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The History of Burlesque

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A breath-taking costume, stage, and passion. Naughty; but just the right amount. Enticing and complexly mesmerizing? Absolutely. That’s right; I’m talking about burlesque.

The risqué art form has seen quite the resurgence over the past few years. Stars like Dita von Teese and the Pussy Cat Dolls put the art back on the map. There is even a popular burlesque version of the nutcracker. Which begs the question, just what is the sexy- dance and tease combo all about, and how did it begin? This post is all about the history of burlesque. Get ready to learn.

"Bon-Ton Burlesquers2" by H.C. Miner Litho. Co. - Library of Congress[1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

It All Started With Vaudeville

Described as a “theatrical genre of entertainment,” but that description doesn’t come close to painting the exciting world it contained. Back in the early 1880’s through the 1930’s the vaudeville scene was hot!

Just imagine attending a show where each act is totally unrelated but equally awesome. Performers were so eloquently referred to as, “Vaudevillian’s.” Musicians, magicians, acrobats, jugglers…the list goes on and on. Not to mention the famous “freak shows,” and of course – burlesque dancers.

The Early Years

The art was not a bunch of women stripping, but it was an outlet of comedy, music, and one of America’s favorite sources of entertainment. And of course, there was the enormous sex appeal.

Back in the 19th Century, a burlesque performance might have been referring to a comedic play, or even a performance without any music. It was not until the mid-1800’s that it became a household beloved form of entertainment in America and Great Brittan.

The word itself comes from the Italian word, burla; meaning to mock or make a joke of. Which makes sense if you were to see the original performances. Serious subjects could be tackled with easy when they were approached as a parody. 

Lady Power

The sexy, scantily clad nature of burlesque made a huge dent for the positive, in the women’s place on the stage. Suddenly women were being respected even when not buttoned up from head to toe. Gender stereotypes broken down – full force.

As you can tell by the photo below, not everyone has been a fan of the art. Here in 1953 a local civic group in Long Branch, NJ, is seen protesting the opening of a burlesque show.


                    (Photo: AP Press)

The Cabaret

The shows we presently think of, with sexy strip tease and corsets galore, really took off in the Cabarets.

Cabaret’s were performance venues where the patrons sat at tables (maybe eating, or perhaps sipping cocktails,) while they enjoyed a full evening of being entertained by the stage in front of them.

France had the Moulin Rouge, not only inspiration for the beloved film, but birthplace of the Cancan dance. Here in America, the cabaret was all about jazz. Think; smokey night clubs, crooning starlets and a little bit of shake and shimmy burlesque dancing all the way.

This history lesson would not be complete without recognizing the classic Diva, Liza Minelli for her work in the Broadway stage turned-to-classic movie, called, what else? Cabaret!

                                (Photo: Christopher Isherwood)

In 1972, Ms. Minelli basically took over the world as Sallie Bowles. The homage to the scene also took over the Oscars that year; winning Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and 5 behind the scenes awards. Pretty impressive.

Classic American Starlets

The 1940’s through the 1960’s still had a distinct strip-tease dancing flare, as the art was strong and alive here in the clubs. Two of the most prominent stars to emerge from the scene were Gypsy Lee Rose and Josephine Baker.

(AP Photo)

                   (Photo: Margie Hart, Lili St. Cyr, and Gypsy Rose Lee, AP Photo)

Gypsy Lee Rose

Gypsy was certainly a pioneer in the art of the strip tease. Ms. Von Teese often references her as the main source of her own inspiration. Always a saucy one, Gypsy incorporated a strong, witty, banter into her strip tease routines. Here is one of her famous statements showing off the sexy flare she had for teasing her audience;

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing slowly…very slowly.”

Josephine Baker

Josephine rose to fame, after a life of hardships and growing up in poverty, during the Harlem Renaissance. Known for her impressive comedic timing and spellbinding stage presence, she basically took over the world with her iconic moves. After a long spell in France and a mega successful career there, she returned to the states to join the performance at the famous Ziegfield Follies.

The divine Ms. Baker may have solidified her place in history as a world class performer, but it was her work as a civil rights activist and humanitarian who adopted 12 children of different backgrounds that made her a true legend.


In 1990 the first Exotic Miss World brought a resurgence of interest in the beloved performing art. Stars like Catherine D’Lish were born and suddenly women were looking for classes and venues to learn how to shake it and provocatively tease.

Miss Dirty Martini

No neo-burlesque story would be complete without Miss Dirty Martini. Known for her reinvention of the fan-dance, she was the final Exotic Miss World Queen to be crowned in 2004.

"Miss Dirty Martini Show Musto Party 2011 David Shankbone 2" by David Shankbone - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons -

"Miss Dirty Martini Show Musto Party 2011 David Shankbone 2" by David Shankbone - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons 

Miss Martini still proves to women today, that you can be incredibly sexy and not to shy away from burlesque if you worry you might be a tad too curvaceous. Her adoring fans line up to see her regular performances in a number of venues in NYC, from leather bars to Carnegie Hall.

In 2010, Cher and Christina Aguilera teamed up for a movie called, that’s right, you knew it, Burlesque. In it, Christina goes to work at a Neo-Burlesque club and naturally lots of sexy dancing and powerful diva-esque singing ensued.

The film was inspired by no other than Cabaret and while it received bad reviews (Rotten Tomatoes said it was, “campy and clichéd,” before giving it a lousy 36%,) it still managed to make over $110 million dollars; so it seems a few people still managed to enjoy it.

Everyday Sexy

You don't have to be a performer to take advantage of this sexy look. Burlesque corsets can be incorporated, quite inconspicuously into your everyday fashion. Take a look at this Oscar statue inspired piece. 

This outfit is perfect for a black-tie party, night of clubbing - the gold-black-white combo is all glitz and class. 

Those ruffles and feathers can be hard to resist, and I complexly understand needing a piece that speaks to your inner burlesque-tease needs. So we put together this outfit. 


Want some help putting together your own burlesque outfit? We would love to hear your thoughts and help you create the perfect look. Leave us a comment or send an email to