No, mom I am not a stripper!
What are the origins of Burlesque clothing?
Well, my little Vixen, let’s go way, way, way back. Like biblical history. But trust me, it will be worth it. The first recorded Burlesque dance and dress originated in Biblical times, the perfect breeding ground for the roots of scandal right?
If you paid any attention in Sunday school, you might remember the infamous temptress Salome. Desperately in need of a favor, she cleverly leveraged all her female wiles and danced for her beloved King Herod with her Dance of the Seven Veils.
Never heard of it? Boy, are you missing out!
This seductive dance played out with the scintillating removal of seven veils, followed by every last stitch of clothing. Of course this got the King’s attention, making him putty in her hands. So she asked for what any girl would want, the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. (These days I would just settle for some diamonds or new heels… but I digress).
Perhaps, like Salome, you’ve caused a man to fall head over heels for their first Burlesque dancer, without them realizing this is not strip-tease, but rather an art form with deep history that empowers women! The literal meaning of burlesque is to “send up” and the term is derived from the Latin word “burra”. But that’s boring with a capital “B” so let’s get back to couture shall we?
All the way through the 1800’s, the classic Burlesque costumes in Europe still resembled the trappings of belly dancers with semi-transparent Grecian robes. The European Burlesque evolution was inspired by ballerinas, who were free to twirl, leap, extend and spread their legs on stage before audiences of men. More risqué Burlesque dancers fascinated their audiences as their costumes went from long, full dresses and skirts, tightly cinched at the waist, to shorter tutus and tighter, steel-framed corsets that enhanced and revealed more bust.
The modern Burlesque stage also draws historical influences from the Romantic and Victorian eras. The standard Burlesque costume during those times incorporated restrictive steel-boned corsets that enhanced and created extreme hourglass feminine figures that left men lustful. Accessories included a miniature hat, commonly called a fascinator, affixed to the front of one’s head and tilted off to the side, typically with a veil to cover the eyes. Long satin gloves paired with high heels, elaborate jewels, and nude colored stockings (the height of scandal – Ohoohhhh) finished the dress of this era.
Then in 1869, the famous buxom British Blondes arrived in America, lead by Lydia Thompson, and took the country by storm. The British Blondes became wildly popular with their sassy blend of music, comedy, clever satire, and bold sexuality. They created public outcry with their scandalous costumes: tight form-fitting dresses of lace draping to the tops of their knees to more risqué Burlesque fashion with underbust corsets worn over demure blouses and sassy bottoms of ruffled drawers. This was the beginning of the true American evolution of Burlesque clothing. Many of these ladies had their own sensual style and dance, but possessed crowd control (before the Prince song…) and could be just as spicy as any heckler! If you really want to learn the roots of sass, you should check out next week’s post “Famous Burlesque Personalities: Don’t you tell me what to wear!”
In 1870, Michael Leavitt wanted to capitalize on craze created by the British Blondes in America. He founded the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company. It grew to become recognized as the largest and greatest Burlesque organization in the world, known for revolutionizing the art form by producing shows with three acts. Many of their shows substituted male roles with female performers, thus creating a great excuse (as any excuse will do!) for women to appear scantily clad in long flowing opened suit coats with only thigh-high tights in lieu of trousers. In more artistic performances, the burlesque beauties were posed as living Greek statues and considered works of art (as women should be admired). Had they been moving and shaking like the strip teases found in many Burlesque theaters of today, it would have been a scandal. But these seemingly naked performers were considered classical works of art because of their lack of movement and costuming.
The legendary dance of Burlesque did not remain trapped in biblical lore, nor its revolution limited to America. In 1893, Oscar Wilde brought Salome, based upon the original Dance of the Seven Veils, to the European masses (sans John the Baptist’s head). The climax of the show had his lead actress appearing in an exotic middle-eastern gypsy costume styled after belly dancers and desert travelers popular during that era. The veils masking Salome’s face were removed along with her robes of flowing, silky fabric to seduce the audience. Wildly popular, the “Dance of the Seven Veils” with its delicate-yet-sultry costume, became the standard Burlesque fashion as the art form entered the 20th century.
The influence of the Dance of the Seven Veils explains the sometimes more exotic flair of the older burlesque styles. Some people even attribute the Dance of the Seven Veils as a precursor to the use of large feather fans. Some maintain that feather fans serve as a substitute for the original veils as a semi-clothed dancer hides behind wispy feathers; only to tease, but never reveal what fleshy temptations lie beneath… but that’s a subject for another blog, girlfriend. 🙂
Starting to sound familiar?
Of course as all things must evolve, so did Burlesque fashion and dance.
By the 1940s and 1950s, when the average woman was conservatively dressed, the Burlesque stars were anything but compliant with the current popular style of conservatism. Modesty during this particular Burlesque era was relatively non-existent. A few famous dancers at the time even performed what was called the “reverse strip” where their seductive, comical dance began with full-nudity and was performed by actually getting dressed, an idea you could probably steal and use again today – ladies, wouldn’t your man be confused?
Other dancers wore layers of G-strings or panties. A top layer might have been made of frilly chiffon, similar to what a bikini brief is today, with a less decorative G-string underneath, followed by a more flesh-tone, finished by a mesh one underneath to present the illusion of full nudity.
As with any good times, conservatives want the fun to end and in America began to introduce the dreaded “modesty laws” which began to remove Burlesque from the stages across America. However, as you might imagine a Burlesque girl is too tough to accept censorship! The culture refused to cover up and subsequently found a new home on the silver screen. This rebellious nature increased the visibility of a nationwide audience hungering for Burlesque. Not quite the desired affect of the “modesty laws” but of course a totally awesome result.
During this same time Pin-Up girls burst onto the scene, no longer confined to the nose cones of airplanes in WWII. Pin-up models and actresses of the 1940s were inspired by the Victorian era Burlesque fashions and brought back elaborate satin and lace corsets. Some used an extreme tight-laced corset to create luscious waistlines and curves that the public adored and caused men to drool. Like any exotic art form, these girls worked hard to achieve their dramatic figures by wearing their corsets day and night participating in “waist training”, the practice of constantly re-shaping your body by wearing a very tight corset. Over long periods of time, the lower floating rib becomes compressed into the tight line of the corset waist making a dramatically smaller waist.
Eventually everyday fashion from the 1950s to the 1960s mimicked much of the Burlesque stars in the movies with form-fitting dresses that had built-in support and wire framework to enhance and create curvy bust-lines and hips regardless of body type. Stockings and hosiery became more sheer and risqué with bold and sassy seams lines running up the back of women’s legs or garters with thigh-high stockings just peeking out of hemlines. Calves were shamelessly displayed and enhanced with higher and higher heels (now we are talking….).
Today the inspiration of Burlesque fashion is not all that different from the vintage 50s and 60s. It is a celebration of a woman’s true form, regardless of her curves. Sultry lines are celebrated with corsets or other lingerie fashions similar to those of the beautiful, sexy and sassy yet demure ladies of pin-up and the silver screen: Hazel Court, Allison Hayes, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page to name a few.
As Burlesque dancers and the art form become more and more popular, you can see many different styles and flavors of Burlesque clothing celebrated. Now my informed Vixen, you will be able to appreciate the history of all the different fashion influences. Burlesque has its roots in Biblical times, Victorian and Romantic eras, rebellion against conservatives, the Silver Screen, and a constant celebration of the female form. With that in mind, go out there, Vixens, and celebrate your own style – lace up and stay curvy!