To many people Gentlemen’s clubs are a luxury hideaway where both men—and women—can relax, unwind, experience delicious food and drink, and enjoy the company of classy, beautiful women and adult entertainment. But gentlemen’s clubs were not always how we think of them today.
So what is the history of London’s Gentlemen’s clubs and how did they become the exotic, high-class entertainment hangouts that we recognise today.
Traditional Gentlemen’s Clubs
While there have inevitably been social gatherings of men since the early formations of civilisation, the Gentlemen’s clubs, as we know of them today, found prominence among Britain’s elite in the 19th century.
The original members-only institutions were first established in central London’s Soho, which is today still known to many as “Clubland”. These establishments were created strictly for upper class men only, and were private places where men could relax and create friendships in the surroundings of other like-minded men. For many gentlemen at this time, these clubs were their second home—a place to gamble, network, and find respite from their daily lives, all in a comfortable, grand setting.
Most club memberships were difficult to obtain and often waiting lists would be so long that fathers would sign their sons up the moment they were born. Strict exclusivity meant that the secrets of the Gentlemen’s club would remain just that—a secret. Even in today’s elite clubs there is a strict code of honour based on discretion.
During the height of their influence in the late 19th century, there were Gentlemen’s clubs to suit any interest and every persuasion. Most men became a member to only one club, which closely corresponded with the trade or political identity he felt most defined him. Each establishment was characterised by their members’ interests such as politics, literature, sport, art, or travel. Some clubs were even exclusive to men who’d attended a specific school like Oxford or Cambridge, and others specifically catered to the armed forces. Whatever the orientation, each had a particular atmosphere whether it be quiet and elegant, or scandalously raucous.
Public entertainments, such as musical performances, were not known to be a feature of this sort of Gentlemen’s club and they were also in fact, strictly a female-free zone. This is a far cry from the provocative Gentlemen’s club Soho scene that is popular today. So how did the Gentlemen’s clubs as we know them emerge?
The first erotic dance shows
Eventually, every man with a credible claim to the status of “gentleman” was seeking to find a club willing to admit him. Existing clubs had strict limits on membership numbers and long waiting lists, meaning that men were soon forming their own clubs to feel part of the “establishment”.
By the start of the 1900s, gentlemen’s clubs were so popular that London’s Soho overflowed with men eager to find a bolthole to socialise and unwind. The new clubs that emerged to cater to these needs often lacked the exclusivity and strict codes as many of the aristocratic originals
In the meantime, the first female erotic dances were emerging throughout Europe. Particularly in France, shows such as the Moulin Rouge, featured alluring, scantily clad women who would excite the audience with their stimulating performances. The first public act of striptease in modern times was credited to Parisian theatre in 1894.
Emergence of Strip clubs in Britain
By the 1930’s these tantalising shows had taken Europe by storm and by this time were much more elaborate productions than those merely 30 years before. The dancers were now performing sophisticated choreography dressed in glamorous lingerie and feathers. It was at this time that the first nude shows hit London establishments. However, British law prohibited these women from moving around on the stage whilst they were naked. To avoid breaking the law the models would either pose naked on stage while standing still or conceal their bodies with glitzy fans and feathers.
During the middle of the 20th century, touring striptease acts were performing in music halls and bars up and down the country. Changes in the law in the 1960s, brought about a boom of strip clubs in Soho with ‘fully nude’ dancing and audience participation. Those strip clubs that still hold a certain exclusive appeal are what are now known as the Gentlemen’s clubs of today.
Gentlemen’s clubs and strip clubs today
Although there are still elite gentlemen’s clubs present today not all remain as they were in the Victorian era. The term ‘gentlemen’s club’ is used interchangeably as a term to describe high-class strip clubs that offer adult entertainment within a traditional private members club setting.
If you’re looking for the finest Gentlemen’s club Soho has to offer, then Stringfellows in Covent Garden is the place you need to be. Enjoy fine dining, delicious beverages, and London’s most seductive ladies in the stylish luxury of the world’s top gentlemen’s club.