These shows came to the U.S. by way of England as the original American burlesque shows credited much of their inspiration from Victorian shows. The turn of the century lead to a decreased interest in the form in the United Kingdom and an increase in America. British version of the shows included a true variety of acts. Vaudeville performers, magicians, chorus singers and acrobats were all staples in their shows.
From there to here: Originally, burlesque dances weren’t all about stripping, but they turned more focused on the flesh once the genre became popular in America.
Typically the British shows would have either an exotic dancer or another performer as the grand finale but it was not considered the whole purpose of the event. That all changed when the stage show format arrived to America. Nudity and sexual references were much more common stateside, and by the mid-1930s there were over a hundred famous nude principle dancers across the country. Often held in clubs and music halls, the performances took on an uninhibited tone. Jazz and alcohol fuelled the ‘naughty’ perception of the evenings, and they were seen as an escape from the morals that ruled people’s daily lives.
Showgirls: Tempest Storm was particularly brazen in the shot on the left, showing her nipple and wearing a sheer dressing gown, while the unidentified dancer on the right wore a horned headdress and bottoms.
As a result, it comes as no surprise that the end of prohibition in the U.S. in 1933 helped to increase the burlesque market which was struggling in the 1920s. Though New York was the hub for the live shows in America, Hollywood played a major role in the proliferation of the genre.
A number of films brought burlesque to a mainstream audience, with several big stars bringing their name into the mix. Sex symbol Mae West starred in a film about the industry titled I’m No Angel. Even then-actor, future president Ronald Reagan appeared in the film She’s Working Her Way Through College alongside actress Virginia Mayo who played a burlesque dancer.
Even though the re-emergence of alcohol onto the nightlife scene and a push of support from movies, the burlesque industry did have other problems coming for it. New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia shut down one of the city’s most popular venues, called Minsky’s in Times Square, in 1942. That closure, though masked in licensing reasons, was a reflection of the increased moral distaste for the genre, and is seen by historians as the beginning of the end at that time.
As it happened before, the genre has made a later comeback, appearing again in the 1990s. Today stars like Dita Von Teese have made the idea of burlesque cool and sexy again, playing in the fashion and film arenas once more.