A Brief History of Burlesque

This is going to be hard for me to write, because I can literally go on forever about this subject. So here’s the plan: I’ll keep it short and sweet, but informative. I will however expand on this in future posts.
Burlesque is an art form that has travelled through the ages providing comedy, sensuality, and confidence. There is no (to my knowledge) real starting point for burlesque. A few people would argue that it started in the 1800’s, but some would say it started in 5BC.
So here’s a little run down.
You could say burlesque started forming in Greece, England and France. It has featured in Greek scripts, as I say, as far back as 5BC.
A little more recently it resurfaced in the 17th and 18th century, but not how we know it today. Burlesque derives from the Italian word Burla which literally translates to mockery, joking or ridicule. 17th /18th century shows would often make fun of current affairs giving a light hearted take on the world for sometimes a mesmerising 5 hours stage time.
Now, lets time travel a bit to the 1840’s and Lydia Thompson. She took her troupe of British Blondes to the States, introducing scantly clad women in tights and stockings! America loved it that much they got a 6 year tour from them; they were initially only doing a 6 month tour. It was around then when the term burlesque started. Instead of becoming a one feature show Lydia decided to make it a variety show.
Comedians would use burlesque performers to keep audiences entertained during set changes. She would walk up and down the stage slowly disrobing (sometimes to no music. Awkward!) whilst the stage was being built for the next act. More often than not, these women were the wives of the comedians.
Fast forward again to 1900’s where burlesque is starting to cause some controversy in America, so much so it was banned in some towns, cities and even states.
Burlesque was still thriving, and there was no stopping it. In 1930 there were 14 simultaneous burlesque shows on Broadway alone.
Girls started to develop their own gimmicks, Sally Rand had her giant feather fans and caused outrage for allegedly performing nude on stage. Zorita danced with her two pythons (Elmer and Oscar) the snakes would slowly remove her clothes for her. Josephine Baker had her banana skirt. Impressively, Satans Angel had her fire nipple tassels in the 60’s.
Performers would start impersonating famous actresses to get noticed. Most famously Dixie Evans, the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque. She had an act as Marilyn trying to get a role in a movie set in a directors office and she would strip for the part. Dixie was believed to say that men liked coming to the theatres for the air con! Eventually Dixie Evans and Jennie Lee would start the Burlesque Hall Of Fame in Helendale, California. Jennie Lee, was another amazing figure in burlesque. She set up the first performers union.
A lot of the women from this era of burlesque said they more or less fell into it, and later became ashamed of what they had to do to keep their purses full to provide for a family. It just goes to show that behind the veil of rhinestones and feathers, there is sometimes a grim side.
The 60’s! Hardcore porn is now available. Some performers went into porn seeing it as a way forward. The first to do so was Candy Barr, featuring in a full intercourse scene.
Burlesque became a little dormant in the 70’s and 80’s, strip bars, sex shops, readily available porn, and nude magazines provided the public with all the titillation they needed without the prolonged tease. The 90’s saw a mini boom with the likes of Dita Von Teese leading the revival of burlesque and Neo-Burlesque.

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