Burlesque History

Burlesque History
The Latin root for “burlesque” comes from burlare: to laugh, to make fun of
Some early examples of burlesque include:

  • Greek satirical comedies and tragedies
  • lampooned morals and introduced risqué theme into theater
  • Generally considered first written example of burlesque 411 B.C. with a play called Lysistrata written by Aristophanes
  • 1600 England’s first performance labeled “burlesque” was called The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus by George Villers. It was a satire of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • In America burlesque popular the first half of the 20th century and died with TV and mass communication. It gained momentum late 1800 during a serge of immigrants with no common language. It was the alternative to the bourgeoisie of theater. Burlesque was universal language of comedy with a tinge of sex and physical satire jokes. With the invention of tights in 1798, legs became more visible. These were constructed by Maillot as a very fine flesh-colored mesh knit garment. In 1868 Follies-Bergere first “legitimate” music hall in Paris. Vaudeville shows played in 1870 and was easily comprehensible to the room

    The ultimate femme fatale was the courtesan who worked as a dancer as well. The dancers would go off with the men. Women wore corsets to achieve the “hour glass” figure and could barely sit down. Pretty dancing girls were the staple to the Montmartre café society. Moulin Rouge opened in 1889. It was not as glamourous as the movie makes it out to be. There was more contact with the audience no safety of the stage or legitimacy of Follies Theater. The Moulin Rouge was known for their can can also known as a quadrille, on one leg ending in the splits. Each dancer wore bloomers so thin you could see a dark patch in the crotch. At the Moulin the bloomers were slit up at the front to back and they wore only traditional black stockings.

    Lydia Thompson

    Lydia Thompson

    There was also a surgance of populairity in strip tease scenes like getting ready for bed. Compared to what we know now, these scenes showed very little skin and mostly long covering undergarments. In England, motionless nudes were popular as seen in the modern day movie “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” For America, burlesque is genernally considered to have began in 1868 when Lydia Thompson and the English troupe the British Blondes came to New York. They wore sexual scantily clad attire.

    There are connections with belly dancing as well. Little Egypt- version of a belly dance called “the hooch dance” 1893 nearly naked. Videos of Little Egypt were distributed and sometimes censored for her gyrating parts.




    follies“Sister” acts were popular. However many performers were not actually sisters. Until the early 1920’s burlesque focused on the comics and was similar to vaudeville. It was said that if Burlesque was the “poor man’s” theater than the Ziegfeld Follies was the rich man’s burlesque. In 1907 Ziegfeld was in New York with near nudity and was considered respectful. The Ziegfeld girls dressed in fine expensive pieces and were told to were less and less. People would go to shows to “see the comics” the way that men say they “read the articles” of playboy. The female audience went to look at wardrobes and burlesque inspired a lot of fancy fashions.

    In 1930’s there was a lot moral group pressure to cover up and shut down burlesque. At the same time there was “flashing” pressure. Burlesque dancers were told to flash under their garments. Theaters were equipped with red lights to indicate cops. When girls flashed they called this “working strong.” When the lights were on customers would stay through shows until they could see a good flash. Burlesque performer Margie Hart was blamed by many performers for Mayor LaGuardia shutting down burlesque in New York in 1939. She had very firey red hair and flashed quite a bit. Burlesque was outlawed in many cities and clubs faded. Comics went on to legitimate theater. The pressure of more nudity gave birth to strip clubs as the years progressed.

    Burlesque as we knew it died.

    Kitten De Ville at the Velvet Hammer

    Kitten De Ville at the Velvet Hammer

    So if burlesque died…what happened next? In the early 1990’s a group nostalgic for the old time glamour began the burlesque revival. Burlesque was pioneered primarily by “The Velvet Hammer” in Los Angeles and Billie Madley in New York. As burlesque began to regrow, many performers began to incorporate burlesque moves into their acts. Their acts inspired by many amazing legends that created a whole new generation of performers. To learn more about our legends please visit Burlesque Hall of Fame.