The origins of the striptease and burlesque

by

comment

It only took a few weeks before 23-year-old music and entertainment entrepreneur Sol Bloom was making a weekly stipend equal to the president of the United States, Grover Cleveland. Bloom was in charge of the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The Midway Plaisance was home to the mysterious, naughty, and "oriental" fair attractions. According to Rachel Shteir, author of Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show (which—speaking of origins—my dad reviewed in the Reader in 2001), much of Bloom's success stemmed from the dance, the exotic belly dance routine known at the hoochie coochie.

The hoochie coochie was performed inside the fair's Algerian Village—one the many "ethnic" villages along the Midway Plaisance. Thousands migrated toward the Algerian Village to see the dance performed by the infamous Little Egypt. The audiences grew so large that Bloom claimed he was making $1,000 per week.

“Little Egypt emerged, in true American style, from nowhere, and yet she managed to become the putative grandmother of modern striptease,” writes Shteir. Little Egypt was described as jellylike, as hot as the hottest day of the year, lascivious, and disrespectful. She represented a subversive sexuality, and her seductive belly dance foreshadowed a massive change in the American entertainment industry. While Little Egypt began as an “oriental” attraction, she became the catalyst for 20th-century American striptease.

After the exposition ended, the hoochie coochie appeared in several different places, including burlesque and vaudeville shows in New York. Little Egypt eventually became a character act.

In the early 1930s, during the Jazz Age, Chicago took center stage again. “Chicago was home to Sally Rand’s Fan Dance in 1933,” says Shteir. “And a few years earlier, around 1926, one story goes, striptease started here when someone pulled the strap off a chorus girl’s shoulder.”

Although striptease and burlesque became one of the country’s most popular forms of entertainment, the genre always had an inherent midwestern quality. “I would say that striptease could only have been born in Chicago, just as Playboy was, because the midwest has a specific relationship with this kind of entertainment,” says Shteir. “Another way of putting that is, the midwest still believes in the American dream as being a combination of babes and laughs.”

Despite the fact that the Internet is awash in sex and pornography, burlesque and striptease have made a surprising comeback in recent years. “In a completely glamourless culture, there can be no way that striptease and burlesque mean the same thing that they did in the era of the Hollywood studios.” Shteir also notes that the art forms have new meanings now. They can be kitschy, nostalgic, and halfway between irony and sincerity. “It can make us believe there are alternatives to porn. It can create another way for women to commodify themselves, albeit a kinder, gentler way.”

Shteir's latest book, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, is now in paperback.

Find out how you can help

Add a comment