On an opera stage in France, sometime in the 1830s, a dancer showed her ankle and shocked the audience. One hundred and fifty years later Goldie Hawn was gyrating in a gilded birdcage wearing only a bikini, her act broadcast to every American living room and only few people objected. Rachel Shteir looks at the evolution of stripping, of undressing, as part of a performance, in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, which won the 2004 George Freedley Award for Excellence in Live Theater Writing.
Social and technological changes seem to be the principal driving force behind the evolution of theatrical “undressing”. For most of the 19th century the rules were stable. If a “dancer” moved on stage she must stay covered. If a dancer stood still bare skin was permissible. Flesh was only exposed, legally, in “living art”, a still life representation of well known paintings or sculpture. If the dancer moved the most that they could expose was a form fitting “union suit”. It was the female form, not female flesh, on display. During this time dance was not even the principle “undressing act”. Most often their was a simple, often unimaginative, skit that provided the rationale for the undressing, bathing, preparing for bed, or the ever popular game of strip poker. Eroticism was a product of making public the private act of undressing .
Shteir points out that at least one change in fashion was necessary for the development of modern strip and tease, each started as a separate style of undressing act. The whalebone corset fell out of fashion, increasing the ease and speed for a woman to undress. With the coming of the first world war came the dawn of the Jazz Age, a result of moralists and the US military shutting down Storyville, New Orleans’ vice district, unemployed musicians spread the New Orleans sound up the Mississippi river to St. Louis and Chicago where it took root and spread across the nation and soon the world. In the roaring post war economy burlesque adopted jazz, a energetic boost to its Tin Pan Alley roots. A six piece band, a “strip band”, became the norm in the industry. The Midwest in the 1920s gave birth to both the “tease”, where the dancer performs a short song then ducks behind the curtain to remove an article of clothing before popping back on stage for another number repeating the sequence as far as local law enforcement will allow, and the “strip”, where the dancer slowly and deliberately undoes buttons and hooks while performing a song or to a song. Not all performers sang, often the theater would have someone singing just off stage, a job referred to as a “tit serenader”. By 1928 Billboard magazine had combined them into one word, striptease.
The Depression did not stop burlesque, top performers could earn $400 a week. Beginners and older dancers could still make $35 a week. Comedy played a bigger part in the performances, lifting the spirits of people enduring economic hard times. The comedy kept women in the audience of burlesque performances through the 1930s. Fannie Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee worked to put humor in their acts. It was also the age of burlesque queens, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee and others who moved beyond the burlesque circuit into “legitimate theater” and the movies but maintained a relationship with striptease. With the bad economic times the moralists became more vocal, blaming the hard times on burlesque rather than on bad management by WASPs.* Moralists came out in force during the depression, doing their best to ruin business and slander performers. Ferdinand Pecora, a name I respected, the lawyer that investigated and prosecuted the big banks and oligarchs who brought on the Depression, prosecuted the Minsk’s for obscenity.
With the outbreak of World War II burlesque and striptease found some acceptance in the general population. Americans saw no need to deprive young soldiers going off to war a chance to have a good time. The war also exposed the world to what had been described as one of only two American art forms, striptease. Striptease caught on in France after WWII the same as jazz caught on after WWI. The late 1940s and 1950s were a highpoint for striptease but they also were the opening chapters in its fall from prosperity.
With television people had less reason to leave home. With changing fashions people had less need to pay to see the female form. Low revenue forced theaters to close, some reopening to show films featuring skin, movement, and no teasing. Fewer theaters meant fewer performers could find work and those that did tended to keep doing the acts that had worked in the past, originality suffered and even fewer paid admission. By 1969 Shteir says that striptease was economically obsolete. A few performers kept going into the 1980s performing in tents at county fairs to audiences that were now female by a 3 to 2 ratio. In her conclusion Shteir looks at the resurgence in interest in old fashioned striptease, neoburlesque where professional looking amateurs stage performances for their own reasons.
“Striptease” is a well written, well researched, and well organized book that was as fun to read as it was educational. Early in the book I was concerned that Shteir was using obscure words to sound more academic but it soon became evident that I just needed to be more familiar with parts of our language. The two words that I first tripped over, “chorine” is one chorus girl and “zaftig” is on the scale of “svelte” to “voluptuous” but I am still not sure where on the scale it falls, were uncommon but necessary to express the author’s ideas. Shteir also pointed out that in theater speak any action that shocks the audience, that grabs their attention is a “flash”, it is not just about breasts and behinds.
Although reviews on Amazon, which I read after reading the book, question some of the incidental facts in the book I only have to look at the list of resources Shteir researched and the detailed notes she includes to dismiss those objections as questionable at best. After all none of the reviews document their claims and anybody, even me, can post a review on the internet. Shteir’s basic premise, that striptease was an economic choice that some, but not all, performers made in spite of its hardships, is well defended and convincing. I have to recommend this book to any one interested in women’s history, economic history, and the theater.
* White Anglo Saxon Protestants for anyone younger than I am.