Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show by Rachel Shteir


Barenaked Ladies

Reviewed by Elaine Showalter

Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page BW02


The Untold History of the Girlie Show

By Rachel Shteir. Oxford Univ. 438 pp. $30


When I was in high school, seeing striptease at the Old Howard Theatre in Boston's notorious Scollay Square was a thrilling violation of 1950s feminine taboos. Built in 1840, the Old Howard burlesque had once featured the likes of the Marx Brothers and Fred Allen; when Boston's Watch and Ward Society tried to close it down in the 1930s, Mayor James Michael Curley had replied that "the Old Howard . . . is one of Boston's great institutions." By the time I went, burlesque was on its last shaky legs; the audiences, mostly male college students, were scantier than the strippers' costumes, and there were a lot more fans, tassels, bubbles and veils covering the aging performers than there were shocking reveals. Yet the stripshow still had power to fascinate, amuse and educate a curious teenage girl. When the Old Howard burned down in 1961 in a fire of "unknown origin" and the red-light district was razed and rebuilt as Government Center, a landmark of American sexual culture disappeared.

In her book Striptease, Rachel Shteir, a professor of theater at DePaul University, traces the history of striptease and poses serious feminist questions about its meanings. As one element of American popular entertainment, striptease combined "sexual display and parodic humor."


It offended moralists because of its unashamed exploitation of the naked female body, but it was also playful, innovative and funny, spoofing sexuality and celebrating female independence. Shteir discovered the girlie show as an academic subject when she was a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, and she has continued intensive research in the Sally Rand Archives in Chicago, the Harold Minsky Collection in Las Vegas and the Gypsy Rose Lee papers in New York. Her book is packed with historical detail and contemporary feminist insights.

Shteir argues that American attitudes toward nudity were always different from European ones. The zaftig British Blondes, a burlesque troupe, shocked America with their display of legs when they toured in 1868, and the bigger the blonde, the more shocking and sexy the display. In 1899, Billy Watson, manager of another troupe called the Beef Trust, bragged that all his performers weighed more than 200 pounds. In France, women posing naked were a staple feature of entertainment, and the Lido Club and the Folies Bergères specialized in elaborate tableaux of showgirls; even a few years ago, the Lido offered a spectacular version of the wreck of the Hindenburg -- in the nude. With the public's fascination with the figure of Salome, whether in Strauss's opera, Wilde's play, Nazimova's silent film or Maud Allen's exotic dance, "Salomania" spread from Europe to America, where it even afflicted respectable New York matrons; everyone wanted to see the vengeful New Woman take off her seven veils. Fanny Brice did a Yiddish parody of the craze in Irving Berlin's "Sadie Salome Go Home."

But striptease -- women undressing on stage, with an element of withholding, coyness, seduction and advertising -- was, as Shteir notes, a "distinctly American diversion that flourished from the Jazz Age to the era of the Sexual Revolution." Impresario Florenz Ziegfeld first Americanized the French follies, with elaborate vaudeville production numbers starring dozens of identical-looking, scantily dressed chorus girls. Ziegfeld's motto -- "Glorifying the American Girl" -- was reinforced by his introduction of a male singer who serenaded the parading beauties with songs like "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody."

The Minsky family, in their Lower East Side Winter Garden theater, parodied and democratized Ziegfeld. Presenting themselves as "The Poor Man's Ziegfeld," they featured slapstick comedy and attracted Jewish and other immigrant audiences to taste the forbidden fruit of what one Yiddish poet called "living shikses" who "dance and prance." During World War I, a Ziegfeld girl added a touch of patriotism by posing naked as the Statue of Liberty, "doing her duty for the American troops."

Stripping and teasing, as well as dancing and prancing, began in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when black performers became famous for doing the shimmy. Later Sally Rand pioneered a kind of naked ballet behind huge feathery fans, or opaque balloons representing soap bubbles; Fanny Brice parodied her as the Russian Countess Dubinsky, "now working for Minsky." Gypsy Rose Lee made stripping stylish, literary and sophisticated, with her witty song for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936: "Now a strip-teaser's education/ requires years of concentration," including studies in art history, classical ballet and anthropology. Making fun of herself helped Lee become the first striptease star and the "Dorothy Parker of burlesque." By the 1940s, she was writing short stories for the New Yorker.

By the 1950s, striptease had become a favorite subject of male intellectuals, especially in France. In Paris, the Crazy Horse Saloon sent up both American culture and striptease style, while French philosophers such as Roland Barthes considered its mythic significance. The combination of academic interest and relaxed sexual standards may have been the double whammy that finally killed off striptease and burlesque as subversive forms of entertainment. Today Victoria's Secret ads feature pole dancers, porn stars write how-to books, and the Chippendales male strippers perform at bridal showers.

