"Show a little more, show a little less, add a little smoke, welcome to Burlesque!"
If you're a fan of the sultry, can't-touch-this style of burlesque, surely you've seen the 2010 film starring Christina Aguilera, aptly titled Burlesque. The title song, "Welcome to Burlesque," draws crowds in with its tone, and tells a story with its playful lyrics. Burlesque gives us just a taste of what the variety show was like back in its heyday.
How American Burlesque Was Born
Popularized in nineteenth-century Europe as a comedic, risqué show featuring song and dance and witty commentary, Victorian burlesque made its way to America around the 1860s. It is said that London burlesque group, the British Blondes, greatly popularized the style of show, especially when they made their way to New York in 1868.
From there, American burlesque was born, and that's when playful striptease was added to the mix. According to Wikipedia, four distinguishing characteristics of American burlesque had evolved by 1880:
- Minimal costuming often focused on the female form
- Sexually suggestive dialogue, dance, staging, and plotlines
- Quick-witted humor laced with puns but lacking complexity
- Short sketches or routines with minimal plot cohesion across a show
5 Famous Vintage Burlesque Dancers
If you're looking to put on a little show of your own or you're simply inspired by burlesque costumes, look no further than some of the most famous vintage burlesque dancers of our time.
1. Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker was one of the pioneers for black women in burlesque, and her career took off in integrated Paris society when La Revue Nègre closed and she starred in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater. Her jaw-dropping performance included a costume of 16 bananas strung into a skirt (pictured above), and it cemented her celebrity. By 1927, she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. It's no wonder Ernest Hemingway reportedly called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw."
Steal her style: Though it may be tough to find an exact replica of Josephine's iconic banana skirt, you'll be able to garner just as much attention in this flirty, hot pink feather skirt. Pair it with nothing on top, a la Josephine, except for some glimmering jewelry around the neck.
2. Dixie Evans
Dixie Evans was dubbed "the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," and by her beautiful blonde looks, it's clear why. It was easy for her to parody the sexy Hollywood icon in her striptease sets, and she did so until Marilyn passed in 1962. But that didn't stop Dixie Evans from doing what she was great at—she lived in Las Vegas, still active in the burlesque circuit, hanging with current burlesque star Dita Von Teese until her recent death in 2013 at the age of 86.
Steal her style: Go full "Some Like it Hot" to channel the Marilyn doppelganger, and sport this blonde bombshell costume.
3. Sally Rand
Known for her ostrich-feather fan dance and balloon bubble dance. Sally Rand was one of the top names in burlesque during the industry's golden age. Blonde and beautiful, Sally was known as one of the most regal performers thanks to her grace, precision, and inherent glamor.
4. Jennie LeeAlso known as "The Bazoom Girl," this curvy sex symbol had a bust that captivated audiences around the world for three decades. She worked burlesque stages in Canada, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, and all around the U.S., sure to swing her tassels—her signature move. Though, she remained one of the classiest women in show business. Upon retiring, she said, “I was always sexy, but never vulgar."
Steal her style: Care to get all tied up in tassels? This fun accessory is sure to bring out your burlesque-inspired side. Channel Jennie Lee with this black fringe bra, fringe babydoll set, or fabulous nipple tassels in true Jennie fashion.
5. Gypsy Rose Lee
Gypsy Rose was an icon, garnering attention from movies and musicals that have been written about her career as a burlesque dancer, author, playwright, and actress. Remembered as the "intellectual stripper," Gypsy Rose would bare her bits as she read poetry or other material. Captivating audiences with her wit, her act was very innovative for its time, so much so that Bette Midler has paid tribute to her career.
Steal her style: Often using stockings and other layers of clothing to make her show enticing and full of anticipation, Gypsy Rose Lee would certainly approve of a shoulder-baring dress to amp up the suspense.
There's no doubting that the heyday of burlesque was full of fun, class, and beautiful acts. It's no wonder so many of today's pin-up darlings and vintage enthusiasts look back at this time with awe. Luckily, you can elicit this glamorous style of striptease at home with your partner if you wish—perhaps a new role-play scenario to try out?