Burlesque has always held a deep fascination in me. Since before I became a steampunk I’ve been interested in burlesque and the flamboyant extravangance of the performers. Since starting the Journal I’ve had the privilege of attending a few nights and managed to review a couple of them. There are a few thoughts that have milled around my head and in this article I’m going to try and articulate them and maybe open a discussion in the comments section. As always your comments are welcome whether positive or not and I never turn a thoughtful intellectual comment aside.
Burlesque in the past
Let’s take a look at the origins of burlesque so we can see the changes it has made into the spectacle today. The word “burlesque” originates from the Italian word burla which means to mock or joke. Burlesque was first used as humourous parodies in the 16th and 17th centuries. Usually the shows were lampooning famous people of the time. As the years rolled by and we entered the 19th century, well known artists were parodied in burlesque shows including Shakespeare!
The late 19th century saw burlesque take a turn in the way it was performed and nudity started to become a staple requirement. The operas and plays that were mocked would also use original music with rewritten humourous lyrics. Meanwhile in America, the performers were taking it that one step further. The prudish British kept covered up while the Americans started to show off more skin. It was Lydia Thompson’s British troupe the British Blondes that secured success in 1868 with Ixion in New York. It was an all female cast and crew with women even playing male roles. Ixion grossed $370,000 in it’s first season run. Arguably one of the biggest draws for the crowds were the “Leg shows” which saw performing girls in tights. This was quite forward for the reserved Victorian era.
Over in Paris, the liberated Europeans were taking it that one step further. A typical British burlesque performance would see the show of mockery and parody end with a chorus line. The Parisians had a similar ending but with the girls lifting their skirts which led to the Can-Can.
The decline of an art form
The rise of burlesque through the Victorian era is really something to contemplate. Here’s an art form that was daring and racy surging in popularity during a time of prudishness and reservation. It was in the early 20th century that the performers started to push the boundaries even further with Millie DeLeon getting arrested for “forgetting” to wear tights. Eventually strip tease began to form a part of the act as inhibitions fell and standards of dress lowered. The 1920s saw well known acts such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr come to prominence in shows organised by the Minsky Brothers in America. A decade later in a Britain still swathed in modesty, Laura Henderson began running nude shows in the Windmill Theatre. However at that time, British Law forbade them from moving.
Burlesque took the turn towards the striptease because of the advent of radio and television. Customers began to stay away from the theatre to take advantage of this new and exciting entertainment form. Burlesque waned massively in America in the 1940s. Britain kept going until the 1960s, despite the introduction of the topless Go Go Dancer. It would have been sooner but for a few travelling troupes putting on shows in struggling music halls. By the 1970s burlesque had all but died out.
The 1990s saw burlesque resurfacing with the advent of the “Neo-Burlesque” movement. Performers rarely go to full nudity, preferring to strip to underwear and pasties. The emphasis seemingly being less on the strip and more on the tease. Performers typically dress in vintage clothing in honour of the golden age of burlesque and this is what has inspired me to write this article and research the history of it.
The rockabilly culture tend to dominate the majority of the burlesque movement – especially here in the UK. 1940s/1950s clothing are what the performers favour and many of the audience are made up of similar people. I wondered (before I researched this) why there’s less of a Victoriana presence in Neo-Burlesque given it’s prominence in the late 19th century. I’ve surmised that the reason is because the acts that the performers emulate the most are the strip teasers from the mid 20th century. Interestingly, acts do tend to draw inspiration from something and essentially lampoon it, just like the performers in the 19th century. Boylesque is also becoming more prominent as more boys are taking part.
Therefore if you’ve come to this article thinking that burlesque dancers are simply young girls looking for a reason to strip off, you couldn’t be more wrong. These ladies are determined, intelligent and well researched. I’ve reviewed two burlesque nights so far. The Wet Spot in Leeds and the Secrets of the Boudoir 6th birthday party in Sheffield. Reading my report on when the Alternative & Burlesque Fair came to Sheffield will give you an understanding of this fascinating entertainment.