Happily, Shteir's book provides a record of the golden age of American striptease, and she gives a persuasive account of its democratic verve and feminist appeal. Striptease, Shteir argues, "gave women a chance to realize the American dream" and a way to "overcome their working-class origins and make it." Both flaunting sexuality and making fun of it, the girlie show found an irreverent way to educate Americans about sex. Shteir's scholarly and very entertaining book is part of that great tradition. •

Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English at Princeton University.



Conceptual bust
Book's view of striptease as feminist triumph ignores convention -- and history

By Victoria Olwell. Victoria Olwell is an assistant professor of English literature at the University of Virginia
Published December 26, 2004

Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show
By Rachel Shteir
Oxford University Press, 438 pages, $30

What's good for women? Equal pay for equal work? Affordable childcare? Political rights? How about striptease?

This last route to liberation takes center stage--or maybe I should say runway--in Rachel Shteir's "Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show," and it at least has the virtue of novelty. Theater histories have usually cast the 20th Century emergence of striptease and other displays of undressed women as the villain of their tales, often very convincingly. Before striptease, the 19th Century American theater offered rich artistic and economic opportunities to female performers and managers, just as it entertained a large and varied female audience. Gifted actresses like Charlotte Cushman played the great roles of the classical and modern repertories while collecting rapturous female followings (in Cushman's case, based largely on her cross-dressed portrayal of Romeo). Even burlesque, which we now associate almost entirely with striptease but was then closer to vaudeville in its programs, gave women varied roles and a welcome place in the audience.

But, as the story has been told, the rise of leg shows, striptease and other nudie acts around the turn of the 20th Century blighted the stage for women, consigning them more frequently to displays of the flesh, cutting them out of the economic power of the theater and exiling all but the prostitutes and demimonde from the burlesque audience.

Shteir, head of the dramaturgy and dramatic criticism program at the Theatre School of DePaul University, has set her face against interpreting striptease as a catastrophe for either the stage or women, and the wealth of performance detail she amasses shows how urgently stripping and related undressing acts deserve serious reconsideration. But her eagerness to avoid the by now conventional portrait of striptease as a degradation for women leads to an opposite and even less nuanced depiction of it as a triumph for women in a sexist world.

Striptease arose in the 1920s when various carnival, bordello and burlesque undressing acts lent their techniques to a new form in which the woman (or in some parts of town, the man) undressed in a ritualized fashion, drawing out the stripping with bouts of teasing. From its early Jazz Age irreverence, striptease evolved to Depression-era glamor, reveled in postwar excess and devolved to sleaze before being swamped by the sexual revolution and the resulting boom in public nakedness everywhere from Broadway to Playboy to Woodstock. Charting the course of striptease from the '20s through the '60s, Shteir sees it as an occasion for women's agency, self-expression and power. Striptease, she says, "put the woman in control," "revealed the female erotic imagination" and "stepped away from Victorian conventions that told women how to behave in public."

By a subterranean sleight of hand, Shteir repeatedly strives to link undressing acts to women's political and social gains. Writing, for instance, about a late 19th Century French stripping act (a precursor to modern striptease) in which the performer took off her clothes, including her corset, Shteir briefly describes the agonies of corsets before speculating that the act might have had a connection to the anti-corset movement that arose in response to the injuries corsets caused. "Thus perhaps," she writes, "the undressing act was a kind of sartorial liberation."

Perhaps, but perhaps not. As a historian, surely she has the tools to gauge more closely, but a more thorough investigation would seriously diminish any claims for stripping's political radicalism, if only because there were real radicals struggling against women's oppression. In the case of the corset, late 19th-Century doctors and women's rights advocates worked hard to publicize the dangers of the corset at a moment when fashion squeezed women's bodies so acutely that looking at a photograph of a well-dressed woman of 1895 today will make you gasp and clutch your midsection. Newspaper satirists and opponents of women's activism heaped scorn on suffragists when they adopted Amelia Bloomer's more forgiving costume, designed to free women not only from the corset but also from the yards of heavy material that imprisoned them in their skirts (even if today bloomers are remembered only as the puffy pants the outfit introduced). One wants to ask Shteir: Was it silly of suffragists to face this derision when they could have been applauded for undressing on stage? Perhaps the strippers' audience might have foresworn catcalling in order to substitute a hearty, "Madame, we salute you for preserving your health!"

The problem with Shteir's emancipatory claims for stripping is that they gather the better part of their strength from an old cliche equating the Victorian era with social and sexual repression, never seeming to acknowledge that this cliche is more modernity's myth about itself than it is an accurate depiction of the past. Stripping acts themselves sometimes exploited this cliche by depicting the performer throwing off antiquated sexual repression as she throws off antiquated attire in order to claim a modern, freer sexuality.

