|The Golden Age of Burlesque|
|Written by Jess|
Although burlesque has Victorian roots its great heyday was around the 1920s and 30s through to the 40s, when prohibition started to bite. In 1930 there were several hundred specialist burlesque houses in the US alone and many more around the world. There's no doubt that the genre had strong links with the German cabaret scene, which was peaking around the same time, and a strong influence on the development of modern musical theatre, but burlesque was and is unique.
The artists set out to titillate without falling foul of strict censorship laws. That meant creativity, intelligence, and suggestion rather than outright nudity. Great burlesque had subtlety and mystery. They knew very well that less really can be more. They also knew that comedy is just one step away from flirting.
Women like Gypsy Rose Lee and Tempest Storm were far more than strippers and certainly more than dancers. They had charisma, they had style, they were gorgeous and they knew it. It's quite telling that the decline in burlesque's popularity and appeal corresponded pretty closely to the rising use of full nudity in the shows. Unfortunately, subtlety was no longer a legal requirement. Although it's hard to agree with the strict social policies of the time (especially if you wanted to go swimming and be female at the same time), but something was lost from burlesque when going without stockings could no longer be considered risqué.
By the 60s and 70s, burlesque had been replaced by stripping. Very few true burlesque shows remained anywhere on the globe, although the art never died out completely. To at least some degree it was kept alive in musical theatre, variety shows, and cabaret, waiting to re-emerge when the time was right.
The time is right and burlesque is now back with a vengeance. Today's performers have looked back to the golden age for their costumes (corsets and fascinators are staples), their hair, and their makeup. They've also abandoned the idea that every striptease needs to end with a naked woman and rediscovered just how sexy a smile can be if you really mean it.
Modern or neo burlesque differs from that of the 20s and 30s in two ways. First off, there's the audience. Watching burlesque is far from a male-dominated pastime. In an average 21 st Century burlesque audience you'll find women from 16 to 80 and plenty of gay men. If anything, straight guys are in the minority and that's one sure sign that it's not just about stripping. Women come to see other women being sexy, empowered, and completely in charge of their surroundings. Gay guys come because it's fun and fabulous and anything that ticks those two boxes is sexy. Straight men come for all those reasons and more.
The second notable feature of neo burlesque shows is that aside from big-name artists like Dita von Teese, many of the performances are completely amateur. It's all about participation. Burlesque classes are booming in popularity, as a rather less seedy alternative to pole dancing classes. Corset and fascinator sales are going strong too.
While it may no longer be necessary for professional burlesque performers to keep their clothes on if arrests and riots are to be prevented, few amateurs are keen on being completely naked in front of a theatre full of strangers. That can mean that the productions do tend to have some of the teasing, flirting suggestiveness of the older school of burlesque.
Amateur burlesque audiences know they're not going to see the whole thing so they're not waiting for it. Up on stage, performers are rediscovering the secrets of offering a little in the right way rather than baring all. It's fun and it's inclusive, open to women of all ages, shapes, and backgrounds. The 20s might have been the golden age of burlesque but there is a lot to be said for the new variety too.