Gwendoline Lamour explains the history of Burlesque
Glorifying the English Girl
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The term ‘burlesque’ is being bandied about in a somewhat cavalier fashion at present with scant regard or thought as to what it might actually mean. Literally it means a pastiche. In terms of the 20th century American burlesque show it was a mixture of comedy skits and striptease. In modern parlance it refers to striptease with an early 20th century aesthetic. More specifically it might be defined as a rather rose tinted version of the higher end striptease crossed with the Ziegfeld Broadway shows of that period. Glorifying The American Girl was one such 1929 spectacular the title being later used as the strap line to the pin-up magazine Eyeful. Burlesque then differs then from other genres of striptease because it expects the audience to be au fait with its historical positioning. The burlesque diva is perhaps an even more rarefied creature now than in her original heyday as her appearance is historically and culturally distanced. She is the goddess of the distant silver screen as well as being on stage removing unspeakably expensive costumes and perched Ziegfeld-girl-like in or upon equally expensive props.
This playground of female glorification allows one to play with concepts of performative femininity. The pastiche turns on a series of juxtapositions, ideally one should be seductive yet demure, knowing but playful, well rehearsed but spontaneous and above all there really ought to be a point, a narrative, a hook to hang it on. I have a show based on Fragonard’s 1767 painting The Happy Accident of the Swing, another involving a rather delicious Victorian bath in which I bathe in thousands of petals. I am fully aware of why I like wearing corsets, seamed stockings and super high heels. It is not by accident that my favourite show sees me cavorting in an 8ft by 4ft crystal shoe wearing nothing but Swarovski crystals. It is a highly theatricalized fetishized and glorified performance of my gender.
Having been corseting since the age of 15 and performing burlesque internationally for eight years it has certainly been curious watching this rediscovery of femininity in women’s fashion. From being looked at askance for being tightly laced and wearing forties style outfits it would now seem the fad of the moment. Certainly this ownership of an overtly feminine silhouette and elegant retro styling would seem to speak of a confidence in feminine sexual identity. It also provokes the age-old debate of the gaze – whose gaze and whether one is pandering to ‘what the boys want’. This takes us into deep water indeed.
Firstly, since we are dealing with a retrospective animal both stylistically and aesthetically it is actually just as likely to be the girls that go wild. Women really enjoy the elegance and the glamour and during my post show meet and greet sessions it is invariably the women who are bursting with enthusiasm, they find my performances inspiring, and are keen to find out where they can get information on lessons, costumes and exercise regimes. It is also the gals who are grabbing hold of me, telling me they are “not gay, but God you’re sexy!” and paying me compliments on my figure. In fact the best compliment I ever had in my life was from a young lady who told me; “I don’t know whether I want to f**k you or be you!” The gentlemen, though equally positive, tend to be somewhat more restrained.
Then of course there is the complex issue of the semiotics of fashion. We all dress to conform to or rebel against social codification of one sort or another. There are messages in them there clothes, it is the human being’s first port of call when decoding or ‘reading’ a new acquaintance. We see Smith as one of our own, he dresses like us, we are wary of Jones, his habit of wearing plus sixes in town causes us to distance our self and suddenly recall a forgotten appointment. One of my favourite maxims is that of Monsieur Rameau from his 1728 Dancing Master Manual who advised us to
Imagine ourselves as so many living pictures drawn by the most excellent masters exquisitely designed to afford the utmost pleasure to the beholders
A valuable lesson both onstage and off, and one which is close to my heart as, for like my Wildean namesake, “I am very fond of being looked at”
And will this resurgence of corseted, chicly upholstered ladies hitting the high street cause the British male to lose his head and run amok? Are we pandering to terrible male ideals and submitted to that awful thing ‘the male gaze’? This rather takes us back to semiotics and shifting concepts and frames of reference; one can hardly pander to an ideal if the ideal in question is essentially 60 or more years out of date and most 1940s couture is extremely demure by today’s standards. A seasoned ‘nylons’ spotter might have a brighter day for seeing my elegant calves clad in my best fully fashioned’s with contrast seam, but that’s fine by me.
My shows are there to be enjoyed by both sexes. They involve striptease, they involve flirting with the audience – both male and female, they also involve costumes and props worth thousands of pounds and careful choreography. They are in short ravishing pieces of theatre that have more in common with Zeigfled than Stringfellows. Burlesque has moved into a different arena from that which it occupied in the 40s and 50s because it now has retrospective and glamorous appeal that only the distance of time and changing mores can grant. No longer the preserve of the boys clubs it has curiously become a rallying point for the girls.
written by Gwendoline Lamour