Not surprisingly, burlesque costumes date back to the mid-to-late 1800s when bustles and corsets were at the height of fashion. A flirty mix of eroticism, humor, feathers, and tulle, burlesque offered the perfect combination of Broadway and Go-Go. And let’s not forget the most important part – the costumes! Entire shows were often built solely around the costumes, outlandishly adorned and racy-lacy to the max. Lydia Thompson, the Queen of Burlesque, and her British Blondes paved the way for performers everywhere with their daring portrayals in numerous theatres across the globe. Dancing from the time she was a teenager until her final performance as Duchesse du Albuquerque in A Queen’s Romance four years before her death in 1908, The Times regarded Lydia Thompson as “one of the most eminent of English dancers.” Her costumes ranged from flamboyant, short dresses to menswear-inspired outfits, complete with all the accoutrement.
The early 1900s brought burlesque to America by way of the Minsky Brothers and Gypsy Rose Lee along with the invention of the modern striptease. Feather boas, long gloves, satin and lace, garter belts, stockings, corsets, all seductively peeled off in tune with the music, made their scintillating debut.
While Lili St Cyr took off more clothing in the 1940s, she also brought elaborate props to the stage. Swans (Bjork, anybody?), lap guitars, bathtubs, and holsters gave burlesque some of its showmanship and play-acting back. The tease was certainly more about the act than the costume…since the costumes were mostly made up of Ms. St Cyr’s bare, golden skin.
From the increasing widespread tolerance of the publicized naked body in the 1970s until very recently, stripping had lost the art form of its burlesque predecessor. Gone were the elaborate costumes and on-stage props, as acts became little more than grinding and half-hearted pole-dancing. However, with the appearance of neo-burlesque and figures like Dita von Teese, we have seen a resurgence in the public’s appreciation for theatrical costumes and grandiose performances. Burlesque now evokes a magnificence rarely seen in the past fifty years of striptease, with an alluring combination of the exciting costumes made popular by dancers of the early 1900s and the marvelous props that made an appearance with Lili St. Cyr.
I, for one, welcome back the vintage flourish and grandeur. Feathers and jewels just about make a whimsical girl’s fanciful dreams come true.
toujours. always. xo.