Is burlesque the same thing as stripping?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from HowStuffWorks.

comCristen: Hey there, and welcome to the podcast. This is Cristen.

Molly: And this is Molly.

Cristen: Molly, since this episode is about the art form of burlesque, I'm going to start it off with one word.

Molly: Okay.

Cristen: Dita. You know what I'm talking about Molly?

Molly: I do, mainly because people who date Marilyn Manson always interest me somehow.

Cristen: He always gets such foxy ladies. Dita Von Teese.

Molly: Yes. She actually married Marilyn Manson.

Cristen: Yes, she did. Briefly.

Molly: Yes.

Cristen: Dita Von Teese, if you don't know - because I actually didn't know for a little while, and I kept seeing these red carpet photos when I would take brain breaks on trashy blogs, and I would see all these photos of this super, super fine lady named Dita Von Teese, and she's got this very retro look, jet black hair, bright red lips and kind of paler skin, and I thought to myself, "Who is this creature of beauty?" And Dita Von Teese is considered the queen - today's queen of burlesque.

Molly: Yes. But I think that what Dita Von Teese has had to say is that, "I'm not a stripper." I think that's sort of - when you see Dita Von Teese, and you hear about burlesque with pasties and lingerie, it's all of a sudden, "Oh, it must be kind of like glorified stripping."

Cristen: Yeah, she has posed for certain fetish magazines and things like that, but we are here today to talk about whether or not burlesque is the same thing as stripping, and kind of how it all originated. Because it has a pretty fascinating history, and today there are a lot of new burlesque troops that are popping up. I know that when I was in college there was a group of girls that formed a burlesque troop, and I went and saw them perform. Here in Atlanta where you and I are based, there's at least one burlesque troop that I know of. So kind of got us thinking about what is this burlesque.

Molly: Well, tell people what it was like to see a burlesque show, because there may be people who, even though we've mentioned the fabulous Dita Von Teese and the idea that it's similar to stripping, may not know what we're talking about. So just kind of describe a show to us.

Cristen: Well today if you go to a burlesque show - well, I will relate my own experience at a burlesque show.

Molly: That's all we can ask Cristen.

Cristen: All you can ask if for my stories, and my stories are what I'll give you. So it was basically every girl kind of had her own persona. I think there was - one that comes to mind was a girl that I knew fairly well who was dressed up like a cowgirl, and she came on stage, and there was some kind of hokey country song that she danced to, and basically did a kind of strip tease - which I did feel kind of awkward at times watching my friend strip in front of me, but she was good.

Molly: Did she get completely naked?

Cristen: She did not get completely naked. The most naked that girls got were down to their underwear, or even if they were very daring, they had some pasties with tassels.

Molly: Tassels?

Cristen: Tassels on them and could do some fancy twirling. But yeah, it was at a bar so obviously there weren't live nude women running around anywhere. And they stayed on stage. They would tease the audience, hence, strip tease. But it was never anything - there weren't any lap dances or anything like that involved. It was very theatrical.

Molly: Right. And that's always sort of what I thought about when I thought about burlesque, was sort of a strip tease, the crazy costumes.

Cristen: The fan dance.

Molly: Yeah, like, lots of feathers. You always see - Dita Von Teese has these fabulous outfits, she kind of dances around with a martini dance, so I thought it was just that. Just the women dancing. And you know, I never really thought it was stripping per se, but I did not realize it had kind of this vaudeville history. That it was almost sort of just like theater that happened to include weird costumes.

Cristen: In the 1800s when burlesque really gets off the ground, it's sort of a general term that's applied to comic plays and musicals and non-musicals and hokey theater.

Molly: Yeah, and if you went to a show in the late 1800s, you were probably going to see all these skits that kind of just poked fun at society. I was reading these descriptions of burlesque, and they said that, surprisingly to me, that Shrek 2 was almost a good example of burlesque because it was making fun of so many things in our society, so it was almost like they would take a popular show or play at the time and then just make it completely silly, and that was a burlesque show. It wasn't just women kind of dancing about.

Cristen: Right. And this really started in Britain in the Victorian age. And this idea of women - women weren't immediately stripping at that point. There was no striptease in old school burlesque. But, women were wearing a lot fewer clothes than a normal Victorian woman walking on the street would have. And this idea of seeing a woman in more of her more, just bare female form was pretty groundbreaking.

Molly: Well, it sounds like it was even just groundbreaking to even have the woman on the stage in the first place. It's already got kind of this upended idea of whether women should be on a stage, and if so, what role they should be playing. Because rather than singing an aria in the great theater halls, they were on stage in a ridiculous costume singing hokey parodies of opera.

Cristen: And then coming over to the U.S., the first big burlesque troop that sort of took over the New York scene was a British burlesque troop run by a woman named Lydia Thompson. And this idea of not only these more scantily clad women, but them playing - it was an all-female troop, and they were playing all the roles, including the roles of the more sexual aggressors and these products were written and the whole operation was run by women in the 1860s. So the idea of not only these kind of scantily clad women who were performing on stage without men, but they're playing all the parts and everything is written and produced and run by women, it's a pretty progressive thing for its day.

Molly: Yeah, and so they were denounced. They didn't necessarily get good reviews from the good, upstanding citizens, which only made it more popular as this underground kind of thing. But as time went on, the fact that they had women who were willing to not wear as many clothes as those out on the streets with their hoop skirts and all that were wearing, kind of started to become the signature. It didn't stop all the skits that even males were involved in, but at some point the feminine wit, the witty song that they were singing while they were scantily clad became less important than the fact that they were scantily clad.

Cristen: Yeah, and in burlesque shows too were taken over by men who were running them, and they did obviously realize that their audience liked to see ladies in their pasties.

