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The evolution of burlesque performance

Wednesday, 23 December 2015  |  Posted By Vollers Corsets

Following our interview with burlesque model and performer Missy Malone, we’re taking a deeper look at the suggestive art form of burlesque.

Burlesque is defined by caricature, absurdity and dramatic effect. However, just as dance has many complementary and contrasting styles within it, burlesque, within its vast history has also umbrellaed many performance styles deriving from different trends and eras.

How burlesque performance has evolved…

Racked with bawdy humour, burlesque, which means ‘to parody’ or ‘to imitate’, was originally a form of lower, comedy entertainment for those who couldn’t afford the tickets to the more prestigious opera or theatre shows.

Originating in Great Britain and America, in the early 19th century, burlesque performance challenged gender roles and social politics as well as satirising popular musicals. This was all done, of course, with the addition of sex appeal by the bucket load.

In a time when women notably hid their physical appearance beneath underskirts, hoops and layers of frills, provocatively dressed women helped aid the finances behind the performance by drawing in an audience. Though, unlike in modern day burlesque, the original performances didn’t consist of a strip tease as the main event.

Traditional burlesque costume…

Traditional burlesque costume incorporated steel-boned corsets to enhance the exaggerated hourglass figure that women desired and that men lusted for. Accessories included long, satin or velvet gloves a fascinator with a veil to cover the eyes, and nude stockings.

The burlesque split…

As performances of this kind grew more popular, burlesque split into high and low humour, the former imitating famous literature such as the works of Shakespeare and the latter making a mockery of serious subjects such a politics.

By the late 1800s, Lydia Thompson’s British burlesque collective hit New York’s theatre scene with Ixion, a mythological spoof with women taking on the roles of men. The public were outraged but tickets sold in the masses in a way not dissimilar to the effect the movement had in Britain. The American press praised the show initially but soon turned on the art, condemning it as indecent which only made the performance even more popular.

The golden era of burlesque…

American burlesque

American burlesque remains one of the most popular forms of burlesque and is built upon elements of early 19th century, Victorian burlesque. American burlesque also includes circus stunts, singers and low comedians – elements deep rooted in original burlesque and not dissimilar to the programme of traditional cabaret shows such as the Moulin Rouge.

With hem lines rising throughout the period and the older burlesque circuits fading, the 1920s through to the 1940s were known as the ‘Golden Age’ of burlesque, with stars such as Gypsy Rose Lee taking the helm of the movement.

Gypsy Rose Lee routine

New York aristocracy would seek out speakeasies for entertainment, in particular Billy Minsky’s prohibition venue where burlesque as an art became prominent, and where Gypsy’s legacy of becoming the first household name in burlesque really began.

With the king of burlesque dead following Billy Minsky’s death in 1932, the heydey of pin up brought burlesque back alive in 1950 with the rise of the curvy performer, large lady and large personality. The movement reinvented and performers took on more exhilarating stunts such as Evangeline the Oyster girl who infamously rose out of a large oyster shell.

The rise of the tease…

Neo burlesque

Sadly by the 1960s the burlesque industry was facing increased levels of censorship and interest levels dwindled. It wasn’t until the 1990s that women all over the world began to revive the vintage style of stripping. Modern day burlesque, commonly known as ‘neo burlesque’ has updated traditional American burlesque and has been made famous by icons such as Dita Von Teese.

Today, neo burlesque is heavily focused on tease in stripping with added elements of cabaret and bawdy humour as a nod towards the old burlesque style.

This joining of sex and comedy comprises of playful movements and a flirtatious smile. Props such as large feathered fans and feather boas are also included to add an enduring element to the strip tease performance. Despite its strip tease focus, 21st century burlesque is considered by many a tame experience due to body parts deemed indecent being kept hidden; performers are known to seductively take off their costume to reveal nipple tassels and a tiny G-string but no nudity.

With the burlesque movement riding the wave of social trends, the industry could evolve at any time. As Missy Malone stated in her interview: “New performers will emerge, changing the face of burlesque” and here at Vollers Corsets we can’t wait to watch.

How do you see burlesque performance evolving?

Leave a comment below or tweet us @vollers_corsets

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