We could hardly blame a strip act for sending up Victorian repression as a means of staging its own modern naughtiness, but a historian should do better. Shteir should know that by the 1930s, when she says that strippers stepped away from Victorian conventions controlling women's public behavior, Victorian conventions had long been modified by diverse social, political and economic factors, all of them deserving more credit as historical forces than striptease. To speak of conventions governing women, moreover, is to forget that there were different conventions for different women--different conventions for bourgeois women than for working-class women, for black women than for white women, for Southern women than for Northern women, and on and on.

We see the same impulse to generalize from a stripper's stage persona to the lot of every-woman with Shteir's celebration of "the female erotic imagination," which she treats as if it were an eternal given, having one form and existing outside history, rather than seeing erotic life as itself formed by its social context, and in the case of striptease in particular, conditioned by the conventions of performance. Isn't it the case that when a stripper peeled off her gloves ever so slowly, she was referring to all the other strippers who had done so, rather than to her imagination? Making recourse to "the female erotic imagination" is a strangely anti-historical and anti-theatrical position for a theater historian to take. But here history has been sacrificed to the equation between sexual liberation and political liberation, another cliche, and one likely to distract us from the ways in which the supposed sexual freedoms of modernity have hardly diminished the growth of other forms of social control (would you like a side of Patriot Act with your "Sex in the City"?)

What makes the conflation of striptease with feminist gain all the more lamentable is that Shteir's own history shows a much more complicated picture. As she reports, strippers often worked for meager wages, sometimes in appalling conditions. She notes that "[a]buses against performers in burlesque were legion--worse than in almost any other area of show business." Even in the labor-activist days of the Depression, strippers couldn't get unions to put aside the stigma against stripping and represent them. To make matters worse, "Burlesque theater operators and nightclub owners were a tough, suspicious lot, easily corruptible, linked to organized crime." So much for putting "the woman in control."

A few strippers became wealthy women, and Gypsy Rose Lee, to whom Shteir devotes a thorough and absorbing chapter, even became a cultural force. But so intent is "Striptease" on inflating any good that came to any woman through stripping that these few exceptional strippers become the basis of the claim that "stripping was 'radical' in the sense that it allowed women to climb the economic ladder." No doubt about it, climbing the economic ladder is better for any particular person than living in abject poverty, but there's nothing "radical" about it; on the contrary, aspiring to the upward mobility of the American dream, as Shteir puts it, is about as conformist as you can get. Summing up the money game of strip, stripper Carrie Finnell perhaps said it best: " 'I ain't in it for the glory, I want to eat.' " Stripping, in other words, wasn't feminism. It was survival.

To be sure, arguing that striptease benefited women isn't Shteir's only purpose. "Striptease" offers a richly detailed survey of strip acts, performers and managers from the 1920s through the 1960s, tracing changes in performance style and cultural reception, and documenting striptease's influence on Broadway, film and popular music. But the book's shallow attempts to assign liberatory value to striptease make it a conceptual flatliner.

Interestingly, "Striptease" comes closest to finding credible progressive possibilities during its fleeting discussions of gay men's strip acts, derived almost entirely from George Chauncey's important "Gay New York." Shteir notes that nightclubs allowed a gay culture to flourish. We might then wonder, what kinds of cultures did the women who stripped from the 1920s through the 1960s inhabit? How did these cultures help them understand their bodies, their sexualities, their identities, their labor, their sense of belonging to a larger community? Rather than oppose modern liberation to Victorian constraint, an account of stripping's implications for women needs a richer sense of how sexuality can foster the oppositional cultures that aid in the struggle for justice. After all, if sex can set us free, I'm sure I'm not the only one who wants to know exactly how.



Uncovering the demure era of striptease

By David Kirby

December 12, 2004

Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. Rachel Shteir. Oxford University Press. $28. 438 pp.

When Rachel Shteir found out that "her otherwise ordinary school friend" Jane had become a stripper, it occurred to her, she writes, that stripping stands for "a possibility that women could reinvent themselves as desirable creatures every night." I've got news for Professor Shteir and Jane both: men desire women already. There's no need to get yourselves up like Virginia "Ding Dong" Bell or Evelyn West, The Girl With the $50,000 Chest, or any of the other "peelers" and "torso tossers" whose labors are chronicled here.

