Burlesque dancing took hold in the US with the starlit touring performances of English dancer Lydia Thompson and her troupe of “British Blondes” in New York in 1868. Performing in popular music halls, they wore scandalous skirts above the knee and pink tights. At its core, burlesque is suggestive and playful, rather than outright bawdy. It’s a scintillating form of live performance with a long and varied history, which also gained momentum in 1880s Paris with the corsets of the Moulin Rouge and the dancers of the Folies Bergère.
During the late 1920s, girls began taking off their clothes during burlesque shows, and from there, the art form became infamous for its revealing costumes and incorporation of cheeky stripteases. From then until the 1960s, these dancers were viewed as being as “risqué” as we consider most strippers today, even though they usually didn’t expose as much flesh. The US had competing circuits of burlesque and vaudeville – the former offering tempting displays of skin, the latter providing family entertainment.
From the 1930s through to the 1960s, burlesque enjoyed a glamorous heyday full of stars, glitter, snap-away costumes and pasties (breast tassels), all set to smoky jazz in even smokier nightclubs. Shining stars and debauched dames the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Lili St Cyr, Blaze Starr, Dixie Evans and Kitty West (known as Evangeline the Oyster Girl) were seducing audiences in the US, the UK and parts of Europe.
In 1969, as more bawdy strip clubs and movie theatres began to dominate, the curtain came down on the Folly Theatre in Kansas City, one of the last bastions of burlesque in the US. But the style has never vanished completely, and over the decades many entertainers have been influenced by its delightful decadence.
Until recently, the closest Australia came to a burlesque tradition was the Tivoli Circuit (1890s-1960s, with the introduction of TV sounding its death knell), a touring music hall troupe of entertainers – often with scantily clad showgirls providing a risqué element. Today, there’s a blooming array of burlesque and burlesquestyle performances in all of Australia’s capital cities, with the first Miss Burlesque Australia, 28-year-old Rita Fontaine, crowned in Sydney in 2010.