History of Burlesque Dance Costumes

Written by kim davis
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History of Burlesque Dance Costumes
Corsets are always popular for burlesque. (The bridesmaid helps the bride to lace up a corset image by Nadezda Kraft from Fotolia.com)

Burlesque is a time-honoured form of dance performance, combining eroticism with humour, wit and style. It was born in the 19th century, and after years of playing second fiddle to the more overtly sexual striptease, it is with us again.

For any serious burlesque artiste, though, what is important is not just taking it all off--it's what you take off. Burlesque has always been its own world of fashion.

Burlesque style

Burlesque artistes regard costumes as so important, that they often build performances--routines--around what they plan to wear. Costumes range from glamorous through sexy to outright funny. In today's burlesque world, all bets are off, and you are as likely to see a female performer stripping out of a construction worker outfit as performing a classic fan dance recreating vintage looks.


The golden age of burlesque dates from the late 19th century when troupes like Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes wowed audiences by dancing in costumes considered shocking for the day. Vintage photos reveal skirts above the knee and close-fitting tights.

In the early years of the 20th century, producers like the Minskys were staging full burlesque shows, featuring comedians and novelty acts as well as pretty girls, in theatres across the U.S. Perhaps predictably, the more clothes the girls removed, the more burlesque came to be associated with exposed female flesh.

Vintage icons

By the 1930, the Minsky circuit had started to produce individual stars. Gypsy Rose Lee made costume essential to her act, as she emphasised the slow, teasing removal of layer upon layer of satin and lace. Photographs show Lee festooned in feather boas and capes at the beginning of her act. After removing her gown, she still had many layers to go: a corset, suspender belt, stockings. And she was famous for slowly peeling off a pair of long gloves.

Another star of the era, Ann Corio, said in the book "Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind": "Take off a glove in the right manner and a man will ask you to marry him."

Years Without Fashion

By the 1960s, public morals had begun to tolerate full nudity and explicit sexual content, not just in theatres but in clubs and in movies. With sex stars leaving nothing to the imagination, costumes became of secondary importance. A bikini, maybe, quickly removed.

The Modern Revival

Burlesque made a comeback in the 1990s. What has fuelled its newfound popularity is the fact that today's female artistes are doing it for themselves, their friends and their peers; nothing could be further from their minds than recapturing an all-male audience.

The emphasis is back on fashion. In particular, homage is paid to the glory days of the art with painstaking recreations of vintage styles. Dita Von Teese, for example, is a walking museum of classic costumes. She uses feathered skirts, elegant ballroom gowns, vintage swimsuits and countless lacy corsets and Basques.

Great attention is paid by today's performers to "pasties" (nipple covers). Rather than perform fully topless, artistes protect their modesty with these tiny patches and make sure they are sequinned, feathered, tasselled or bejewelled.

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