Burlesque Fashions – A History of Burlesque and Its Costumes

Burlesque & pinup fashions are suddenly all over the Internet. The original burlesque designs with their risqué overtones have become the fun fashion, being adapted and adopted by rockabilly. Almost every city now hosts regular burlesque events where not just the performers, but the audience gets to dress the part as well.Origins of burlesque – lingerie on show!The word burlesque probably derives from the French, which describes a piece of slightly outrageous, humorous art. The term burlesque originally applied to shows intended for middle or lower classes. Such shows lampooned upper class niceties and parodying upper class entertainments like opera & dance. Such music and comedy shows and plays grew in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic during the nineteenth century. In Victorian England, where even “a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking”, burlesque challenged its audience by offering rather more than a “glimpse of stocking” – the lure of young ladies appearing in tights and lingerie! Certainly demure by today’s standards these slightly suggestive interludes certainly boosted the popularity of burlesque. Lydia Thompson took a burlesque troupe, called the British Blondes to New York near the end of the 1860s where they were an immediate hit. At first they were feted by the press, but before long strident voices, from the pulpit and the papers were complaining of loose morals and indecency. The result of all this adverse publicity was to spread the word about burlesque far and wide in America effectively having the reverse effect to that desired by burlesque’s critics – female burlesque troupes with close copies of the original British act sprung up around the country.These shows owed a great deal of their structure to the minstrel shows of the time and generally consisted of three parts – the initial section featuring the ladies, the middle section was a mix of male comedians and specialty acts and the final part the grand finale. Copying Lydia Thompson’s lead, most of the troupes had female managers. However towards the end of the nineteenth century, as male managers took over, they switched the emphasis away from comedy to push boundaries, determined to show as much uncovered female flesh as the laws would allow.This form of entertainment metamorphosed in the early twentieth century into a mix of music hall, satire and striptease. During the twenties the bias continued inexorably towards striptease and away from the accompanying elements. This shift doubtlessly was burlesque’s downfall; by the thirties the popularity of burlesque waned as a social reaction against what had become slightly tawdry striptease shows. Local authorities were no longer as tolerant of this entertainment, which had lost much of its music hall variety flavor.New BurlesqueIn the mid nineteen nineties the genre was resurrected, with troupes in the USA, and the trend has snowballed over to the UK. Now, once more on both sides of the channel, it is possible to see shows equal in glamour, bawdiness and variety to equal the art form in its heyday in clubs and theatres in major cities. Arguably the Internet has played a major part to spread the interest in the genre. There are websites, such as Ministry of Burlesque dedicated to promoting it, to teaching dance, makeup and fashion.Burlesque lingerie fashionThe mainstay of this style is lingerie and modern burlesque generally concentrates on the fifties and to a lesser degree the forties look. This extends not only to clothing, but hats, footwear and makeup too. There have always been fans of fifties silk and nylon stockings. When pantyhose all but killed the stocking market vast numbers of stocking mills closed. Their huge stocking machines were destroyed and along with it the expertise to manufacture fully-fashioned stockings. Now the few remaining machines are being reconditioned and brought back into service to once more produce copies of the fifties seamed stockings. However a few companies trading online still have limited supplies of the original fifties stockings so the purists can satisfy their need to the ‘real thing’ rather than the modern copies. Sadly, once that depleting stock is exhausted, they will only be viewable in museums and private collections.However, for burlesque stage performance it is the fishnet tights or pantyhose that are still really popular.Companies are making exact copies both of retro costumes and burlesque accessories, from ostrich feather fans to bullet bras, sensing an opportunity not to be missed, are enticing. Even well-known burlesque artists are being enticed by lingerie brands to lend their names and expertise to burlesque-inspired lingerie designs.Burlesque is eagerly embraced by all physiques, from plus size to skinny-minny, proving how empowering it can be to women – all physiques are equally welcomed, but there is not set ‘burlesque costume’ either. It is very common for burlesque artists to take everyday lingerie, adapt it by sewing on sequins to devise their own unique take on burlesque. However the common thread that runs through the new outfits, going right back to the earliest days of the art form is the element of ‘tease’, the showing of rather more lingerie and stocking tops that would normally be seen in everyday life.Rockabilly fashionOver the years a number of fashion styles have grown towards each other, oft times overlapping. The word rockabilly was used around the mid forties and was a blend of hillbilly and rock and roll music styles. Today’s pinup photographers generally recreate the stylish fifties imagery which overlaps but is distinct from rockabilly. Many rockabilly enthusiasts have tattoos and piercings, and that certainly was never a fad of the fifties, but a modern phenomenon.Pinup fashionThe term pinup also has blurred origins, covering photos of movie stars from around the thirties and forties, but also the airbrushed fantasy women gracing men’s magazines by such exponents as Petty and Elvgren. The fashions often featured nylons and lingerie, sometimes being exposed by a sudden unexpected gust of wind or other ‘mishap’ that befell the model. The intention was actually to reveal very very little by today’s standards. It is a certainty that pinup art, with the sexy lingerie has strongly influenced the outfits adopted by many of today’s burlesque artists.