In the beginning there were tights
Published 13/02/2010 | 05:00
The precise origins of burlesque can seem as cloudy as an extra dirty martini, but we do know that the first burlesque shows had little to do with fan dances or pasties.
The shows of the 18th century were actually all about poking fun at the upper class. Actors would spoof serious plays and the ways of the wealthy, much to the enjoyment of the lower classes.
Then, in the 1860s, some bold performers hopped onstage and dared to flash a bit of their... gasp... tights. Audiences were scandalised and delighted.
When a troupe called the British Blondes brought their stocking-baring routine to America, people went bananas, and burlesque shows sprouted up all over the States.
Meanwhile over in Paris, the can-can was becoming all the rage, as women kicked their way around the Moulin Rouge. They lifted their multi-coloured skirts to dangerous heights, and thus the striptease was born.
By the '20s, Americans were also opting to show more than their tights, and women began to flash bare flesh.
In 1931, burlesque had its first official superstar: Gypsy Rose Lee. She riled up the crowds with her coy banter, and though she sometimes exposed little more than a shoulder or leg, she still packed Broadway theatres.
Hot on the heels of Lee was the stunning Lili St. Cyr, who was famous in the '40s for a move known as 'The Flying G'. At the finale of Cyr's act, her G-string was ripped off by a bit of attached fishing line. The theatre would then immediately go dark, leaving the audience rather, ahem, agitated.
The flame-haired Tempest Storm blew on to the scene in the '50s, wowing the crowds with her knockout figure. So impressive were her measurements that her breasts were actually insured by Lloyds of London for $1,000,000.
(Dazzling sidenote: at the age of 81, Storm is still performing, boa in tow.)
Burlesque faded away in the '60s, as it gave way to the neon lights of modern strip clubs.
In the mid-90s, American groups the Velvet Hammer Burlesque troupe and the Dutch Weismann's Follies sought to recreate the old-school world of burlesque.
The idea quickly caught on, spawning a whole new generation of performers, most notably America's Dita Von Teese (above) and the UK's Immodesty Blaize.
This revival has been dubbed Neo Burlesque, and it spans the globe.
There are now entire festivals devoted to celebrating the tassel twirl, including the New York Burlesque Festival and the Miss Exotic World Pageant.