Burlesque style and fashion have become more mainstream and popular over the past few years thanks to the influence of Hollywood celebrities and movies. Gone are the days when the term burlesque is deemed as low-brow, risqué and sometimes indecent. Nowadays, many women have adopted burlesque style as part of their daily wear and many burlesque performances are being shown and supported by a growing number of enthusiasts coming from all walks of life and from varying age groups and social classes.
But what is burlesque and how did it come to be?
Burlesque is a term of Italian origins that usually meant a form of theatre showcasing oftentimes a variety of musical, satirical and comical acts combined in one production. It started in the early 1800s in London but was later on introduced to America in the 1900s. Burlesque shows had been created specifically for middle to lower class audiences since it usually made fun of the rich and their lifestyles as well as upper class entertainment i.e. opera, theatre, dance and music. The focus of burlesque shows were initially on musical and comedic acts but had shifted to more unconventional and precarious performances that pushed the boundaries of decency by showing women in clothing that exposed more flesh and the female physique. These ladies in burlesque shows dressed up in lingerie type clothing and engaged their audiences, who were predominantly male, in exotic dance and striptease. As the burlesque shows became more and more controversial and indecent by the standards of that time, it had eventually caught the ire of lawmakers and moral pundits. Many establishments that have shown burlesque performances were either given stricter guidelines or were shut down altogether.
Burlesque, however, had been resurrected in the late 1990s without the stigma of its initial heydays as a low class and immodest craft. From the 1990s onwards, burlesque fashion, style, makeup and dance took a more glamorous and sophisticated turn with many fashion icons, celebrities and socialites emulating the burlesque persona. Actresses like Dita Von Teese, who is a professional burlesque performer, and movies like Burlesque, that starred Cher and Christina Aguilera, have also helped escalate burlesque’s status further.
So what makes burlesque fashion and what does burlesque clothing consist of?
Burlesque clothing is specifically worn usually by dancers and performers to entice and tease their audience. They normally resemble lingerie or underwear but have been made more lavish, luxurious and opulent by using lace, pearls, feathers, sequins and ribbons, just to name a few. The most important pieces of clothing that comprise burlesque fashion are the corset, the lingerie, the head piece, the shoes, the bustle skirt, the stockings, the gloves and the pasties.
The burlesque corset is used particularly to accentuate a woman’s hips and chest by reducing the size of the waist, thus creating an hourglass figure. The corset is usually made with a lace back detail to provide the burlesque performer the option to use it to tease her audience and allow her ease in removing the corset slowly as part of her performance. In some cases, a concealed side zipper is added to the corset to allow for a more exciting act.
The burlesque lingerie is worn to enhance the female performer’s body curves and contour. The lingerie designs oftentimes take after the 1940s pinup fashion but are made even sexier and seductive by using flashy adornments, lace and other rich fabrics that evoke sensuality and titillation. Since these pieces of clothing are peeled off during a performance, they are made with hooks and clasps that can easily be undone at a moment’s notice for an added element of surprise.
The burlesque stockings are another essential piece of clothing used by burlesque performers as part of their striptease act. Stockings can also be used in various provocative and flirtatious ways to build up the spectators’ excitement and fascination. It comes in different styles, colors and embellishments to match any performer’s outfit.
The burlesque gloves, just like stockings, are a favourite among burlesque performers. They are worn to be later on taken off during a performance. Usually the first piece of clothing to be removed in a slow and seductive manner, gloves can also be used in multiple ways to tease a crowd. It also comes in fabrics that evoke sensuality and eroticism such as silk, leather or velvet.
The burlesque pasties are attached to a performer’s breasts to cover and adorn the nipples. It is the last piece of the burlesque outfit that is shown to the audience to signify the culmination of a striptease performance. To add to the awe and pleasure of the crowd, these pasties are decorated with embellishments like sequins, rhinestones and tassels that are used to display the ever notorious and always anticipated tassel twirl.
The burlesque bustle skirt is another garment used by striptease performers. Similar to a corset, it emphasizes one of the erogenous parts of a woman’s body, more particularly the behind. The skirt is often designed to be short at the front with a longer trail at the back. Just like any piece of clothing that forms part of a burlesque outfit, it is one of the first to come off during a performance. The skirt is usually made of lace, chiffon or satin material that suggests luxury and eroticism.
The burlesque fascinator, as it is commonly called in burlesque-speak, is a head piece that forms part of a performer’s outfit. It is decorated with eye-catching trimmings such as feathers, veils, sequins and glitters. It adds appeal and charm to any burlesque outfit and is used by the performer to hide a part of her face or eyes similar to a mask, to create an air of mystery and beguilement around the performer.
Last but not the least, the burlesque stilettos complete any performer’s outfit. Heels add to the sexiness factor as it gives an illusion of longer and leaner legs, and it accentuates the female calves. It is worn to match the rest of the performer’s ensemble and is also taken off in the course of the performance so it is normally free of buckles and straps for ease in removal.
What does it take to imbibe burlesque style and flair?
Burlesque style is not just about the clothes or outfit that is worn. Whether you are a burlesque performer or just a woman fascinated with burlesque fashion, it is essential to carefully choose the pieces of clothing to create a full ensemble. A burlesque outfit should perfectly match the story or fantasy that is being conveyed through an ensemble.
The outfit though is just part of the whole burlesque persona. One factor of burlesque is the make-up that not only complements a burlesque outfit but should also be reminiscent of the 1940s classic pinup retro style. Pale, milky white skin, deep red lipstick and thick curled false lashes are common to the burlesque made up look.
Music and dance are other vital elements to burlesque style. The music chosen to accompany exotic and striptease routines need to complement the slow, deliberate, sensual and suggestive movements characteristic of burlesque performances.
The most important aspect of burlesque style that pulls the outfit, make-up, music and the dance routine all together is attitude. One has to exude confidence, sensuality, sex appeal and sophistication in order to truly embody burlesque character and style.