Actually, we really, really desire you, and it doesn't take that much to make us pant, which is why classic stripping, as opposed to today's total runway nudity, was, as Shteir points out in this authoritative, thoroughly-researched and well-written study, pointedly demure. Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, Candy Barr and the incomparable Gypsy Rose Lee peeled very slowly; they continued the tradition of '30s stripper Gladys Clark, whom one reviewer described as "walking around like a queen wondering if the tub is full."

The other side of demure stripping, of course, was the raucous kind. If some peelers remained veiled and unattainable, others, like Georgia Sothern, danced, in the words of one impresario, "just like she had dynamite for lunch." And Carrie Finnell (of Carrie Finnell and Her Red-Headed Blondes) used what she called her "educated bosom" to astounding effect as she brought tassel twirling to unsurpassable heights. Fellow entertainer Ann Corio likened Finnell's act to the revving up of a military aircraft: "Carrie looked like a twin engine bomber," Corio noted approvingly.

Alas, not all strippers were as admiring of others as Corio. The big acts were phenomenally successful, and strippers could be as cutthroat as other businesswomen. Rosita Royce trained seven doves to carry off pieces of her evening gown; when someone peppered the birds with a BB gun, all eyes turned toward Tirza the Wine Girl, who may have fretted that her own "wine bath" was not as splendid as Royce's avian extravaganza. The Wine Girl's guilt or innocence will never be known, though it is certain that when Evangeline, the Beautiful Pearl in the Half Shell, became unbearably jealous of Devena the Aqua Tease, who undressed and swam as a mermaid in a 550-gallon tank, she smashed Devena's tank with an ax.

Born in the Jazz Age, striptease was more or less dead by the '70s, according to Shteir, having been replaced by mere "stripping" or "exotic dancing," the goal of which is get naked fast and stay that way. Over time, capitalism takes every phenomenon to its extreme: sex becomes pornography, food becomes fast food, and portions -- of everything -- become supersized. Worse, when striptease became mere stripping, it lost its sense of humor. Gone is the coy sophisticate who strolls downstage languidly, pulling off her glove a finger at a time, her place taken now by a petulant nude pestering customers for lap dances.

Growing up in Baton Rouge in the '60s, I and my friends would sneak out our windows at night, speed down to New Orleans, watch the dancers on Bourbon Street go through their routines, and make it back to our beds just before our mothers woke us, their noses wrinkling suspiciously at the lingering scent of cigarette smoke and stale beer. I remember seeing Candy Barr, though it may have been Candie Barr, Candy Barre, Candie Barre, Kandy Barr, or Kandy Barre -- strippers were shameless in more ways than one, and a hot act was often replicated under a sound-alike name.

If I'd known that an era was ending, I would have paid more attention.

Poet David Kirby is currently behaving himself in Tallahassee, where he teaches English at Florida State University.





UPDATED AT 4:28 AM EST Saturday, Jan 22, 2005

The naked and the nude



The Untold History of the Girlie Show

By Rachel Shteir

Oxford University Press,

438 pages, $34.95


Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy

By Ruth Barcan

Palgrave, 308 pages, $41.95

In the 1990s, I attended a fundraiser at a Toronto strip club. Having not seen "exotic dancing" for a while, I was curious to see the evolution of the form (and wanted to support the funder's cause, a drop-in and support centre for sex-trade workers).

The black cement-block room had an interesting mix: Sex workers, their husbands and/or lovers (male and female), health-care workers and, mostly, large-headed "john" types with thin lips, slightly slack heavy jaws and shiny eyes.

The house lights dimmed as pink and amber-gelled lights illuminated a tiny black stage. The only "set" was a low, coffin-sized wooden slab, covered in red velvet.

Sinatra's Strangers in the Night wafted from speakers. A small young woman in alpinist high-heeled strappy sandals and a pink lace bra/panties set appeared, carrying a red velvet box that matched the coffin slab. Kneeling down, which drew whistles from the crowd, she removed the box's contents -- canisters of squirtable whipped cream and jars of chocolate sauce.

Taking the mike from its stand, she licked its head and, following the amplified slurp, spoke -- a southern Ontario suburban voice: "Hi. I'm Adrianna. I'm gonna strip now. Then I'm gonna lie down on the velvet bed and my assistant, Penny, is gonna cover me with whipped cream and chocolate. Then, for $20 each, payable, in cash only, to Penny [enter Penny, in turquoise g-string matching pasties and silver stilettos], you can lick it off. One minute per licker (tight, wide smile). All proceeds go to our drop-in centre. Thank you for being here. And thanks for participating"

Adrianna danced for a moment, then quickly removed her clothes (except for the shoes). Her large brown eyes, mascara-ed and kohl-ed, looked out past her audience to somewhere in the middle distance.

