Burlesque: The Art of Keeping Clothes On

Elsie Diamond

Elsie Diamond (photographed by Ksenia Maqa) performs ‘Dubstep Turandot’ in an extravagant oriental-inspired costume.

“Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?… There are no erogenous zones; it is intermittence which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing… between two edges…; it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance” – Roland Barthes [1]

In a previous post I mentioned Roland Barthes’ suggestion that an illicit glimpse of flesh can be more enticing than nudity. In fashion and costume, garments have always been notable for what they expose rather than cover (see, for example, the controversy caused by decreasing skirt length in the first half of the twentieth century). In such cases, fabric is notable in its absence, often more than its presence (which is taken for granted).

In the twenty-first century we are so jaded to the sight of near-naked bodies that they seem unremarkable. It is not uncommon to see legs, stomachs and cleavages on show. This contemporary fashion environment has yielded jeggings and super-low necklines that leave little to the imagination. Bare skin on display has become unremarkable, and has lost its power to shock or entice. As a result, Barthes’ words were never more true. The legs on display under a miniskirt are far less enticing than the fleeting glimpse of thigh that appears intermittently through the side-split of a much longer skirt; a cleavage that is barely visible through a layer of organza is more likely to attract the eye than breasts on show in a low-cut top.

Hussein Chalayan's remote control 'airplane' dress (S/S 2000) is constructed of sliding panels which slide to reveal glimpses of skin.

Hussein Chalayan’s remote control ‘airplane’ dress (S/S 2000) is constructed of sliding panels which slide to reveal glimpses of skin.

These values are reflected in high-fashion. Hussein Chalayan’s Remote Control Dress (Spring/Summer 2000) is moulded from fibreglass and resin panels which are controlled remotely, and slide in and out to reveal parts of the body. The dress reveals small areas of skin, providing viewers with a brief glimpse of the body. The glimpse is coy and fleeting, creating a sense that it is forbidden. This is, in Barthes words, “the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance”.

liza DeLite

Eliza DeLite, who recently put a show on hold for costume restoration. Her costumes create such spectacle that they can even detract attention from the dancer’s partial nudity.

The most appropriate context for this debate is the world of burlesque. Burlesque, which is sometimes thought synonymous with stripping, is arguably more about keeping clothes on than taking them off. The costume transforms the act into an opulent spectacle. Dancers are celebrated for having unique and elaborate costumes. They establish the tone and theme of the act, and are essential in defining a dancer’s performance. The costume establishes the identity that the dancer has chosen for a particular act, and the show is choreographed to suit the component parts of a very particular costume. So entwined are the costume and the act, that it would be impossible to perform a burlesque dance in a substitute costume without making modifications to the routine. The costume is so vital that Eliza DeLite recently put her Strip ‘n’ Shimmy act on hold for costume restoration [2]. Every movement is choreographed around a particular garment or accessory. To a great extent, the costume dictates the moves.

In describing her debut, Dita Von Teese contrasts her performance with those of strippers by detailing her costume. She wore “a proper crinoline dress over a tightlaced corset with seamed stockings, garters, and long black opera gloves” and later “left the club a lady – in hat [and] gloves” [3]. In a strip-club, the acts are all about flesh: strippers arrive onstage already scantily clad, and their stripping is only a prelude to nudity. The core of the show is performed either mostly or completely nude. In contrast, burlesque dancers sustain the striptease until the very last moment of the show. The nudity is the finale.

Burlesque performance celebrates progression towards nudity, rather than nudity itself. The longer the dancer can sustain the tease, the more erotic the performance will be.  It is in the dancer’s interest to keep the clothes on for as long as possible: to remove the costume a small piece at a time, and at an almost languid pace. The dancer, and the audience, know that once she is naked, the show is over. There is nothing left to discover.

Immodesty Blaise

Immodesty Blaise on stage wearing 3 fur stoles, a fur skirt-cuff, a lace dress, and corset. Each of these items can be removed separately, prolonging the progress towards nudity.

The burlesque costume is designed to slow the progress towards nudity. It contains many more garments and accessories than an everyday wardrobe, and dresses are often composed of several parts that can be detached and removed separately. Costumes can consist of numerous layers, beginning with an overcoat or cape, then a dress of several parts, and even when that is removed there are usually three or four layers of lingerie underneath, each layer of which is progressively smaller and more revealing. The greater the number of pieces, the longer it will take to remove the costume, and hence the more provocative the act will be. As each small part is removed, only minor progress is made towards revealing the body.

