Burlesque History Lesson: The Striptease

Lois De Fee, gigantesque stripper, gained national attention by a pseudo marriage to a midget.” – Theatre Collection, New York Public Library. Source: A Pictoral History Of Burlesque, by Bernard Sobel, published 1956

It’s that time of year again: Dressew is getting ravaged by burlesque dancers, people hosting out-of-towners are putting fresh sheets out, and everything’s getting a little more covered in glitter than usual. The 8th Annual Vancouver International Burlesque Festival is on the horizon. So, with that in mind, I’ve gone back into my vintage burlesque library to unearth a bit of those that came before us. The preceding and following are both from A Pictoral History Of Burlesque, by Bernard Sobel. The chapter I’ve chosen to post here is  simply titled ‘Striptease‘. Given that it was published in 1956, it generally deals with burlesque during it’s time in the USA in regards to stripping and it’s roots…

‘Burlesque, to the man who has never seen it, generally means just one thing: striptease. One of the unsolved mysteries of the theatrical world is who originated it. If conjecture is dependable this spectacle in terpsichorean disrobing sprang, like Venus, full-blown from infinity.

Fleshly imitations of the oncoming striptease nudity were bared to the naked eye as far back as 1847. At that time Living Models or Tableaux Vivants drew audiences to at least five New York theatres where they were regaled with bare bodies and posturings that resembled classical sculpture.

A Dr. Collyer was the original sponsor of these pseudo-aestheic exhibits, and the participants included shapely women “without a blemish” and handsomely moulded men, usually acrobats recruited from circuses. The titles of these tableaux were descriptive of their intention and included “The Three Graces”, “Adam’s First View Of Eve” and “The Explusion from Eden” – “scrupulous delineations in every detail to the original works.” These tableaux might have continued doing a lucrative business forever, had it not been for the advent of a new medium, the Free Love craze, which probably percolated through the USA by way if France and the novels of George Sand.

This craze swept the country as did the subsequent Companionate Marriage fad, and usurped the halls of the living models. In their place, billboards carried announcements that the same lovely models would now serve as esoteric consultants, a racket which police speedily terminated. Though the first series of ladies came to an ignominious end, the tribe bobbed up again from time to time. One manager offered “The Temple of the Muses” and “The Favorite of the Seraglio,” and Mme. Pauline’s troupe presented ‘The Rape of the Sabines.” At the conclusion of one performance, twenty living models appeared in a cotillion. To enjoy this divertissement, certain male enthusiasts came to the theatre “carrying,” according to critics, “prodigious opera glasses and pocket telescopes. The audience as a whole was made up of sensual old rakes, scoundrels around town and, yes, a few bankers and brokers.”

In one instance, the gentlemen left their seats and jumped over the footlights, forcing the terrified models backstage and into their dressing rooms. Again, the police locked the doors. For a number of years after, living pictures continued as a feature of what was called the circus “concert,” a brief variety entertainment, admission, ten cents. These models appeared on a circular platform surrounded by a circular curtain which, when drawn, showed men and women in “plastic poses,” their hair covered by white wigs and their bodies with some sort of liquid that gave them the alabaster chastity of marble. In 1893, the popular extravaganza 1492 revived the models in the legitimate theatre. Gold-framed against a black background, the Kilanyi tableaux vivants were described by one critic as “by far the most beautiful arrangement of human beings ever seen in New York.”

In the summertime man’s Promethean effort to get a peek at what was once called “women’s hidden charms” and “the secrets of the purdah” were being rewarded in other theatrical directions. An early pioneer was Mlle. Francoise Hutin, supposedly a member of the Paris Opera. Her debut took place at the Thalia Theatre in 1877. Rumours concerning the “indelicacy of her costume and behaviour” preceded her appearance, whetting the public appetite. And the members of the audience got what they expected, perhaps a little more. Evaluating her performance, one reviewer wrote:

At sight of her scanty drapery floating in the air and her symmetrical proportions, liberally displayed, the cheeks of the greater portion of the audience were crimsoned with shame and every lady in the lower tier of boxes immediately left the house.

The next exponent of nudity managed to detain her audience, all male. Her name was Mme. Vestris (1797 – 1856) and she came to America fresh from triumphs in her native England and in France. Once arrived, she earned the title of “the first woman in modern times to teach burlesque to profit from the beauty of her legs.” Mme. Vestris was a woman of many accomplishments. As a theatrical manager she set an example for decent and generous treatment of employees. She effected imported changes in scenic design and found time to appear before the footlights as a singer and dancer. Her specialty was “breeched” roles. Her personal life was crowded with incident. After divorcing one husband, she fell in love with a prominent actor, Charles James Matthews, and created a great deal of excitement by announcing that before marrying him she would “tell all.” “What candour,” remarked a member of her company while another cried, “What a memory!” Another colourful episode had to do with her famous legs. In New York a young man was brought into custody, accused of the theft of her “legs,” which had been stolen from a sculptor, the only person for whom Mme. Vestris had posed. The legs had come into possession of a shopkeeper who exhibited them in his window “in a shameful manner,” the court was told, “thus causing Mme. Vestris great embarrassment.” ‘

As an interesting side note, some of the performers pictured in this chapter are the following, and I’m not sure if these names ring any bells for our folks at the Burlesque Hall Of Fame Museum in Vegas…

Ann Corrio

Hal Skelly and girls in Burlesque, a play founded on the leg show

Faith Bacon (of Ziegfeld figurante)

Clair Luce

Margie Hart

Bonnie Kerr

Sherry Britton

Rose La Rose

Carmen Bridges

Lotus Dubois the “Shadow-Girl”

Pat “Amber” Halladay

Val de Val

Jeanne Adair, the Mystery Girl

Eunice Jason

Sally Keith

Irma the Body

Virginia Kinn, the White Orchid

Sally Lane and her monkey Fifi

Princess La Homa

Cynthia The Silhouette

Mia Lynn

Georgia Sothern

Honey Michel

As a note, if anyone has a scanner they care to lend me, I’m happy to scan these photos for the BHoF museum and digital archives and see if we can locate any of these ladies in our contemporary times.

Hugs and hisses,

Little Miss Risk



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