
‘Coming Out’ by Zara Toppin (Isobel Van Dyke)

For over 60 years, Barney hosted the salon at her home on Rue Jacob, seeing the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, Jean Cocteau, Tamara de Lempicka and F. Scott Fitzgerald pass through its doors. In the late 1920s, famous lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall held a reading of The Well of Loneliness at Barney’s salon, following the book’s ban in the UK.

For queer women more tempted by a bar than a literary salon, there was only one place to go. Le Monocle was one of Paris’ earliest and most famous queer nightclubs, named for the eyepiece that became synonymous with lesbian clothing codes, along with three-piece suits and short, slicked hair. Sadly, it was forced to close due to the outbreak of World War II and all that remains of Le Monocle today are the precious black and white images taken by Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï.

Luckily for us, from now until this Saturday, artist and hairdresser Zara Toppin is hosting an exhibition of work that pays homage to the famous nightclub. And coincidentally, it takes place within a salon - though not quite the Parisian salon of Natalie Clifford Barney, but Toppin’s own hair salon near Arnold Circus in Shoreditch.

“I’m quite obsessed with historical lesbians”, Toppin told me when I visited their salon on a stormy Wednesday evening. “I once went to Paris and visited all the addresses I’d researched, we all dressed up as historical lesbians too. I had a book on Brassaï and the photos he took are some of the only ones that exist of the space and the people that went there, there must be only about eight images that exist. I saw them and just thought they were so brilliant, the poses and the looks mixed with the black and white, there’s so much melancholy in them.”

Toppin fell into hairdressing whilst studying a foundation course at Camberwell College of Arts, before they dropped out to cut hair full-time. They use their few days off to create art as and when they can, with this exhibition (titled Coming Out) marking their first solo show. Compiling of artwork made over the course of two years, it ranges from Cocteau-esque pencil drawings to Hockney-inspired oil paintings, as well as prints that recreate Brassaï’s famous images of Le Monocle.

Toppin, alongside photographer Lydia Garnett, have hosted a series of exhibitions in their salon space. From intimate queer readings, to celebrations of butch hairstyles (see Close Shave). Coming Out, however, will be the last exhibition to grace the walls of Toppin’s salon. Rent hikes have made it impossible for Toppin to remain at their Shoreditch address, meaning that when the exhibition closes this Saturday, so too will Toppin’s beloved space. But with big plans for the future, they’re more excited than anything else.

Is there a modern day equivalent of Le Monocle that exists in London? “No. I really want to create one, to open a bar. I don’t want to go to a gay bar that plays pop music and has garish colours. I want to go somewhere really chic, that has delicious wine and plays really good music where people just look sophisticated. Basically a really beautiful wine bar but just for lesbians.”

Hairdresser, artist, filmmaker…and potential bar owner? Toppin’s first solo exhibition seems to be the first of many creative endeavours, and with any luck, London’s answer to Le Monocle is on the horizon. Watch this space. (Book your slot to see Coming Out by contacting Zara Toppin here. From now until Saturday March 18 at Sunbury Workshops)