She lay down on her back, on the velvet slab. Her globular breasts stayed fully up, nipples pointing to the ceiling. Penny the Assistant covered her colleague's supine self with white and brown gunk, then beckoned to the audience. Approximately 10 men (and one woman), most with a look of self-consciousness, mounted the stage.

They proceeded to feed on Adrianna's sweet coating.

Stripping was not always a perfunctory and grotesquely artless act of cannibalistic foreplay. In Striptease, Rachel Shteir, writer and professor at De Paul University in Chicago, chronicles, with analytical, image-rich prose, the history of the American girly show.

The journey begins with a French emigré, Francisque Hutin, who performed in New York's Bowery Theatre in 1827, in lower Manhattan's rough-and-tumble Five Points district (recently portrayed in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York).

Mme. Hutin, like the Hellenophile Isadora Duncan, who would follow, was nowhere near naked, instead wearing somewhat diaphanous clothing and doing classically inspired short modern ballets (one called La Bergère Coquette, The Coquettish Shepherdess). While covered from neck to calves, Mme H. caused indignation. One newspaper reported, "a great portion of the audience crimsoned with shame"; another noted that "the exhibition is to all intents and purposes the public exposure of a naked female."

Soon after, borrowing from the Victorian English (who were, in turn, parodying French "high art"), New York entrepreneurs realized that they could have even more nakedness by featuring tableaux vivants (living pictures).

Surely, they claimed, no one would be offended by re-enactments of such great paintings as such subjects as the Three Graces, Suzanna at her bath and Venus rising from the sea. These pictures-made-flesh were permitted as long as the nudes did not move (a principle to be used in the 1950s and '60s when the Parisian Folies Bergères came to Las Vegas). There were, however, periodic police raids, when Venus and Bacchus were "trundled off to the tombs" in a "paddy wagon."

Burlesque soon added clowns and sketches, long a mainstay of both American vaudeville and British music hall. This pleased audiences, as well as giving strippers and showgirls more time to change and, therefore, more stage time per show. Striptease's golden age, the Exotic Dancer years, involved expensive production values and featured stars such as Sally Rand, Lili St. Cyr, Ann Corio and Gypsy Rose Lee. These ecdysiasts did more teasing than stripping, carefully choosing their music and costumes.

Shteir attributes the death of burlesque to two primary factors.

1. The "greying of the strippers": Strip stars, in their forties, fifties and sixties wanted out of the grind, as it were. St. Cyr went on to market lingerie. Gypsy Rose Lee wrote memoirs, collaborated on a hugely popular musicalization of her life, and did a television talk show from San Francisco. Her son, Eric Preminger, whose father was film director Otto, produced the show.

2. Off-Broadway and film nudity: Hair, The hippie-kid centred musical and the more sophisticated, wryly satiric Oh, Calcutta (its title being a play on the French "Oh, quel cul t'as" -- politely translated by Shteir as "Oh, what a nice ass you have" -- were successes, both in the United States and internationally.

Naked actors, singers and dancers were on the world's stages in plays with plots and/or well-written sketch comedy. Stripping had by then become the domain of mostly university students, aspiring actors and sex workers trying to make money by sliding around chrome poles and having paper money shoved into the crotches of their G-strings. It seemed tacky and unnecessary.

There is currently a retro renaissance of exotic dancing, frequently taught by ex-strippers (as Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce's stripper mum, had done at her Pink Pussycat Academy in L.A. in the '60s). Shteir also cites the increasing prevalence of "home-girl and bloke" home videos, where men make videotapes of scantily dressed girlfriends in provocative poses, to be shared and exchanged with others.

While drag burlesque successes (for instance, The Jewel Box Revue) and male stripping (Chippendales) are chronicled, Striptease is primarily about what stripping is primarily about: Men wanting to look at naked women, and women being paid to be looked at by these men. That some women have turned this into an art form and a celebration is doubtless true. Shteir nonetheless asks, "Is it possible for commerce and sexual pleasure ever to not be at odds?" Striptease, while minutely detailing U.S. stripping history, poses such questions throughout. Shteir avoids pat answers, yet always recognizes that there remain serious equality questions surrounding public female nudity, even when it feels like fun to the female nude.

Striptease is nudity as American burlesque history; Australian author and professor at the University of Sydney Ruth Barcan's Nudity is an analysis of all aspects of (mostly Western) nudity and nakedness, as they exist now, and have since Adam, Eve and the ancient Greeks.

While there are references to nudity within Islam, Barcan's primary focus is on nude humanity from Jewish, Christian, Platonic, goddess-myth and feminist perspectives. The book, while written in lively, accessible style, is a serious and detailed academic study.

Nudity begins with an excerpt from Anatole France's 1909 satire Penguin Island, in which naked penguins, once clothed, lose their moorings.

