Burlesque theater, as burlesque originally began, was a dramatic literary or musical performance which was twisted in comical satire to bring caricaturization of more serious works. The word is derived from the Italian word, burlesco, also derived from another Italian word, burla, meaning joke or mockery. The elaboration of such comical performances developed into extravaganzas and parody in the late 17th century when works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Graeco-Roman classics were retrospectively transformed.
The transition of what burlesque is known as today, for its striptease performance only gradually developed over the last century. Soubrettes or maidservants would show off their figures while dancing and singing. Some performers, perhaps early vixens, made up for it by wearing elaborate stage costumes. By the 1930s, an average burlesque show would feature up to six strippers supported by a master of ceremonies and a couple comics.
Burlesque had hit a high point with its popularity growing from coast to coast. In France, the Moulin Rouge and Folies Berege were popular spots. Earlier on, many people attending some of the more racy ‘strip shows’ were not yet comfortable with showing skin. Flesh-colored tights did the trick and with women’s fashion making less-conservative strides, so did the burlesque costumes. Dresses become shorter, at first only exposing ankles, then calves. By the 1930s the skirts reached up to the knee. With prohibition, strict laws banning alcohol also banned many clothing styles and dictated the length of skirts.
However, just as speakeasies became an underground retreat for the working class so did the burlesque bars. Under such cover, the performances were more risqué and daring, with more clothing being removed during their performances.
Following WWII, burlesque was back with bigger acts and the burlesque costumes played an important role to delight and intrigue audiences. The costumes might have been considered stripped-down, altered counterparts to fashion trends of each decade. The burlesque costumes of history are not all that different to what is popular today. They are made from a variety of materials from leather to lace and adorned with anything from ribbon to metal fasteners to cinch waists tight, to celebrate the celebrated feminine figure. Burlesque accessories range from fishnet to polka dot hosiery with garters and ribbons, feather fans, leather cuffs and whips. The costumes are only limited to one’s imagination.
More recently, the revival of burlesque, also known as Neo-burlesque is present all around the globe showcasing the glamor of classic American burlesque. By the 1990s it developed quite the cult following at Billie Madley’s “Cinema” and the “Dutch Weismann’s Follies” in New York. Other troupes throughout North America brought burlesque back in other locations in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Vancouver.
Hollywood since the late 1940s has tried to reenact the scenes from earlier burlesque shows. Many of you might be familiar with All that Jazz, Cabaret, and a more recent film in 2010 starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, Burlesque.