Burlesque has been all the rage, and the Cher and Christina Aguilera (and Kristen Bell?) film hasn’t even hit theaters yet. Stylist, fashion historian and author of Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens (which was recently released in soft cover), Liz Goldwyn, has been living and breathing the age-old sexy performance for years, and she is here to show us that there is fashion inspiration in it beyond Dita von Teese in an over-sized martini glass. Read below for Liz’s journey through sartorial inspiration of the burlesque kind with notes on Versace, Dior, Gypsy Rose and Chlo Sevigny.
Liz Goldwyn. Photo: Getty Images, Peter Kramer
Here I am in 2005 at the premiere of my documentary film on burlesque, Pretty Things (HBO) at The New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, NYC. I am wearing vintage Gianni Versace, a pink dress based on a corset. Though I had been collecting and wearing burlesque costumes, this dress was the most revealing item in my closet. I was actually afraid to wear it. I remember trying it on for my friend Chlo Sevigny. She convinced me to push my own boundaries, rock it and own it.” Her words reminded me of burlesque queen Sherry Britton, encouraging me as she taught me how to striptease in her own pink costume, which you can see in the background on the right. On the left is a costume belonging to burlesque queen Betty Ball of Fire Rowland. So no matter what they say about strippers here is picture proof that a 1990s Gianni Versace dress is more revealing than the wardrobe of a stripper!
Photo: Chris Weeks, Getty Images
This was taken in 2006, at an art opening at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, CA. I am wearing a Sonia Rykiel knit mini-dress. Perhaps the most common misconception people have about burlesque is that it is all about striptease. In fact, the word itself comes from the Latin burlare to laugh, to make fun of. Burlesque comics such as Red Buttons, Lenny Bruce and Danny Lewis (Jerry Lewis father) all pushed the boundaries of public morality, with off-color jokes, social satire and sexually provocative skits. Even the great burlesque queens got in on the act; Gypsy Rose Lee was known for her wit and intelligence. She talked through most of her act, providing a running commentary of what was going through her brain, and barely removed a stitch! Its important to have a sense of humor in life, and in your wardrobe. This Rykiel dress sums that up for me.
Photo: Jesse Grant, Getty Images
In November 2008 at the MOCA Museum Gala in Los Angeles, wearing yet another Sonia Rykiel ensemble. This one was comprised of fuchsia silk evening pajamas with slits up both sides of the pants, and lace pasties over the bust. I thought this would be a funny outfit for the evening, comfortable but also with a nod to my favorite things lingerie and showgirl wear! Pasties were not always part of the burlesque queens wardrobe. In the 1930s, they were still a rarity. The late Sherry Britton once told me a story about how the strippers used to rouge their nipples under flesh net bras, or apply individual rhinestones with spirit gum (a type of skin-adhesive glue). My documentary film includes footage of Gypsy Rose Lee with a sprig of artificial cherries used as pasties she twirls them for effect. Actual manufactured pasties came into vogue at the tail end of the 1940s. The late Gussie Gross, a prolific burlesque costume designer, paid for her first house by making pastie and g-string sets for the Pink Pussycat Lounge in Los Angeles!
Photo: Charley Gallay, Getty Images
On the streets of Los Angeles in March 2010 wearing a Dior leopard dress. Leopard brings out a bit of the wild woman and always reminds me of Zorita, one of the most outrageous burlesque queens I knew. She was truly avant-garde and ahead of her time in performance and fashion. She originated the half-man/half-woman strip, danced with two 8-foot long python snakes and dyed her fur g-strings to match her pubic hair! She used to criticize me mercilessly about my wardrobe, demanding I get rid of unflattering clodhopper shoes and the deconstructionist dresses I used to wear in the late ’90s. She was a true businesswoman, always looking to profit on her sexuality. After all, she was a burlesque queen! Although she was gay, countless men pleaded to take her out to dinner. She once told me that she wouldnt even consider their offer of a meal for less than $500, saying, Baby needs new shoes, little girls need new shoes. I actually learned a lot about business negotiating from her!
Photo: Eric Ryan, Getty Images
In October 2010 at Viktor & Rolfs S/S 2011 fashion show in Paris. This was perhaps the most revealing burlesque inspired outfit I have tried out (so far)! I am wearing a 2011 resort Viktor & Rolf net dress and blazer, with my own lingerie and stockings underneath. The dress came with a slip, but I decided to forgo it in honor of the brave burlesque queens who graced the stages in the early 20th century. I like to think that the women who taught me to be empowered by the art of the tease (Zorita, Sherry Britton, Lois de Fee, Betty Rowland, Joan Torino and countless others) would have been proud. Again, it’s just a flash, a peek, a nod to what is underneath a girls gotta keep some mystery!
Liz Goldwyn has worked in fashion, art and photography since the age of sixteen. She has produced major fashion shows and art installations, helped establish the fashion department at Sothebys New York, and was a global consultant for Shiseido America. She writes feature articles for international magazines and newspapers, including French Vogue, The Financial Times, and Hantasubaki, and designs her own collection of jewelry. Her documentary film on burlesque queens, Pretty Things, premiered in July 2005 on HBO. Goldwyn lives in Los Angeles, California. Visit her online.