The History of Burlesque

Burlesque is now known as a form of striptease, but originally it didn’t have any stripping at all. The Freaky delves into the deep and saucy history of burlesque.

The Beginnings: Britain

Burlesque has its origins in 19th century British music halls, where the term referred to a theatrical entertainment of a satirical comic bent. Beginning in the 1840s, burlesque comedy skits entertained the lower and middle classes by making fun of (or “burlesquing”) the operas, plays and social habits of the upper classes.

victorian burlesque

In the 1860s shapely, underdressed women were introduced to keep audiences interested. In the Victorian age, when proper women went to great lengths to hide their physical form beneath bustles, hoops and frills, the idea of young ladies appearing onstage in tights was a great thrill.

1860s: Exported to America

victorian burlesque
Lydia Thompson – Burlesque’s first star.

Brit Lydia Thompson was burlesque’s first sta. Known the “Queen of Burlesque” Thomspon was instrumental in exporting burlesque to America. In the late 1860s her burlesque troupe – the “British Blondes” – became New York’s biggest theatrical sensation. Their first hit was Ixion, a mythological spoof that had women in revealing tights playing men\’s roles. Underdressed women playing sexual aggressors, combining good looks with impertinent comedy – in a production written and managed by a woman, unthinkable! No wonder men and adventurous wives turned out in droves, making Thompson’s troupe the hottest ticket in American show business. Her first New York season grossed over $370,000.

Burlesque Explosion

Lydia Thompson’s success launched a US burlesque explosion. Mabel Saintley became America’s first native-born burlesque star, when she feminised the popular minstrel show as “Mme. Rintz’s Female Minstrels.”

vintage burlesque
Mabel Saintly

By now, burlesque was a mix of male performer comedy and a chorus girl leg show with song and dance. It was all very tame compared to today – but a bit of leg back then drove audiences wild.

In France they had their own take on burlesque with the cancan and the spectacular music halls of the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge.

Early 20th century

For the first part of the 20th century, burlesque shows flourished on both sides of the Atlantic.

In America, editorials and sermons condemning burlesque as “indecent” had only made the form more popular and burlesque theatres sprung up across the States.

millie deleon burlesque

The biggest burlesque star of the early 20th Century was dancer Millie DeLeon, an attractive brunette who tossed her garters into the audience and occasionally neglected to wear tights. Such shenanigans got her arrested on occasion, and helped to give burlesque a raunchy reputation. By now, burlesque dancers were like a Victorian version of footballers’ wives. Offstage, they had an ornamental presence, cavorting with well-known socialites and even royalty, it was long way from burlesque’s working class origins. Lavishly adorned, they were perfect arm candy for writers like Jean Cocteau and Oscar Wilde.

1920s : Birth of the Striptease

By the 1920s, film and radio was eating into burlesque’s popularity. So the strip tease was introduced as a desperate bid to offer something that vaudeville, film and radio could not. In fact, the striptease had been around since the end of the last century when Little Egypt introduced the “hootchie-kooch” at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but it had always remained a mainstay of stag parties. Now burlesque promoters like the Minsky Brothers in the US, took the striptease out of the back rooms and put it onstage.

Strippers had to walk a fine line between titillation and propriety – going too far (let alone “all the way”) could land them in jail for corrupting public morals. The strippers soon dominated burlesque, and their routines became increasingly graphic. To avoid total nudity but still give the audience what it wanted, the ladies covered their groins with flimsy G-strings and used “pasties” to cover their nipples. This was usually enough to keep the cops at bay, even though pasties were far more vulgar that a plain naked breast.

burlesque vintage
Gypsy Rose Lee

By now men went to burlesque shows to watch women strip – period. The comedy was no longer a key attraction. The more clothes the girls removed, the more the audiences liked it. At a time when fear of personal scandal and sexual disease were rampant, burlesque was a relatively safe source of titillation for married men and youngsters alike.

Stars of this era were fan dancer Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Mid 20s: The Crackdown
As burlesques popularity in America increased, so did its critics. In the mid-1920s. egged on by moral crusaders, legal crackdowns in America began, including a now legendary raid on Minskys in Manhattan. Burlesque managers relied on their lawyers, who kept coming up with legal loopholes for more than a decade.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy that burlesque dancers attracted Burlesque continued its popularity. In New York which was the epicenter of American burlesque, Minskys burlesque chain moved onto Broadway taking over premises in Times Square and putting many legitimate theaters out of business. By 1935 there were an estimated 3,500 strippers in the US playing to over 50,000 people a night.

burlesque doves
Burlesque star Rosita Royce and her doves.

With each year the acts became racier and more risqué. And with the competition fierce, the acts had to have a gimmick. Yvette Dare used parrots to disrobe her. Rosita Royce had a complex strip show involving white doves. But then in 1937 in New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia closed the city’s burlesque houses dismissing them as purveyors of “filth.” Burlesque’ had become so synonymous with sleaze that the word itself was outlawed – with promoters banded from using “burleseque” to market their acts.

