Burlesque – History’s sexy side
Burlesque is the art of the slow, deliberate seduction.
Whether done in private or through a performance venue, it’s a visual form of self-expression that makes use of beautiful fashion, fabrics, props, music and unique talents of those who make it a career. Recently, I’ve noticed that when performers talk about burlesque there’s an underlying message which encourages self-awareness and the embrace of beauty at any shape.
At least that’s my take on it, particularly after attending a workshop called Burlesque 101 with instructor Belle Jumelles. If you’ve ever thought history is boring or that Burlesque was only reserved for a specific subculture or body type – you might want to check that at the door, as what follows just might change your mind.
Burlesque 101 with Belle Jumelles
This past weekend, I stepped out of my usual history explorations and got in touch with a different side of history, albeit with Victorian origins. You guessed it, I attended an event focused on Burlesque. Now before you scroll down looking to see if there are photos of a strip-tease, I’ll have to disappoint you and share that it wasn’t that kind of class. However the after party the next night is perhaps a different story and I’m sorry I missed it! The class I attended was still sexy and sultry, with engaging and risqué conversation. It was also a warm, inviting and comfortable environment for women of any age and any size to learn something new that would give them confidence just as they are. Experiencing a group of women go from excited but slightly self-conscious, to sassy and confident was a beautiful thing, myself included. The music, boas, and satiny gloves didn’t hurt either.
Belle Jumelles was an inspiring instructor.
She tutored us about burlesque and the art of the tease, sharing the story of her personal journey and experiences in this alluring craft. We learned about the importance of taking one’s time, practicing careful movements, and wearing something that makes you feel good – things which she says help build confidence. And what happens if you fall over, or feel awkward? Go with it. Even a fumble, wobble or trip-up can be sexy if it’s done right. The important part, she said, is the recovery. Just move on. You can also decrease these scenarios by being aware of props and surroundings.
So what about the boas and the gloves? Isn’t that stuff for professionals only? Well, Mademoiselle Jumelles certainly demonstrated that there’s skill involved in using these props. Experienced performers definitely have refined skills when it comes to a flawless glove peel or boa moves. But the workshop taught us how to peel off a glove with style and work that boa as an extension of our feminine wiles. By the end of the class there were a lot of feathers on the floor, but spirits soared and we made the most of the Q&A session.
I really enjoyed this workshop. Not only did we learn a lot, but it was also refreshingly liberating. The class took place at Renegade, a cool boutique in London (Canada) that isn’t just a clothing store for women of size, but also a hub for a community supporting confidence and a love of fashion, for women of all sizes. The store also carries local merchandise when possible, such as Sue Glass’ Liberty & Love, a whimsical jewelry line that I’ve become addicted to ever since the former owner of Frilly Lizard/Lolita ventured into her own bijoux line. It was a great environment for this sort of class. A big thank you goes out to Renegade proprietor Christine Gionet and Belle Jumelles for organizing this unique workshop. They inspired many women to come out of their shell and embrace their inner Renegade. Interesting note: Renegade just happens to sit kitty-corner (meow!) to the very spot in town where Burlesque acts performed, the People’s Theatre. More on that below!
The class also helped give me an excuse to further explore my curiosity with Burlesque and its history here in London. I’ve always been fascinated by the vintage style of Dita Von Teese and other original burlesque stars such as Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee. Burlesque also ties into another interest of mine which is the history of carnivals and circus performers. As I researched a bit more on the history, recalling a story involving
The History Part
Burlesque is known as a performance in a variety show act. Historically, these were popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, at clubs, cabarets and theatres, often featuring bawdy comedy and stripteases. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla: a joke, ridicule or mockery. This seems fitting as burlesque has elements of exaggeration and parody which lends power to its seductive action.
In Victorian England, Burlesque became the specialty of London theatres, including the Gaiety and Royal Strand Theatre from the 1860s to the early 1890s. Until the 1870s, burlesques were often one-act pieces running less than an hour and using pastiches and parodies of popular songs, opera arias and other popular music of the time. Cabarets and can-cans were popularized in Paris. Read: Moulin Rouge.