The first clothed penguin is raped by the Devil, in the guise of a monk.

The book then analyzes, in detail, the difference between nudity and nakedness; male, female and juvenile nudity; celebrity nudity and, as with Rachel Shteir's book, the relationship between public nudity and commerce.

Nudity used as equalizer and pomposity-deflator (enormously popular in Australia) is also detailed. Australian cartoonist Larry Pickering is beloved throughout his country for drawings of naked politicians. Oz also had a huge ruckus when a pro-republican sculptor did Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh naked on a park bench. Further complicating matters, vandals subsequently beheaded the royal couple.

Australian response to this kerfuffle was mixed, with some citizens feeling it was all excessive, and an embarrassment to them in the wider world, while others were delighted.

As we see constantly in the contemporary world, humans are complicated about nakedness. The Americans invented bars called Hooters, they nurse their children in bars, yet still go ballistic when a pop singer has a titular "wardrobe malfunction." Here in Canada, Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford writes of the lunacy surrounding a hockey mom flashing her bra at an opposing peewee team. Barcan reports three- and four-year-old female children being censured for being "topless" on American public beaches. In many cultures, the demonization of nudity persists.

The relationship between nudity and hair is also examined. Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who'd not previously seen an actual naked woman, recoiled from his wife in horror upon discovering she possessed a most un-Pre-Raphaelite characteristic -- pubic hair.

Nudity also produces, particularly in women, anxiety about imperfections. Imperfections that Barcan, discussing photography with a professional retoucher, shows as part of every iconic model out there. Airbrushing and morphing creates perceived perfection, causing women to strive for something that rarely, if ever, exists. Almost every model, from breasts and teeth to lips and labia, is usually "doctored."

Recently, a woman friend, looking through my Victoria's Secret catalogue, asked wistfully whether, in ordering the clothes, she would also get the body. No, she wouldn't, and, most probably, the models wouldn't either.

Not without retouching.

Both Striptease and Nudity are first-rate additions to the libraries and lives of those who want to study both the public and private naked body -- glories, perils, warts and all.

Contributing reviewer Gale Zoë Garnett appeared, both naked and clothed, in Toronto's 1970 production of Hair. She is currently working on her third novel and a collection of short stories.


January 9, 2005

Live! Nude! Girls! -- Low Pay! Exploitation!

By Rachel Shteir, Rachel Shteir is the author of "Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show" (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Are San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris and the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement the patron saints of strippers? Last year, instead of doing business as usual and prosecuting strippers arrested for sex acts in private booths of strip clubs, Harris took a radical step: She moved to investigate "fairness," "safety" and "exploitation of women" in local strip clubs. Now, the division is going one step further and launching an industrywide investigation of the clubs to make sure employees are treated properly.

These moves are the latest sign that the debate over strippers' rights — which has been rumbling for several years in San Francisco — is gaining ground. For city officials and the labor commission to hold club owners responsible for the well-being of strippers reveals how far we've come from 1964, when waitress Carol Doda did her famous topless shimmy on top of a grand piano, making San Francisco's Condor Club the first topless bar in the nation. But the full meaning of Harris' decision lies even further back, in the history of America's love/hate relationship with the striptease.

From the start, Americans have never really been able to decide whether striptease is a legitimate part of show business or merely another branch of the sex industry — what used to be called "vice." When striptease first appeared in the Jazz Age, many considered it not quite prostitution but the next best thing. Yet there's no question that from its beginnings in burlesque, it was a strange hybrid of Broadway and smut.

During the Depression, Gypsy Rose Lee, "the striptease intellectual," did elaborately staged erotic vaudeville routines in which she would drop the names of, say, Racine or Edith Sitwell. Other strippers impersonated Hollywood stars or did comic turns. Clearly this was more than just live pornography. Audiences were often working class, although Edmund Wilson and e.e. cummings were also aficionados. Many women as well enjoyed strip performances.

Reformers and politicians condemned striptease and tried to squash it by changing zoning laws, taking away theater licenses and generally making life difficult for the performers. Those efforts were fruitless, of course; wherever reformers succeeded, striptease just moved on and popped up somewhere else.

But working conditions were always bad. Strippers first tried to unionize in the 1930s. In an era when labor movements were gaining power, New Deal administrators at first sanctioned these efforts. But ultimately, the strippers' inclusion forced the burlesque union to collapse. The nation wasn't ready for naked women in the AFL-CIO.

Back then, the complaint of the burlesque show impresarios was that the high salaries of the strippers were putting them out of business. It wasn't true, of course. Although star strippers' salaries skyrocketed to hundreds and even thousands of dollars a week, most strippers were paid less than $30 per week. Striptease has come a long way since the 1930s. The tease is gone. Lap dancing and private booths are the burlesque stage du jour. Everyone is a lot more nude than before.