Dita Von Teese

Dita Von Teese. In the right pose, costume and context, even just a glimpse of ankles can be erotic.

The eroticism of the striptease may be, in part, nostalgic. Nostalgia is at the core of many burlesque acts. Burlesque celebrates the 1940s pin-up and 1920s Hollywood glamour. The costumes tend to include vintage or historical references, not least with corsets. But more than this, it celebrates a time when bare flesh was not so ubiquitous. In that context, a flash of ankle or a glimpse of shoulder is worthy of celebration.

See the Pinterest gallery which accompanies this article: http://pinterest.com/costumeand/burlesque/

References:
[1] Roland Barthes, ‘Where the Garment Gapes’, extract from Pleasure of the Text, 1975, reproduced in ed. Malcolm Barnard, Fashion Theory: A Reader, London: Routledge, 2007, p. 601.
[2] Eliza Delite, http://eliza-delite.wix.com/burlesque#!acts/vstc4=article-2
[3] Dita Von Teese, Burlesque and the Art of the Tease, New York: Harper Collins, 2006, p. 20.

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Nudity, Music Videos and Sexualisation

This is brief, informal, and slightly off-topic expansion of the opinions I expressed on Woman’s Hour this morning.
 I was invited to respond to the nudity in Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video, in light of comments made in a previous broadcast, which suggested that the video was exploitative.

The Blurred Lines video (see below) is available in censored and uncensored versions, one in which women are featured topless, and another in which they are partially clothed. The censored version is being screened on TV and YouTube, while the other must be sought out on sites like Vevo and Daily Motion, which have fewer restrictions.

Robin Thicke's b;urred Lines

A still from the uncensored version of Robin Thicke’s video, directed by Diane Martel.

Nudity has long been associated with exploitation. Historically, it was imposed on slaves because of its connotations of savagery, and although those connotations have diminished, there have also been associations with sexual exploitation that remain today. The debate surrounding Robin Thicke’s video seems to suggest that there are still a large number of people who assume that any women who is naked is being exploited.

Organisations like Object and UK Feminista rally against “the sexualisation of women”[1]. Though this is a noble aim, its supporters too readily conclude that all nude images in pop culture are sexually motivated and/or exploitative.

I felt the need to join this discussion to stress that the relationship between nudity and sexualisation is not inherent or universal. Sexualisation and nudity are not equivalent. Indeed, Roland Barthes proposes that a glimpse of flesh is far more erotic than a fully nude body. A small area of bare skin where garments gape, or as a woman undresses, can be far more sexually charged than total nudity.

This progress towards nudity, and apparently illicit glimpses of flesh through clothed bodies, can make some videos far more sexually charged than Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. There are numerous videos which present cavorting dancers, fully clothed, that appear far more sexually exploitative. The issue is behavior, not nudity.

Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus’ video for ‘We Can’t Stop’ is far more sexually charged than Robin Thicke’s, even though there is no nudity. It is the behaviour, not the quantity of flesh, that leads to sexualisation.

To imply that depictions of nude women are exploitative, purely because they are unclothed, vastly over-simplifies the issue and is potentially dangerous for impressionable audiences. If we declare that nakedness connotes exploitation, we risk encouraging shame among women who are naked in any context. To be appreciated naked by a partner, or even a wider audience, ought to be confidence-boosting. Instead, those moments will be filled with anxiety.

This discussion inevitably involves mention of the kind of body that is represented in the media: slim, young, and beautiful. Many feel that these ‘ideal’ bodies contribute to self-esteem issues among audiences with more ‘natural’ figures. Though it is true that the women in Blurred Lines are beautiful and modelesque, that does not make them unnatural. Slim bodies, just like larger bodies, are part of the natural spectrum of shape and size. We should not seek to exclude these slim bodies any more than we should exclude fat bodies.

Though less common, the depiction of fat or imperfect bodies can be even more controversial. These images have to face accusations of being “grotesque” [2]. Nude images of Gossip singer-songwriter Beth Ditto (see below) are not often labeled as sexually exploitative, but are often presented as gross spectacle.

Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto has frequently posed naked. These images are viewed as grotesque rather than sexually exploitative, potentially subjecting Ditto to a different but equally damaging kind of exploitation.

