See studies by C. V. Clinton-Baddeley (1952, repr. 1974); R. P. Bond (1932, repr. 1964), and J. D. Jump (1972).
With its origins in nineteenth century music hall entertainments and vaudeville, in the early twentieth century burlesque emerged as a populist blend of satire, performance art, and adult entertainment, that featured strip tease and broad comedy acts that derived their name from the low comedy aspects of the literary genre known as burlesque.
In burlesque, performers, usually female, often create elaborate sets with lush, colorful costumes, mood-appropriate music, and dramatic lighting, and may even include novelty acts, such as fire-breathing or demonstrations of unusual flexibility, to enhance the impact of their performance.
Put simply, burlesque means "in an upside down style". Like its cousin, commedia dell'arte, burlesque turns social norms head over heels. Burlesque is a style of live entertainment that encompasses pastiche, parody, and wit. The genre traditionally encompasses a variety of acts such as dancing girls, chanson singers, comedians, mime artists, and strip tease artistes, all satirical and with a saucy edge. The strip tease element of burlesque became subject to extensive local legislation, leading to a theatrical form that titillated without falling foul of censors.
The genre originated in the 1840s, early in the Victorian Era, a time of culture clashes between the social rules of established aristocracy and a working-class society. Originally, burlesque featured shows that included comic sketches, often lampooning the social attitudes of the upper classes and their music (particularly parodies of opera songs), alternating with dance routines. It developed alongside vaudeville and ran on competing circuits.
In its heyday, burlesque bore little resemblance to earlier literary and musical burlesques which parodied widely known works of literature, theater, or music. Possibly due to historical social tensions between the upper classes and lower classes of society, much of the humor and entertainment of burlesque focused on lowbrow and ribald subjects—e.g., in the early years, ducks were revered amongst these folk as gags.
The popular burlesque show of the 1870s through the 1920s referred to a raucous, somewhat bawdy style of variety theater. It was inspired by Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, who first appeared in the United States in the 1860s, and also by early "leg" shows such as The Black Crook (1866). Its form, humor, and aesthetic traditions were largely derived from the minstrel show. One of the first burlesque troupes was the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company, created in 1870 by M.B. Leavitt, who had earlier feminized the minstrel show with her group Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels.
Burlesque rapidly adapted the minstrel show's tripartite structure: part one was composed of songs and dances rendered by a female company, interspersed with low comedy from male comedians. Part two was an "olio" of short specialties in which the women did not appear. The show's finish was a grand finale.
The genre often mocked established entertainment forms such as opera, Shakespearean drama, musicals, and ballet. The costuming (or lack thereof) increasingly focused on forms of dress considered inappropriate for polite society. By the 1880s, the genre had created some rules for defining itself:
The popular burlesque show of this period eventually evolved into the strip tease which became the dominant ingredient of burlesque by the 1930s. In the 1930s, a social crackdown on burlesque shows led to their gradual downfall. The shows had slowly changed from ensemble ribald variety performances, to simple performances focusing mostly on the strip tease. The end of burlesque and the birth of striptease was later dramatized in the entertaining film The Night They Raided Minsky's.
In 1947, enterprising film producer W. Merle Connell reinvented the filmed burlesque show by restaging the action especially for movies, in a studio. The camerawork and lighting were better, the sound was better, and the new setup allowed for close-ups and a variety of photographic and editorial techniques. His 1951 production French Follies is a faithful depiction of a burlesque presentation, with stage curtains, singing emcee, dances by showgirls and strippers, frequent sketches with straightmen and comedians, and a finale featuring the star performer. The highlight is the famous burlesque routine "Crazy House," popularized earlier by Abbott and Costello. Another familiar chestnut,Joey Faye's "Slowly I Turn" (famous today as a Three Stooges routine), was filmed for Connell's 1953 feature A Night in Hollywood.
Other producers entered the field, using color photography and even location work. Naughty New Orleans (1954) is an excellent example of burlesque entertainment on film, equally showcasing girls and gags, although it shifts the venue from a burlesque-house stage to a popular nightclub. Photographer Irving Klaw filmed a very profitable series of burlesque features, usually featuring star cheesecake model Bettie Page and various lowbrow comedians (including future TV star Joe E. Ross). Page's most famous features are Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955).
These movies, as their titles imply, were only teasing the viewer: the girls wore revealing costumes but there was never any nudity. In the late 1950s, however, other producers made more provocative films, sometimes using a "nudist colony" format, and the relatively tame burlesque-show movie died out. As early as 1954 burlesque was already considered a bygone form of entertainment; burlesque veteran Phil Silvers laments the passing of burlesque in the movie musical Top Banana.
A new generation nostalgic for the spectacle and perceived glamour of the old times determined to bring burlesque back. This revival was pioneered independently in the mid 1990s by Billie Madley's "Cinema" and Ami Goodheart's “Dutch Weismann's Follies” revues in New York and Michelle Carr's “The Velvet Hammer Burlesque” troupe in Los Angeles. In addition, and throughout the country, many individual performers were incorporating aspects of burlesque in their acts. These productions, inspired by the likes of Sally Rand, Tempest Storm, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, have themselves gone on to inspire a new generation of performers.
Today New Burlesque has taken many forms, but all have the common trait of honoring one or more of burlesque's previous incarnations, with acts including striptease, expensive costumes, bawdy humor, cabaret and more. There are modern burlesque performers and shows all over the world, and annual conventions such as the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival and the Miss Exotic World Pageant are held.
The UK scene is definitely growing with the introduction of the London Burlesque Festival in 2007 and the Ministry Of Burlesque gaining a seven-figure investment from a major mainstream media company in mid-2008 to create an IP/TV channel and TV studios which are entirely dedicated to the artform.
Burlesque is now spreading across the world reaching countries such as Russia. Though Russia does know of burlesque as a type parody used in theatre and literature alongside with grotesque, farce, etc., it has no history of burlesque as a bawdy and glamorous erotic spectacle performed live on a regular basis. Therefore, with reference to Russia one can speak of the birth of burlesque rather than of its revival. Russia’s first queen of burlesque is Lyalya Bezhetskaya. She also runs Russia’s first burlesque theatre called Shkatulka (The Treasure Box). Apart from Lyalya Bezhetskaya who stars in all skits, Shkatulka currently consists of six more artists including two male stand-up comedians.