American burlesque, as an institution, emerged in the late 1800s and evolved greatly up until the 1920s. Historically, a burlesque was a comedic work, and American burlesque originally reflected this traditional meaning of the term. In the United States and elsewhere, burlesques would parody well-known plays or operas, or significant political and social events (McNamara 2002, 5). Burlesques specifically targeted works of high culture, poking fun at these by resituating characters in more familiar settings (e.g. Romeo and Juliet sharing declarations of love in Hoboken rather than Verona), temporarily inverting social hierarchies on stage for the benefit of middle- and working-class audiences (Allen 1991, 101).
While a few English burlesques had been performed in the United States prior to 1840 (Allen 1991, 102), burlesques were not regularly featured as part of variety shows until the mid-1800s. Variety shows of the mid-1800s typically had a ballet or comedic burlesque as a third act (Rodger 2010, 32). By the end of the Civil War, this format had been condensed into two acts, still featuring a burlesque or other comic performance as the final act (Rodger 2010, 73). While these burlesques had initially been primarily comedic works, feminine spectacle gradually became a more prominent component of burlesque (Allen 1991, 105). By the end of the Civil War, burlesque had taken on two distinct forms – the comedic style, which sometimes incorporated social criticism and did not emphasize the female form; and the more sexualized style, which retained the humor of traditional burlesque while relying more on suggestive content and scandalous outfits to draw crowds (Allen 1991, 107).
As burlesque consolidated, it drew from the form and content of sexualized variety shows, minstrel shows, and concert saloon performances. In the 1870s, some variety managers began to offer more family-friendly shows for audiences that included women and children; these shows eschewed the more innuendo-filled form of burlesque (Rodger 2010, 153). During the mid-1870s, family-oriented variety became associated with the term ‘vaudeville’ (Rodger 2010, 153). Meanwhile, other variety shows increasingly relied on the sexualized form of burlesque to draw predominantly male crowds. This built on the tradition of concert saloons that existed during and after the Civil War (McNamara 2002, 9). While female performances in concert saloons were decidedly less scandalous that burlesque in its final stages, they were nevertheless scandalous enough to ensure large audiences and, more significantly, money (McNamara 2002, 5). Sexualized variety also relied on exhibition of women’s bodies to turn a profit, and by the end of the 1870s, ‘variety’ primarily indicated more sordid fare designed for predominantly male audiences (Rodger 2010, 155). As vaudeville became increasingly geared towards upstanding middle-class audiences, burlesque simultaneously evolved as a separate institution within American show business that appealed to the working-class (Allen 1991, 179). Burlesque’s appeal to the working class also came about as a result of the incorporation of the minstrel show format into burlesque shows (Allen 1991, 177). As minstrel shows became less financially lucrative, they joined forces with burlesque shows and brought their working class audiences with them (Allen 1991, 177).
Two major events preceded the ultimate institutionalization of sexualized burlesque. The first was the staging of The Black Crook in 1866 at Niblo’s Garden in New York. The show was wildly popular, in part because it featured chorus girls in daringly revealing costumes, setting a precedent for shows that followed (McNamara 2002, 5). The second was the arrival of the British burlesque performer Lydia Thompson and her troupe of British Blondes in 1868 (Rodger 2010, 161). The troupe performed a literary burlesque, Ixion, a comedic re-telling of Greek history and mythology (Rodger 2010, 161). The performance was immensely popular in New York, where it was performed before the troupe went on tour, and initially received positive reviews (Allen 1991, 16). The show’s features ultimately came to characterize what would later be known as Thompsonian burlesque: a loose narrative, scantily clad actresses playing both male and female roles, joking asides and political and social references, and re-purposed popular songs (Rodger 2010, 162). Together, the staging of The Black Crook and the British Blondes’ performances of Ixion established new norms of what was considered appropriate entertainment, thus laying the groundwork for sexualized burlesque to become (somewhat) more socially acceptable (Rodger 2010, 162).
It was especially after Thompson’s arrival in the United States that American sexualized burlesque began to solidify, both as a genre and as a financial enterprise within the show business industry. Many burlesque troupes formed throughout the Northeast and Midwest, inspired by the British Blondes, and Thompsonian burlesque established itself as a new theatrical institution (Allen 1991, 159, 28). While Thompson’s show had initially been well-received by middle-class audiences and critics alike, burlesque soon became the object of much social critique, particularly as it began to appeal to working-class audiences (Allen 1991, 16). Burlesque was accused of being obscene and was blamed for a variety of social ills, including the perceived misbehavior of women (Allen 1991, 16; Rodger 2002, 161). Nevertheless, burlesque was all the rage, not just in New York, but across the country, thanks to touring burlesque troupes (Allen 1991, 18, 28). Similar to variety and vaudeville, two burlesque circuits, or wheels, of burlesque theaters expanded throughout the 1870s and 1880s. The creation of these wheels represented the institutionalization of burlesque (Allen 1991, 29). With the help of the railroad, touring burlesque groups were able to travel across the country, filling their performance schedules for the full forty weeks of the theater season (Allen 1991, 162, 191).