American burlesque shows take a page from the Victorian burlesque movement. The English genre had been successfully staged in New York from the 1840s, and it was popularised by the visiting British burlesque troupe, Lydia Thompson and the “British Blondes”, beginning in 1868. New York burlesque shows soon incorporated elements and the structure of the popular minstrel shows. They consisted of three parts: first, songs and ribald comic sketches by low comedians; second, assorted olios and male acts, such as acrobats, magicians and solo singers; and third, chorus numbers and sometimes a burlesque in the English style on politics or a current play. The entertainment was usually concluded by an exotic dancer or a wrestling or boxing match. Victorian era man-cave entertainment to be sure!
Lotto Davene and London’s indecent picture trial
In London Canada, burlesque and variety acts appear to have been fairly popular, particularly in the 1880s and 1890s. One show, visiting from New York in late December 1885, did so well that they stayed for a week and gave nightly performances to packed audiences with favourable newspaper reviews. Performer Lotto Davene was a feature in the travelling variety show called “W.M. Davene’s Allied Attractions” where she danced a burlesque number, and ended the show with a trapeze act with her father. (Apparently dear old dad didn’t mind his daughter shaking her derriere on stage!) The show took place at The People’s Theatre, 251 Dundas Street, an operation that flourished briefly in the mid-1880s, although it did not rival the status of the Grand Opera House (later the Grand Theatre), known then as London’s premiere vaudeville house.
Despite their success, the Davene’s visit caused quite the controversy. Shortly after the act came to town, a bill poster and several proprietors who displayed the poster were held under scrutiny for promoting “lewd” content. The posters featured the lady in her performing costume to advertise the show, simply stating “The Wondrous Lotto Davene, in the great London Success Zao.” She was depicted as a rather robust, formidable damsel – as one would expect from her acrobatic talents – with a masculine face, and even by some entertainment standards of the time, was adequately covered in the illustration. Davene’s aerial act appears to have been very well received, being a family affair. Her burlesque act was also popular, although only briefly described in conservative London. After quite a bit of digging, it appears her act Zao, highly spoken of in the United States as well as in London, was also referred to as La Petite Zao which featured a female brass band.
But it appears some took exception to the posters, in particular, puritans who believed that the costume she wore didn’t properly cover the ‘trunks’ or ‘drawers’ which she wore underneath it, and that the image was more indecent than the performance itself. (Were some simply upset that it wasn’t as racy as the poster purported?) So, while the performance was allowed to go on, the posters were ordered to be taken down. The ensuing trial, which started on Jan. 7, set out to determine who should be charged for displaying the posters, however it wasn’t to be resolved simply and the trial lasted at least a month. The trial became complex as the advertisement had gone through the proper channels and was approved by the local Customs House before being passed on to bill posters paid to distribute and display them. Thus the argument became one of morals and subjective perceptions of whether the image was indecent. In the end only the bill poster was charged, which based on all the evidence heard, appeared to be to appease city officials with rigid puritan ideals.
The Davenes appear to have moved on from the scandal quite quickly. Not only did they continue their performances in London, they also moved on to performances very shortly after in Louisville, St. Louis, and New Orleans, all within a four month span. So clearly the trial in London didn’t hurt their popularity with audiences and theatre owners.
Perhaps because of their continued success, the Davenes appear to have been welcomed back to London again in 1895, this time at the Grand Opera House (later Grand Theatre). I can’t help but wonder if part of the original conflict was not so much the poster or the show, but a hypocritical bias against a lesser venue (which were more often scrutinized) such as the People’s Theatre versus a larger one like the Grand Opera House. Either way, the people of London obviously had their say with their patronage, which had theatres continuing to offer burlesque and variety shows for many years to come.
The interest in burlesque acts in North America continued into the 20th century, splintering into other styles along the way. In later years, some Hollywood films attempted to recreate the spirit of performances from the 1930s to the 1960s, or included burlesque-style scenes within dramatic films, such as Cabaret and All That Jazz, among others.
Since the 1990s there’s been renewed popular interest in cabaret and burlesque style entertainment, and in 2016 that appears to continue. There’s something about the thrilling and glamourous style of these shows that keep people coming back.