If it is currently impossible to view fat bodies in the same terms as thin, perhaps diversity is one way to encourage a change in perception. In other fields, such as fine art, all bodies are represented equally. The nude mothers of photographer Jade Beall, the distorted flesh of Jenny Saville’s paintings, and Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper, are all praised for celebrating the female nude. In music videos, however, where we expect a slim and attractive star like Rihanna to appear naked in a bath, we would never expect someone as curvaceous as Adelle to strip off for the camera. The problem is not that Rihanna is naked, rather that Adelle isn’t.

Three problems arise from this discussion: firstly, there is the assumption that all nude images are sexually motivated; secondly, that they are all exploitative; and thirdly, that these first two only apply to images of women who are slim and beautiful. We need to remind audiences that it is okay to celebrate sex, and that those celebrations should be inclusive. We should make clearer distinctions between sexualisation and nudity, without implying that sexuality should be taboo.

References:
[1] Object: Women not Sex objects, http://www.object.org.uk/files/OBJECT%20FAQ.pdf
[2] Mashrabiyya, ‘In Vogue: Women, Beauty, the Grotesque, and the Other

Good Hair, Bad Hair – Part 2: Hair and Shame

Hair is both body and adornment. It’s natural presence makes it part of us, but in styling we treat it as equivalent to fashion. Hair is styled so that it has the same expressive potential as clothes (and even unstyled hair makes a statement). Some translations of the Bible describe hair as a “natural garment”[4]. Ruth Barcan observes that hair exists in a “borderline category between flesh and clothing”, and argues that it is this difficulty of classification that makes us feel uneasy about hairy bodies[5]. Barcan’s research shows that many women do not consider themselves fully naked until they have removed all of their unwanted hair.

Matthias Grunewald Resurrection 1515

Matthias Grunewald’s ‘The Resurrection’ (1515) shows that hair-free female bodies were the ideal long before Brazilian waxing.

The German word for pubic hair – schamhaar – translates into English as ‘shame-hair’[6], implying either that this hair is used to hide shameful body parts, or that the hair itself is shameful. This notion that pubic hair is considered shameful has been fostered by the laws of numerous countries, including Australia and Japan. Until 1982, Australian naturist magazines were obliged to airbrush pubic hair from their photographs. Until the 1990s, Japan’s obscenity laws banned the depiction of pubic hair with the unexpected side-effect of making the women in adult manga comics look like pre-pubescent girls [7].

When dealing with hair, there are contradictory rules for different parts of the body. Shaved underarms and long luxurious hair on the head conform to contemporary ideals of beauty and civility, but hairy underarms and a shaved head imply rebellious tendencies. Koppelman proposes that a shaved female head may be perceived as rebellious or threatening because female baldness is usually a sign of illness, or, historically, punishment[8]. From the thirteenth to sixteenth century, head shaving was one of many punishments for adultery[9]. At the end of WW2, French women had their heads shaved in punishment for conspiring with Nazis. More recently, a Japanese pop star who had spent a night with her boyfriend instead of rehearsing with the band, appeared on YouTube having shaved her head as an act of contrition. In her home country, criminals routinely have their heads shaved upon entering prison[10].

A French woman has her head shaved in punishment for collaborating with Germans, 1944. Image courtesy: Remembering History

A French woman has her head shaved in punishment for collaborating with Germans, 1944. Image courtesy: Remembering History

Advertisements highlight the constant battle that we seem to have with our hair. We seem afraid of an inability to control it. Bad hair days, or unwanted stubble, are a beauty nightmare. Whether it is styled or removed, there is an expectation that all hair is subject to some sort of control. Uncontrolled hair  – grown when it should be shaved, tangled when it should be tamed – is the biggest hair taboo.

[4] See Barcan, Ruth, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, (Oxford: Berg, 2004),74.
[5] Ibid. 30.
[6] Ibid. 26.
[7] Schodt, Frederik L., Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, (Stone Bridge Press, 1996), 54-55.
[8] Koppelman, as cited in Doan, 9.
[9] Virgili, Fabrice, Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France, (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 182.
[10] human Rights Watch, ‘Prison Conditions in Japan’, 12.

Images:
Nude: http://laurashefler.net/arthistory2010/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/01-Cranach-the-elder-nymph.jpg
French conspirator: http://historicalside.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/a-french-woman-has-her-head-shaved-as.html#.UYYRro73C_E