Naked Girls in 30’s London.

In the early 1930s Laura Henderson opened a small theatre in London’s Soho and called it The Windmill. Here she launched a non-stop musical revue with singers, dancers, showgirls and speciality numbers. It soon became a success. But when Mrs. Henderson and manager Mr. Van Damm decided to copy the hugely successful Moulin Rouge in Paris and put naked girls on stage, business exploded.

burlesque club history
Backstage at The Windmill in the 1930s

Skirting London’s draconian censors by having the girls pose completely motionless on stage, like artwork they concocted a series sumptuous nude tableaux vivants based around such themes as Mermaids, Red Indians, Annie Oakley and Britannia. Naked Girls had arrived in Britain and the theatre was now world famous.

The Windmill was the only theatre in London which stayed open throughout the War (except for 12 compulsory days from September 4-16, 1939), hence earning its legendary slogan, “We Never Closed.” During some of the worst air attacks of the Blitz, from September 1940 to May 1941, the showgirls and some of its acts moved into the safety of the theatres two underground floors. Many of the Windmill’s customers were families and troops as well as celebrities, who came as Mrs Henderson’s guests and included Princesses Helena Victoria and Marie Louise (the daughter and granddaughter of Queen Victoria). There would be the occasional problem with male customers, but security were always on the lookout for improper behaviour. The history of this famous club has since been immortalised in the film Mrs. Henderson Presents starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins.

The 1940s

The forties was the decade of the pin up. Hollywood was emerging with a glamorous, sexy image that owed much to burlesque with scantily clad women in top hats, leotards and fishnet tights, fan dancers, CanCan girls and a multitude of high leg kicks. With it came sexy screen sirens such as Betty Grable.

On the big screen nudity was no no, but off screen on the stage things were raunchier. Despite the New York crackdown, Mens magazines with titles such as Peep Show, Eyeful and Cavalcade of Burlesque had continued to keep burlesque alive. Nightclubs hired the stars to perform at their clubs and a new form of burlesque club emerged.

burlesque magazinesThe biggest American burlesque stars such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand and Georgie Sothern formed their own companies and toured the country with their “girl shows” bringing titillation and Hollywood style dance to the masses.  New dancers emerged with more elaborate costumes and routines. Such as Lili St Cxyr, who mesmerized audiences with her onstage bubble bath, and Kitty West AKA Evangeline the Oyster Girl.

evangeline the oyster girl
Kitty West AKA Evangeline the Oyster Girl

The 1950s

This decade was the highpoint of Hollywood movie glamour. The female form was celebrated on the big screen like never before. Voluptuous breasts and big sexy hips were the thing. Hour glass figures were in vogue and to the delight of men and the grimaces of women the corset made a dramatic return.

Marilyn Monroe’s screen act, with her mix of comedy and tease, owed much to old style burlesque. And in the world of stage burlesque Monroe even had her own imitator – Dixie Evans – who would show a lot more than Marilyn, while dancing with a Joe di Maggio dummy.

The fifties was also the decade of Bettie Page. Primarily a pin up girl she also starred in a number of burlesque films – Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955). These movies, as their titles imply, were only teasing the viewer: the girls wore revealing costumes but there was never any nudity.

burlesque history
Burlesque pin up girl Bettie Page.

The 1960s
By the 1960s, hard core pornography had become readily available and men no longer needed strippers to feed their fantasies. The few remaining burlesque shows were campy soft-porn. The era of free love and nudity left the art of the striptease redundant and outdated. Burlesque began its long slow decline. However, it is worth mentioning Go Go dancers.

Go Go Dancers
Go Go clubs, where scantily clad girls danced on stages or in cages were popular during the 60s. Although they didn’t strip, their brief costumes and provocative dancing were the forerunner of modern lapdancing clubs. Many of today’s burlesque acts pay homage to the Go Go style.

go go girls
!960’s Go Go Dancers

The 70s – 90s
In a world where sex was everywhere, Burlesque became all but extinct. In America only Las Vegas kept the glamour alive with their ‘exotic’ style showgirls who typically appeared topless lavishly adorned with sequins, fishnets and feathers.
In Europe the Moulin Rouge became a major tourist destination, although its routines were often set to tacky disco music.

The Renaissance

In the mid 90s, a new generation nostalgic for the spectacle and glamour of the old times, and as a backlash against the see-it-all nature of porn, started to revive the art of the tease. Now with burlesque clubs and performers popping up all across the globe and Dita Von Teese becoming the new genre’s first superstar, burlesque is back.Long live burlesque. We love burlesque

burlesque dancer
Dita von Teese

3 Replies to “The History of Burlesque”

  1. Sarah Buffon says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Kitty West. Her dancing is stylish and sexy.

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