This week's talk of Lady Gaga wearing a drone-dress—part clothing, part future personal transportation technology—brought to mind the story of 19th-century French aeronaut, Sophie Blanchard.
As Richard Holmes describes her in his excellent new book Falling Upwards, Blanchard was part aerial wizard far ahead of her time—able to steer and operate hot air balloons on her own over the rooftops of Paris—but also a spectacle in her own right. Blanchard "specialized in night ascents and firework displays," Holmes writes, launching pyrotechnics directly from the basket of her balloon. Alone in the sky, she would set off "rockets and cascades, and suspended networks of Bengal lights, all of which she would skillfully ignite with extended systems of tapers and fusers," much to the bewilderment and joy of city dwellers down below.
"At the height of these displays," Holmes adds, clearly in appreciative awe of his own subject matter, "her small white figure and feathery hat would appear like some unearthly airborne creature or apparition, suspended several hundred feet overhead in the night sky, above a sea of flaming stars and colored smoke."
More to the point here, and returning to Lady Gaga, Blanchard was an innovator and a star. Holmes explains, for example, that "she commissioned a much smaller silk balloon, capable of lifting her on a tiny, decorative silver gondola."
Flying this reflective, hovering tray, he suggests, was "virtually like standing in a flying champagne bucket." YOLO.
But then came the "distinctive outfits," the outrageous aeronautically sophisticated dresses—equal parts Amelia Earhart and Liberace—and a highly idiosyncratic set of "white bonnets extravagantly plumed with colored feathers, to increase her height and visibility."
Thus feathered, she flew through ice and hailstorms, took her show on the road—or on the winds, as it were—to Rome, where she drifted over stone monuments and graves of emperors; once, inadvertently flying at too high an altitude, "she suffered a nosebleed and icicles formed on her hands and face."
An elemental life, she went from fire to ice and, tragically, back again. Blanchard—spoiler alert!—was killed by her own pyrotechnical virtuosity in a "fiery descent" on July 6, 1819, crashing onto the buildings below her.
Anticipating the endless one-upwomanship of today's pop stars, Blanchard launched her sartorially extravagant career over the dark roofs and courtyards of 19th-century Europe, lighting off false stars, a weird dream of light passing by through the sky.