But working conditions remain difficult. Some strippers say they are so poorly paid that they're forced into prostitution to feed their families. These days, again pleading financial hardship, many club owners actually charge strippers "stage fees" — between $120 and $430 a night — for the privilege of taking off their clothes. Even in a sluggish economy, this is clearly unjustifiable.

Today, we puritanical Americans still cling to our ambivalence about whether stripping is prostitution or entertainment. And we haven't — at least until now — wanted to accept strippers as working women with rights who are trying to make a living.

It's too early to say what will happen in San Francisco. But maybe by bringing the strip clubs' financial practices — and our own sexual ones — into the light, our ambivalence about striptease will finally be ended.


February 19, 2006


Striptease by Rachel Shteir


STRIPTEASE: The Untold History of the Girlie Show
by Rachel Shteir

OUP £16.99/£10.99 pp438

Rachel Shteir’s history of the striptease is also a celebration of a vanished art form. She obviously relishes her subject, and her relish is infectious. Not for her the dour puritanism of first-wave feminists, who would insist on taking pity on their poor, exploited sisters on stage. But nor, one senses, would she subscribe to the post-feminist notion that for a woman to sport artificial GG breasts is somehow liberating and, gulp, “ empowering”. Her account of the disappearance of erotic undressing before the onslaught of hardcore porn is a sad one; because, in its heyday, striptease was a lot of glamour and fun.

Was it ever exploitative? Well, it certainly wasn’t a prelude to prostitution, as some might glibly assume; and although she finds one tragic example of a stripper who was also a heroin addict and committed suicide, it is only one case among many happier stories: tragic, but not statistically significant. Most of the women made a great deal of money, and managed their careers with a fierce independence.

Even though Shteir is a fully fledged academic (associate professor of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at DePaul University), her writing style is elegant, vivid and mercifully free of jargon. Not for her the kind of soporific bilge spouted by too many of her peers. Indeed, she quotes a little mockingly from a forerunner of such jargon-mongers, Roland Barthes, to show the path she will not be taking. Here is the great Gallic thinker in 1957, writing on the G-string: “This ultimate triangle, by its pure and geometric form, by its brilliant and hard material, brandishes sex like a pure sword and re-imagines the woman in a mineralogical universe, the precious stone being here the irrefutable theme of the total and unuseful object.” In 1955, the French actually founded an Académie du Striptease. Thank God for les Anglo-Saxons and their pragmatism.

Shteir dwells much more on the lives of actual striptease artists than on windy abstractions or academic arguments, and this is the book’s great strength. There is a wealth of marvellous biographical detail here, with the leading players lit up in the full glare of the garish footlights. Striptease stars such as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Lili St Cyr, Dodo d’Homberg and Rita Cadillac — even the names are redolent of a past age, far from a world where hardcore porn is a click away. One stripper, Sherry Britton, fainted when she first revealed herself on stage, although it seems she soon got the hang of it, and was gaily balancing glasses of water on her breasts.

Such acts could earn the girls a lot of cash. $500 a week for a top stripper was the usual rate in the 1930s, and $1,000 not unheard of, at a time when, Shteir points out, the editor of Vanity Fair was earning $35 a week. The stripper Rose Zelle Rowland did even better by marrying her sugar daddy, the Belgian financier Baron d’Empain, who owned the Egyptian railway system, among other things.

A number of the women had time to develop their minds in between flaunting their bodies, more like geisha girls, or the hetaerae of ancient Greece, than modern-day porn stars. Ann Corio negotiated herself not only a grand a week plus 25% of the house take, but, when asked how she spent the time backstage between shows, said that she liked to read Spinoza and Omar Khayyam. Well paid, well read, cultured, and perhaps rather amused by the fascination that their own nakedness held for men, these were clearly no dim, exploited dollybirds.

My favourite stripper by far in this gallery of nudes must be the wonderful Gypsy Rose Lee, with her “regal persona”. The girl was Dorothy Parker in a G-string. Hard-nosed and sassy, she understood her craft precisely. “The naked skin to the naked eye is just so much epidermis,” she said. It’s what’s “hinted at rather than hollered about” that is erotic. Gypsy Rose could do an absurdly demure but tantalising routine that began with her on stage in a long polka dot skirt, like a virgin bride on her honeymoon night; or she could do an almost absent-minded routine in which she stripped right down while chatting casually to her audience about whatever came into her head, as a wife might talk to her husband in the bedroom. Perhaps that was its intimate appeal, though it could also be extremely funny. She would even teeter about on stage, rolling down her garters while explaining to her admirers why she simply couldn ’t strip to the music of Brahms.

