History of Burlesque

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Burlesque originated in Italy during the 17th century as an comical interlude for theatrical performances. They were satirical and often parodied serious or classical works such as Shakespeare’s plays or ballet and was akin to British pantomime. In the 18th century the shows started to become more risque in nature by including more revealing costumes.

Burlesque became very popular in London between the 1830’s and 1890’s with some theatres such as Gaiety and Royal Strand Theatre making burlesque their specialty. The English style of burlesque was introduced to America in the 1840’s. It was popularised by Lydia Thompson, a talented professional dancer who fused different dancing styles to create her own style of burlesque. In 1868 Lydia sailed to New York and formed her troupe The British Blondes. The were an all female troupe who’s risque costumes and sexually suggestive dialogue and dance pushed boundaries and outraged the public. They saw great success and the American style of burlesque flourished although over time the focus on female nudity increased.

In the 20th century the Victorian style of burlesque went out of fashion in England and was replaced by Edwardian musical comedy. Meanwhile a moral crackdown in the US saw the art of burlesque diminish. In the 1950’s burlesque adapted and became more about exaggeration. The concentration was on big personalities and how big their hips were or how tiny their waist was. Every woman tended to have a signature and large props like the clam shell became popular. Burlesque had mainly turned into striptease yet it stayed true to its roots by pushing boundaries and outraging the public. Some of the best burlesque performers who inspire us today were created during this time like Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr. The ‘First Real Queen of American Burlesque’ Millie De Leon emerged gaining popularity with her “hooch” dancing and her amazing costumes.

Today performers are inspired by an eclectic choice of music, cultures and events and so we see a broad variety of acts and styles. From traditional parody/comedy and striptease acts to cabaret, can-can and neo burlesque there is something to suit every audience. Now stars such as Dita Von Teese, Dirty Martini and Immodesty Blaize are able to achieve international recognition.

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