Although burlesque had quickly become a stand-alone theatrical genre, its sexual content continued to prompt scorn from the middle- and upper-classes (Allen 1991, 29). Burlesque became a form of popular entertainment geared towards male, working-class audiences (Allen 1991, 29). Along with this came a change in content as burlesque became ever more reliant on the sexualized exhibition of women’s bodies and less on parody (Allen 1991, 30). The trend of sexualized female performance that had first seen an uptick in the 1860s continued, and burlesque became synonymous with “the leg business” (Allen 1991, 96, 108).
In the 1890s, burlesque troupes employed two strategies – they either offered “clean shows” or “hot shows” (Allen 1991, 221). While the hot shows drew in more business, they also attracted police attention, making this strategy risky, but profitable (Allen 1991, 221). Thanks to the popularity of burlesque and consequent competition among burlesque troupes, the majority of burlesque producers and theater managers presented hot burlesque shows, contributing to the further sexualization of the genre (Allen 1991, 225, 230). Burlesque performers began performing dances that involved greater levels of sexual display – the cooch dance, a modified belly dance that was introduced to the United Sates at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, was incorporated into burlesque performances, followed by the shimmy of the 1910s (Allen 1991, 30). This progression eventually culminated in the ultimate performance of sexual exhibition - the striptease of the 1920s and 1930s (Allen 1991, 30).
Burlesque peaked in popularity around 1910 (Allen 1991, 192). As large a phenomenon as it was, it still operated on a smaller scale than vaudeville, which was able to attract bigger audiences that included both men and women (Allen 1991, 192). By the mid-1920s, however, institutionalized burlesque was in a major decline. Movie theaters offered a cheaper form of entertainment than burlesque, and the movie industry had drawn a lot of talent out of the vaudeville and burlesque industry (Allen 1991, 245). As it waned in popularity, burlesque turned to more dramatic acts of female exhibition. In the 1910s and early 1920s, non-dancing disrobing acts were either performed behind a translucent screen and dancing disrobing acts involved stripping to flesh-colored tights (Allen 1991, 244). With declining profits, burlesque turned to full striptease in an effort to sustain the genre (Allen 1991, 244). “Strong” burlesque shows guaranteed a greater level of genital display, the intensity of which increased throughout the later period of burlesque (Allen 1991, 236). The early 20th century also saw the innovation of the stage runway, allowing audience members a better look at burlesque performers (Allen 1991, 232). Burlesque of this time period was radically different from burlesque of the 1860s – 1880s; instead of performing comedic plays and delivering witty one-liners, women rarely spoke while on stage (Allen 1991, 237).
Stock burlesque developed in the late 1920s, independent of either of the two burlesque wheels, offering shows in the summer off-season that pushed the lascivious boundaries of the genre (Allen 1991, 247). The popularity of stock burlesque drove the theaters of the two burlesque wheels to attempt to revive clean burlesque as a means of presenting a different attraction; this effort, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed (Allen 1991, 249). Shows had to fold while on tour and the two wheels fell apart, leaving only stock burlesque in their wake (Allen 1991, 249). The Great Depression saw a brief resurgence the popularity of burlesque, particularly in New York, but as licenses for stock burlesque theaters expired, theaters were refused renewal because of burlesque’s supposed moral deviance (Allen 1991, 256). During the later 1920s and early 1930s body-revealing strippers such as Gypsy Rose Lee and fan-dancing Sally Rand added teasing and humor to their acts and crossed over into mainstream popularity even making numerous films but always maintaining an aura of naughtiness about themselves.
Although burlesque did not evolve much more after the 1920s and burlesque troupes gradually ceased to exist, several comedians (such as Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason, and Red Skelton) who got their start as comics in burlesque shows transitioned to movies (Allen 1991, 258). Individual burlesque stars remained popular through the 1950s (Langton 2001). The early 2000s saw a revival of the 1920s form of burlesque, in part as a reaction to what neo-burlesque performers see as a lack of art in contemporary stripping and an unappealing oversexualization of women’s bodies in the modern era (Langton 2001). While early burlesque was primarily concerned with profit, neo-burlesque artists see themselves as committed to the art of the tease (McNamara 2002, 5). Rather than performing for working-class, male audiences, neo-burlesque primarily attracts middle-class women and gay men to its shows (Heilpern 2016). Furthermore, neo-burlesque has been embraced by high-end fashion companies; Dita Von Teese, a neo-burlesque striptease artist, performed at the opening of the Paris Louis Vuitton store (Heilpern 2016). While neo-burlesque may preserve the genre in its later iteration, the social context is dramatically different.
Allen, Robert C. 1991. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Heilpern, John. 2016. “Dita Von Teese Likes to Go Where the Old Folks Hang Out.” Vanity Fair, January. Accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/11/dita-von-teese-burlesque-artist.
Langton, James. 2001. “Burlesque Revival Brings the Tease Back to America.” The Guardian, May 20. Accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/
McNamara, Brooks. 2002. The New York Concert Saloon: The Devil’s Own Nights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rodger, Gillian M. 2010. Champagne Charlie and Pretty Jemima: Variety Theater in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.