The greatest love affair in the history of fashion is the one I have with burlesque. It’s a dramatic lust, bolstered by pinterest boards full of boudoir aesthetics and hours spent online searching for vintage lingerie sets. When I tell people about this passion of mine, I’m typically met with positive ooh’s and aah’s from the younger crowd. However, the older crowd glares at me like I’m Medusa–wide-eyed and shocked at my brazenness. Due to societal stigma, the idea of burlesque (women openly working in a sexual environment) is often dismissed or made a mockery of, criticized as something classless and trashy. These insults are hurled directly at strippers and showgirls too. Yet, in my eyes, these women are ones I love the most. Using their bodies and clothing (or lack of) as a text and display of sensual power, the style of burlesque is so unique–equal parts campy glamour and romantic expressions of womanhood. With the stylized use of lingerie garments and vintage aesthetics, burlesque style is able to articulate a fashion story about sexual empowerment and self-expression.
First things first, you might be wondering, what the hell even is burlesque? Luckily, you came to the right place, as I am a burlesque connoisseur of sorts. The definition used today describes a variety show performance featuring tongue-in-cheek comedy as well as the classic striptease. In other words, the rules of burlesque are these: the bigger, the flashier, the bolder, the better. Burlesque is a jam-packed showcase of old hollywood glamour and sexual spectacles. More often than not, performers take the stage covered in a sea of swarovski crystals. With a selection of attire including petite pasties, dramatic falsies, gravity defying stilettos, and fishnet stockings, they promenade the dimly lit stage, provoking a nostalgic image of the femme fatale from the jazz age. Draped in layers of promiscuous lingerie, they seductively undress themselves to reveal a fantasia of sex appeal. Burlesque performers are masters in the art of the tease. Each seem to be blessed with the gift of gracefully combining Bob Fosse choreography with sensual dressings in lingerie.
Burlesque is a gift that keeps on giving. Our culture is actually deeply intertwined with the gift of burlesque. It has been the source of inspiration for directors and musicians and designers, oh my! First things first, there is quite a reputable list of cinematic cult classics that take place in the world of burlesque, each putting an emphasis on mesmerizing costumes for the actresses. Musicals are the most obvious choice for exhibiting burlesque. A personal pick of mine is none other than Baz Lhurman’s Moulin Rouge. One of the main characters, Satine, is a dancer at the titular spot, iconically strutting her stuff in a mash-up of Material Girl and Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. In this scene, she is dressed in head-to-toe showgirl couture. Fitted in a dazzling rhinestone scalloped bodice with a black fishtail composed of celestial elements, all adorned with noir opera gloves and matching top hat. Her costume during this number resides in the costume hall of fame, as the film won Best Costume Design at that year’s Oscar ceremony. For the soundtrack, a modernized Y2K rendition of “Lady Marmalade” was released with the finest slate of pop stars. The music video generated heat on MTV and featured Lil Kim, Mya, Christina Aguilera, and Pink, dressed to the nines with a hip-hop spin on the classic cabaret style. Displays of burlesque in visual media helped breathe fresh air into the burlesque lifestyle, giving luxe appeal to corsets, colorful wigs, and crystal eye shadow.
For those who claim that lingerie is only for the bedroom, myriad streetwear and couture designers would politely disagree. Several major fashion houses have been deeply inspired by the glamorous aesthetic of burlesque, and its particular taste in feminine silhouettes. LaQuan Smith is a notable designer, pushing the boundaries of unapologetic sexiness with mesh noir catsuits, plunging bustiers, and jewel-toned latex. For his last show at Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs went out with a big bang: showgirls on the black lacquer runway. The models were dressed in feathered showgirl headpieces, bigger the Las Vegas strip itself. The legendary Jean Paul Gaultier even cites burlesque queen Dita Von Teese as one of his muses. She’s walked in five of his haute couture shows, her ensembles varying from a peach-hued belted corset to a gothic blue butterfly look. Dita has created a spotlight for herself in the realm of burlesque. Starting off as a fetish model, she has transformed into a touring burlesque star with her trademark martini striptease number and ravishing lingerie getups. She often cites Gaultier as a style inspiration, as she was obsessed with finding budget-friendly alternatives to his peachy satin bras and girdles when she was younger.
I will always love burlesque, because it serves as the visual language of sex. Burlesque is a performance presented only in the dark hours of the night, and seen only by an audience seeking hidden pleasures. It endeavors to mirror the female experience regarding sexual pleasure and desires. Despite burlesque being a celebration of female sexuality, the harsh reality is that the relationship between sex and women remains taboo. Society acts as if sexual women are a dirty little secret to be whispered about. If a woman is overly sexual, she’s labeled a slut or a whore. If a women doesn’t engage in sex, she’s labeled a prude. There is no winner in this battle, but burlesque is a battle cry towards ending this stigma around female sexuality. A major focal point of burlesque is that it’s an adornment of one’s own body and beauty. No matter what shape or size or sexual preference a woman has, they have the right to celebrate their body and sexuality in whatever manner it may be. At the end of the day, sex is a natural part of life, and women shouldn’t be ashamed to not only feel sexual, but to have that feeling be partnered with comfort and power. Burlesque performers are the walking definition of this. Performers pick lingerie styles, colors, and textures that represent their self-defined sexual expression and make them feel most at home with themselves. The duality of women is feeling both powerful and sexual.
In the true style of burlesque, I decided to end this piece with a witty razzle dazzle finale encapsulating everything that I’ve been trying to say. The following excerpt should be read in the melody of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.
Dripping in rhinestones and sharp cat eyeliner
Swarovski g-strings and red Louboutins
Elegant operant gloves topped up with fringe
Burlesque is one of my favorite things
Come to Crazy Horse or La Cage aux Folles
There you will find the prettiest girls
Getting their paycheck for each bump and grind
In my eyes these women are oh so divine!
Photo 1: South China Morning Post
Photo 2: Pinterest
Photo 3: RebelsMarket
Photo 4: Film Experience Blog
Photo 5: Australian Burlesque Festival