Nineteenth-century cultural critic, William Dean Howells, described the female performers, with their bright, blonde hair, ballet skirts, and padded tights as terrifying in all their “horrible prettiness.” Similarly, former actress and dancer, Olive Logan lamented the appearance of these particular “clog-dancing creatures,” who infiltrated her beloved stage and pandered to a “base,” “low” type of spectator. Both Howells and Logan became outspoken critics of the latest trend to rock American theaters in the 1860s: burlesque.
A performance form that eventually became synonymous with strip-tease, exotic dancing, and stag parties of the early-twentieth-century began as an extremely popular theatrical style that depended upon more than just cheap, visual thrills to amuse audiences. This Thanksgiving, director Steve Antin presents “Burlesque,” a spectacular movie-musical starring Christina Aguilera, Cher, Kristin Bell, Stanley Tucci, and Alan Cumming that brings the art of burlesque dancing to life. The film revolves around the hopes and dreams of a young girl from Iowa, Aguilera, who takes a job as a waitress in the run-down Burlesque Lounge, owned by Tess, played by Cher. Aguilera works her way from table to stage, stirring up romance and fireworks along the way. While the film promises no shortage of feathers, boustiers, and glitter, the legacy of burlesque reveals that there’s more substance beneath the sequins.
Burlesque found its way to America in 1868 via a dancer/singer named Lydia Thompson and her troupe of “British Blondes.” Thompson brought her show, a “travesty revue,” to American theaters, which featured her all-blonde cast of singers and dancers performing satirical songs, poems, and humorous dances. The even participated in male impersonation, parodying the politics and trends of the day. In its pure form, burlesque exists as satire or “travesty,” meaning overturning popular conventions and mores. Everything from Shakespeare to the most recent political election was fodder for burlesquing (think “Mad TV” and “Saturday Night Live”). Nineteenth-century burlesque performances traded in the growing popularity of concert saloon and music hall fare: they catered to an enthusiastic audience who enjoyed humorous jokes and exciting spectacle. In addition to the smart, witty musical and sketch numbers, burlesque enabled women more physical freedom on the stage. They often dressed in “breeches” to perform male impersonation or appeared in costumes designed to show off their arms and legs. In many cases, women wore nude-colored tights or body suits, which retained their decorum, but provided the allusion of skin.
The art form became a important vehicle for women. They drove burlesque content, often writing their own material, and they gained visibility as working actresses. Despite the disparagement of critics such as Logan, Howells, and others, who felt that burlesque ultimately demeaned women in general and “serious” actresses in particular, many actresses used burlesque to launch their careers.
By the early 1900s, both the culture of theatre and burlesque began to undergo significant transformations. Vaudeville, a style of performance featuring a collection of unrelated, novelty and comic acts, became standard fare at smaller, working class theaters. Burlesque became a part of these offerings, but no longer held sway as the feature. As tastes in entertainment continued to evolve, the comedic burlesque of the earlier century gave way to a hybrid form that retained the provocative costuming of female performers to make that the central focus of the performance, diminishing the satirical and comedic facets.
As an industry, burlesque faded completely in the 1930s, but in the last decade has made a viable resurgence in the form of contemporary, female performing groups such as The Pussycat Dolls, Eye Candy, and Rogue Burlesque. These current incarnations are heavy on the sensuality, skin, and spectacle aspect of twentieth-century burlesque, the approach to this form that will, no doubt, resonate with audiences who go to see “Burlesque.” Whether taking the stage in heels and leather or singing a humorous ballad of the latest scandal on everyone’s tongues, burlesque performers and the burlesque tradition continue to pay homage to the relevance, intelligence, and fun of this historic art form.