Burlesque: The Art of the Tease
Illustrations by Lily Glantz
Feathered headdresses, oversized fans, beads, bows, and corsets typify the garments that adorn the hourglass-figured burlesque dancers sauntering across the stage. While jazz-like, showbiz music plays, featuring the rich sounds of a brass band or a swanky saxophone soloist, dancers begin their prolonged tease. Peeling off a glove here, slipping out of her lingerie there, she leisurely removes accessory after accessory, with each layer of her getup getting progressively smaller and more revealing. As she inches closer and closer to nakedness, the audience watches in what seems like an illicit viewing. She discards her last piece of clothing, indicating the finale of the show.
Originating from 17th century Italian theatre as a type of comic interlude, burlesque derives from the Italian burla, meaning a joke, ridicule or mockery. With connotations of caricature, parody and travesty, it is an art form that can be applied to literature, music and theatre. Since its diffusion across the globe, burlesque has continuously refashioned itself, embedding the art in multiple forms depending on the local context. From 1860s variety shows in the United States to musical theatre parody in Victorian England, “neo-burlesque” today combines the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with the archetypal female striptease.
Channeling a vintage flair that spans history from the 1920s to the ‘60s, a staple of burlesque costume is the corset. Worn to accentuate the hourglass curves of its wearer, the burlesque corset alludes to the 1940s pin-up girl, rooting itself in a provocative image once considered a taboo in the early 20th century. In regards to footwear, a burlesque dancer’s general rule is: the higher the heel, the better. A visual illusion is created as the dancer stands in a pair of vertiginous heels; her legs seem infinitely elongated. Paired with bold makeup usually consisting of distinct winged eyeliner and statement red lips, this entire ensemble seeks to tantalize those a short yet unobtainable distance away.
Burlesque performance emanates an extravagance and splendor derived from the interlacing of each movement with a particular piece of clothing. Lingerie and other accessories are also common to a dancer’s outfit, often sheer in their materiality, as if luring the audience in with a forbidden glimpse of skin. Whether it comes in the form of over-the-knee socks, tights, belts or a multitude of costume jewelry, these garments are beguilingly stripped from the body. This arrangement both oozes sex appeal and lusts for a wistful dream of femininity.
The meticulous play between the absence and presence of fabric is where the tease comes in—the greater the number of pieces, the more she has to remove, thus the longer she remains concealed to the watchful gaze of the audience. She seems to momentarily withhold her promise of sex in each interval between discarding another layer, ensnaring the public’s eyes as they remain fixated on what is to come. Once she is naked, however, it is a sign of the closing of the show. There is nothing left to discover. In this sense, burlesque is arguably more about the calculated act of keeping clothes on than taking them off.
In recent times, burlesque has seen a resurgence of interest, particularly through the work of Dita von Teese, crowned the “Queen of Burlesque”. Her work in bringing back burlesque to the fore has also expanded the realm of who is able to participate and who watches, as she personally notes how her audience has changed from a predominantly cis male following at the beginning of her career to include more women and the LGBTQ+ community today.
This new form of burlesque, or neo-burlesque, focuses more on honoring art and self-expression, rather than granting mere sexual gratification. It is also more experimental in the different art mediums it draws from, contextualizing styles from the past within today’s zeitgeist. Von Teese takes note of this, choreographing her shows to explore notions of gender fluidity and diversity in different types of beauty and body shapes. Ultimately, von Teese seeks to underline how these various eras of beauty, glamour and sensuality allow for one to feel more confident through performance, whether bejeweled in crystals or fully nude.
With the influx of bare skin on display in fashion today, the exposition of skin has lost much of its power to shock or entice. It seems as though what appears intermittently through a diaphanous layer is more likely to seduce the viewer than full skin on show. Perhaps this is why burlesque has been so appealing to modern audiences—for the prolonged striptease, the promise of sex and a collective nostalgia for a beauty of the past. Unlike stripping, burlesque is all about a celebration of the progression towards nudity, rather than nudity itself. The act in its entirety entwines sexiness, humor and surrealism into a flamboyant and powerful theatrical performance.