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Publicists coined the word striptease in the late 1920s. It is still an evocative word, bringing to mind the lurid image of a busty, 1950s performer bumping and grinding in tasseled pasties and a sequined g-string. This icon of overtly commercial sexuality had its heyday in the 1950s, but the history of the striptease reaches as far back as the nineteenth century.

Starting in the 1850s, what is often referred to as the "scandal of tights" swept through America. Flesh-colored stockings were worn on the stage by comediennes, chorines, and cancan dancers revealing limbs that had been all but eliminated from the fashionable silhouette. The costume shocked audiences, but was allowed by censors since it had originated on ostensibly respectable stages in Europe, such as the Gaiety in London and the Folies Bergère in Paris. These nineteenth-century performers never actually disrobed, but they were harassed, fined, and occasionally jailed for pulling up their skirts, flashing their underwear, and swiveling their hips in a way that evoked the throes of passion. In 1893, the American purveyors of the tights-clad leg show, found mainly in burlesque and vaudeville theaters, shed even more clothes in order to adapt the "exotic" dance of the Chicago World's Fair's Little Egypt (whose performance launched the first and longest-lived euphemism for the stripteaser: exotic dancer).

The element of bare flesh was introduced around the turn of the century at the tea parties of socialite ladies. Early modern dancers like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Maud Allan scandalized moralists with the degree of physical exposure in the costumes for their dances that were launched through the patronage of wealthy women interested in Orientalist art and culture. Duncan performed at ladies' matinees in bare feet and without tights, dressed only in a classical gown (made at first of her mother's muslin curtains). St. Denis adopted the exotic dance of the World's Fairs and dressed in ultra-sheer and bejeweled net garments. Allan developed a Dance of the Seven Veils based on the biblical story of Salome that was so popular that prominent women were inspired to hold a costume party of Salome-style dress. Through the popularity of modern dancers, a formula was filtered into American popular theater where numerous young women reduced their stage costumes to gauzy skirts, beaded bras, and bared midriffs in an effort to interpret foreign cultures, real and imagined, through the art of dance.

By the 1910s, the first accounts of striptease appeared on the heels of the advent of modern dance. Vaudeville historian Joe Laurie, Jr. claimed that vaudeville headliner Eva Tanguay let the veils drop in her version of the Salome dance in 1912. Morton Minsky claimed that burlesque performer Mae Dix invented it when she removed the detachable collar and cuffs of her costume in full view of the audience in order to save on her cleaning bill. Former stripteaser Ann Corio credited Hinda Wassau with inventing the act when forced to shimmy out of a chorus costume that had caught on the beads of the ensemble worn beneath for purposes of a quick change. The "Glorified Girls" featured in the mainstream Broadway revue of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. also made nudity more and more acceptable on the stage with opulent tableaux such as "Lady Godiva's Ride" in the Follies of 1919.

The acceptance of nudity necessitated bawdy entertainment to up the ante further in order to secure their lucratively raunchy reputations. The result was striptease. The precedent of nudity established by modern dancers implied artistic motives. The striptease represented a return to the flash-and-tickle approach of populist vaudeville dancers. That was infinitely more appealing to male audiences and it was achieved not through nudity, but through an undressing that mimicked the disrobing which preceded a sexual encounter. The formula was simple: the slow parade of a beautiful girl in a beautiful gown; the removal of stockings, gloves, hairpins; the slow shimmy out of the clinging, formal dress; and the briefest wriggle in only a g-string. Nudity made artistic became artistry made erotic.

Four burlesque producer brothers named Minsky became inextricably connected with striptease in the 1920s. Their publicists, George Alabama Florida and Mike Goldreyer, came up with the name for it and promoted its finest practitioners. These included Margie Hart, Georgia Southern, Ann Corio, and the incomparable Gypsy Rose Lee. When the Great Depression came, the Minskys were able to lease a theater on Broadway. Gypsy Rose Lee thrived in Minsky shows during this era and set the tone for high-style striptease as an extremely beautiful woman who was also an engaging comedienne and natural-born celebrity. The Minskys were so successful that theater producers and real-estate interests (along with some conservative religious organizations) banded together to get the act of striptease itself banned in New York City. They succeeded in 1937 when the word burlesque and the name Minsky were banned in New York City, and all the theaters that featured striptease were shut down. Similar bans followed in other cities across the nation.

Throughout the 1940s, a few burlesque houses survived and Minsky strippers used their fame to headline shows on carnival midways. In the years following the crackdown on striptease, some concessions were made to avoid trouble with the law. The use of pasties to cover the aureolas was the most noticeable change, but the addition of sequins, rhinestones, and tassels changed pasties from a handicap to an innovation. As nightclubs entered a boom following World War II, striptease came back in style again. A 1954 Newsweek article reported that the number of stripteasers had quadrupled since the 1930s and that 50 nightclubs in New York City featured striptease. The article gleefully recounts the props in the shows (snakes, monkeys, macaws, doves, parakeets, stuffed horses, swimming tanks, and bubble baths); the cost of the costumes

($850 to $1,000 for Lili St. Cyr's Vegas act); and the stage names in use (Carita La Dove—the Cuban Bombshell, Evelyn West—the $50,000 Treasure Chest Girl). The star performers of this era employed all the over-the-top shtick of 50 years of vaudeville in their acts. Blaze Starr had a red settee, which she had tricked out with a fan, canned smoke, and a piece of bright silk that would appear to go up in flames. Lili St. Cyr did interpretive striptease based on Salome, Carmen, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Sadie Thompson. Tempest Storm promoted herself relentlessly, dating celebrities and accepting a mock award from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis for having the two biggest props in Hollywood. These acts were so popular that in 1951 Frenchman Alain Bernadin opened the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris to bring American-style striptease to European cabaret audiences. Another garish heyday for striptease had arrived. But by the 1960s, that heyday had come and gone.

In the decades that followed, striptease was rejected in favor of the direct appeal of already bare flesh. The topless trend kicked off in the mid-1960s when a go-go dancer at a San Francisco strip club performed in Rudi Gernreich's topless bathing suit without getting arrested. Topless lunches, topless shoeshines, and other mundane acts improved by toplessness were featured in the clubs that had showcased striptease. Bottomlessness logically followed. By the 1970s, the hugely profitable pornography industry almost eclipsed live nude girls altogether. Crackdowns on the pornography industry in the 1980s encouraged a resurgence of striptease, but much of the glamour and humorous shtick of 1950s striptease was excised in favor of the intimacy of the lap dance for an audience of one and as a result, the theatrically-inclined tassel-twirling stripteaser was replaced by the more readily accessible silicone-enhanced bottle blond with one leg wrapped around a metal pole.


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Jessica Glasscock