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  • Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show
  • Kirsten Pullen
Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. By Rachel Shteir. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; pp. 438. $30.00 cloth, $17.95 paper.

While there's certainly no shortage of first-person accounts of working in striptease and burlesque—from foundational narratives like Gypsy Rose Lee's Gypsy: A Memoir and Ann Corio's This Was Burlesque to the recent confessional explosion epitomized by Lily Burana's Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America—they offer little critical analysis or historical context. Hundreds of thousands of primary documents—records of burlesque impresarios, performers, and reformers; newspaper reviews and articles; private collections donated to museums and university special collections—are accessible to scholars able to visit multiple archives and pore through folders of striptease records and ephemera. Despite the overwhelming numbers of primary sources, burlesque historians and striptease scholars have few secondary critical texts with which to engage; Robert C. Allen's Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque [End Page 381] and American Culture, Irving Zeidman's The American Burlesque Show, and Lucinda Jarrett's Stripping in Time: A History of Erotic Dancing are very nearly the alpha and omega of legitimate burlesque histories. These texts, while important sources, all have shortcomings for the theatre historian: Allen's text primarily focuses on pre-twentieth-century burlesque; Zeidman's work is more personal history than scholarly record; Jarrett's contribution is under-researched and poorly written. As a thorough, intelligent summary of erotic dance, Shteir's work will be welcomed by theatre historians and feminist scholars; its novelty alone justifies its winning of the 2004 Theatre Library Association George Freedley Memorial Award, given to the best English-language book about live theatre.

Of course, Shteir's monograph has several other points to recommend it. She begins her history in 1827, with ballet dancer Mme. Francisque Hutin's thigh- and hip-revealing "semi-transparent Grecian robe" (13); and ends with neoburlesquers the Pussycat Dolls, who currently dance and tease for hipster audiences at Los Angeles's notorious Viper Room. Shteir's command of her material—and the sheer wealth of that material—is phenomenal. She carefully traces changes in the composition of burlesque shows (from jokes, skits, and provocative songs and dances to only striptease acts); audiences (from working-class men and women, to upper-middle-class slummers, to working-class and middle-class men); geographic locations (from Harlem, to Broadway, to New Jersey); venues (from vaudeville theatres, to speakeasies and nightclubs, to burlesque palaces, to strip clubs); impresarios (Florenz Ziegfield, the Minsky family, Earl Carroll, Mike Todd); the evolution of erotic dance (from the "flash" of a single breast, to topless dancing, to stripping to panties, then to g-string, and finally total nudity); and censorship struggles (from the relative freedom of Jazz Age New York, to the 1930s stranglehold of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and Fiorello LaGuardia, to the sexual revolution and attendant loosening of public decency codes). Weaving participant accounts with contemporary reviews as well as reading dozens of photographs, programs, and other theatrical ephemera against archival records of burlesque reform and legislation, Shteir presents a cogent and fascinating history.

Second, though Shteir focuses on New York City, her study also considers burlesque, striptease, and erotic dance throughout the United States. Very few histories acknowledge that women removed their clothing onstage outside of New York, and Shteir's attention to Midwestern venues is groundbreaking. Her description of Kansas City's 1920s Chesterfield Club, which "became widely known for the extraordinary economy of dress of its black and white waitresses, some of whom shaved their pubic hair in the shapes of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs" (85) demonstrates how developing further histories of burlesque might tell much about the complexities of race and female sexuality at different historical moments.

Third, the history is generally entertaining and well written. If Shteir tends to a sensationalism out of place in a more scholarly work (erotic dance "explodes" and "erupts"; the colloquial "tits" and "balls" describe what audiences saw), it rightly eschews euphemism; like the subject about which she writes, Shteir's writing is frank, candid, and...


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