The concept of a woman’s costume in the realm of entertainment emphasizes the attraction to “other.” When an audience expects to be entertained, they wish to see something different than themselves: an element of novelty which cannot be simply replicated in the comfort of one’s own home. The pull an audience feels towards the exotic has a tangible influence on the way a woman performer portrays herself on a stage. This is where the importance of the costume in burlesque is key; it signifies to the viewer that one is watching a performer, not just an every day girl from small town Kentucky dance on a stage.
The history of costume and style in burlesque is difficult to pin down and much more complicated than just “lingerie.” One of the earliest forms of burlesque costuming could be seen on Lydia Thompson and her troupe, “The British Blondes.” Thompson is credited with starting the New York burlesque scene in the late 1800s, when she and her troupe came overseas from London.
Costumes of the time were extremely modest: skirts that fell above the knee with stockings underneath, tight fitting tops or dresses with cone-shaped bras to accentuate the ladies’ breasts. The traditional costuming fell along the lines of a beginning formal outfit, followed by a strip tease during which stockings were kept on, bras were displayed, and nudity (full or partial) was extremely rare. It was the dancing combined with the costumes (that could be adjusted to be more revealing) that truly defined burlesque and started the entertainment movement that is still recognized today.
In the 1900s, accessories such as pasties and tassels were added to the costumes in order to get around indecency laws. Though how often these bits of modesty were used is debated, they are still historically associated with burlesque dancing. Throughout the 1920s and on, accessories which accentuated the “tease” were added to costumes. An example of such is ostrich feather fans, used in a dance during which they are strategically placed to both cover and reveal the woman’s body. These were prominently featured in the routines of Sally Rand. In the mid-20th Century, the demand for more skin and less costume was on the rise, and this lead to a change in the burlesque outfits seen on stage. Costumes and dances that would never have made it to the stage in the early years of the art were now commonplace on the dance circuit, and the original clothing seemed to be lost in the decline of burlesque.
In the 1990s to present day, there has been a return to the origins of burlesque, including the starting formal outfits, ostrich feather fans, and corsets. This return to costumes of the past may act as a critique on the current sexual role of the woman in America. The use of more modest costuming and the emphasis on the suggestion of nudity rather than the display of it juxtaposes against the modern music video dancer “taking it all off.” Costumes act as a means of transformation for the dancer, from just another girl on the street to a woman who performs, using her body to entertain and enthrall a room. Whether it is due to extra confidence or an identity change, the costume provides the burlesque dancer with the persona she needs in order to take the stage as Blaze Starr, rather than Fannie Fleming.