Everything changed in 1963, of course (though I will not plague you with that Larkin quote yet again), and by 1973 the hardcore skinflicks The Devil in Miss Jones and Deep Throat were among the top 10 moneymakers in Hollywood. Things had got a lot nastier. Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, later said that she performed much of the film at gunpoint, and never made one cent from it. Somehow, somewhere, amid all the excitement and liberation, women’s rights seemed to have slipped backwards, and the old vaudeville innocence of the striptease was gone forever.

11 March 2006

OXFORD £13.99 (432pp)

Striptease, by Rachel Shteir

Disrobed divas and the not-so-naked truth

BY Marybeth Hamilton

Published: 10 March 2006

The word "striptease" entered the English language in the late 1920s, press-agent argot for a low-rent disrobing that promised more flesh than it ever revealed. Born in the sexual upheavals of the US Jazz Age, striptease flourished in burlesque theatres, stag parties and carnival tents before disappearing in the late 1960s, killed by topless bars, porno theatres and "nudicals" like Oh Calcutta!. Resurrecting this lost world is the aim of Rachel Shteir's book about "the untold history of the girlie show". At its best, her story and its characters are gloriously seedy.

There is the cigar-chomping showman Billy Minsky, who introduced the striptease to Broadway in productions like The Sway of All Flesh and Panties Inferno. Lenny Bruce's mother, Sally Marr, whiled away her declining years as dean of the Pink Pussycat College of Striptease (Joan Collins enrolled for a term). Above all, there are the strippers: exotic seductresses like Lili St Cyr, wide-eyed gangsters' molls like Candy Barr, and veteran gyrators like Carrie Finnell, whose "intelligent bosom" could set two tassels spinning independently and who was still twirling them in Vegas three weeks before her death aged 70.

Yet too often, that rich detail is submerged in the telling. Shteir chronicles striptease's development city by city, decade by decade, and ultimately what changes seems less remarkable than how much remains the same. Year after year, in town after town, stripteasers infuriate the guardians of morals; their theatres are raided; they promise reforms; and the whole process begins again.

Though a few performers flirted with respectability (most notably Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote a few novels and read Joyce), striptease thrived on an aura of sleaze. It may have sold itself as quintessentially modern, but at its heart lay Victorian taboos: a leering conviction that sex was dirty, and that the female body was dangerous.

The enduring hold of those taboos made stripteasing an art of invention, of putting on as much as taking off. Succeeding at stripping meant finding a gimmick that managed the tensions at work in the audience, its jocularity, yearning, fear and lust.

The burly Mae Dix stripped down to a body stocking and showered her audience with papier-mâché cherries ripped from between her legs. Rose La Rose gyrated alongside a life-sized replica of Woody Woodpecker. Zorita (née Kathryn Boyd of Ohio) peeled while fondling a python: when a drunken patron batted the creature away, she punched him. Rosita Royce filled her mouth with birdseed and struck artistic poses while seven trained doves carried off pieces of her evening gown. Blaze Starr, "the human heat wave", secreted explosives that set the stage alight, then tied pieces of steak to her bra and panties and lay supine on a red carpet while a panther chewed them off.

In all of this, what was at stake was less nudity than its withholding. Striptease repulsed moralists not simply because it incited arousal, but because it put women so firmly in charge. Rosita's trained doves aside, most women disrobed themselves, and the excitement, calculation and contempt they exhibited could make even sympathetic spectators uneasy.

The image of the stripper as a campily overblown naïve was well-established by the mid-1930s, sketched by poets like Hart Crane and critics like Edmund Wilson; 30 years later, it could be found in Diane Arbus's photograph of Blaze Starr, who bumps and grinds alongside her poodle in a room strewn with knick-knacks, in toreador trousers and bouffant hairdo - part hausfrau, part freak. In that persistent lampooning of the stripper's delusions, it is hard not to see a discomfort with her power. Yes, she could be a victim, and more than a few came to sad, lonely ends; yes, compared to the whips, chains, and pole dancing of today's clubs, her act seems almost risibly tame. Yet she created a potent, puzzling art of illusion, mocking desire even as she provoked it. In the end, the task of untangling that art and the fantasies that fed it awaits a different, more reflective book.

Marybeth Hamilton teaches at Birkbeck College, London, and wrote 'The Queen of Camp: Mae West, sex and popular culture'




The Sway of all Flesh
A Review by Toni Bentley

Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show
by  Rachel Shteir

Read this article, here                          



The Nation.




The Footlights' Non-Glare


from the March 1, 1999 issue

Read this article, here