Molly: but I like how they kind of slid into it accidently. But I liked reading in this History of Burlesque that we found at Musicals 101, how they kind of - it was a slippery slope into scandal. One of the biggest burlesque stars of the early 20th Century was a dancer named Millie Deleon. She was very attractive, and she would toss her garters into the audience to get a reaction, but occasionally, whoops, she would forget to wear tights.

Cristen: Oh no.

Molly: So she would get arrested. And that's also what helped to give burlesque it's raunchy reputation. So if you were a proper vaudeville performer, traveling the way that these burlesque shows traveled from town to town, this was lowest common denominator. These were scamps who wouldn't put their tights on.

Cristen: Yeah. You would kind of graduate from burlesque up to vaudeville, and then if you were in vaudeville and you were having a really tough time of it, you would go under an assumed name, and then start performing in burlesque again. But going back to the evolution of the strip tease, we really have a pair of brothers called the Menske brothers to thank for that. And these were burlesque promoters in New York who really put the strip tease on stage instead of something that men would have to pay extra for to see in more private quarters. And once the Great Depression rolls around, the Menske brothers were like, "Hey, well, the men are still paying to see the women stick around. They don't' want to come in and see some guy ham it up on stage in a clown outfit." And so that's when the idea of stripping really kind of takes off. Because it was just something in the Great Depression to keep audiences around, which is so depressing?

Molly: Well, it was a depressing time.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: So that does become the focal point. But then as time goes on, then you have pornography, and you don't necessarily need to go watch a woman do a striptease, you can go somewhere and watch women just strip.

Cristen: Right, and that's a separate category. I mean, the point of this is that it's a separate category from burlesque, because at the same thing you still have fan dancer Sally Ranad and then Gypsy Rose Rose Leah who back in the day was kind of the Dita Von Teese of her time, who was one of the most famous burlesque performers, who wasn't - she wasn't stripping down to everything.

Molly: Well, it's still - there's still some element of comedy. Do you really want to watch someone strip kind of while they're trying to do comedy about society? There's an article in Esquire in 1964 that described how one burlesque performer played her strip for laughs, and one of her breasts accidently pops out of the costume, which you know, they weren't getting completely naked. They had costumes on, and she was like, "Tell it you like it; it will make it grow." And I don't know much about why men like stripping, but I would think that you wouldn't want puns and jokes with their stripping?

Cristen: Yeah, I would say that men probably don't go to strip clubs for laughs. But then around the turn of the century we have more of these vice laws coming out and the mayor of New York tries to shut down any burlesque clubs, and of course any sex clubs as well, and it kind of dies down in the 50s and the 60s.

Molly: And now we're in what they call the Neo-Burlesque revival, because now that we do have things like pornography and strip clubs permeating our culture, it's almost like a novelty to have a performance where a person doesn't get completely naked and makes it sort of a show. And that's where we get into the argument is a female sort of reclaiming her body on stage, or is she still just doing glorified stripping?

Cristen: Yeah, and this all kind of happens - it starts off in the mid 1990s, but it really doesn't take off until, I think, around 2002. And now you have Club Noir in Glasgow, which is the world's biggest burlesque club, and it attracts up to 2,000 people per night. So it's become very popular, but like you said, there is this argument about whether or not women are simply debasing themselves by putting on these glitzy outfits and then slowly taking them off.

Molly: And it's also important to remember people - I was reading in the New York Times about how people go to burlesque shows expecting to see this striptease, this woman dancing around, and get really surprised when it's sort of the old style burlesque show where you might first have a skit by men on roller skates making fun of society, and people are like, "Where are the artful strippers?" And if you are going to a burlesque show, it might be that sort of old style.

Cristen: And another interesting thing about burlesque today is if you walk into a big strip club, you're probably going to be a minority if you are a woman. But, if you go to a burlesque club, the majority of the audience are women who go to see these really awesome vintage costumes that they have, they like the comedy and all that, and it would be something fun to go see with a date rather than going to see like, women just stripping.

Molly: Like in The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman takes the daughter to that club. So that's sort of on the plus side of whether this is good for females or not good for females. If a female can watch it, the argument goes that that has to be empowering. If the person on the stage has a different body type let's say than what's commonly accepted as the stripper body type, then isn't that good for women? So those are a few of the arguments people throw out as to why this is empowering, because you're not completely stripping, you can make it artsy. Women like to watch it, and there's no set body type that this appeals to.

Cristen: Right, but at the same time, the other side of the argument, you have people who are saying, "Wait, this is tripping. Women are getting down to next to nothing," and some towns in England are trying to pass laws to make any clubs that have burlesque shows have to have the same licenses as a strip club would have to.

Molly: Right, because on the other side of the coin, you still are - it's still an objectification of a woman's body. How different at the end of the day can that be from stripping if you're still saying, "Here's her body. Look at it, love it, pay me money."

Cristen: Well, what about this though Molly? A lot of times burlesque is usually considered more of a hobby than a profession because these costumes that women buy to perform in are not cheap.

Molly: Oh, no, I wouldn't think that such beautiful things could be cheap, no.

Cristen: Such feather fans and fancy jewels. No, it's not very cheap, and women also think that as opposed to stripping where you walk in and it's a lot of women kind of all in g-strings, you have burlesque women create these entire characters around who they are. Like one of the keys of being good at burlesque is you have to create your own persona, burlesque persona to stand out.

Molly: And it's not just a female hobby. While we tend to think about people like Dita Von Teese and we're talking about all these jewels and feather dresses, et cetera, I mean, there are male burlesque groups. What are their troops names? I don't have the paper in front of me.

Cristen: There's one that's according to, yes, the BBC, there's a popular act called Burlesque and the Dream Bears that's a male burlesque troop.

Molly: Saucy.

Cristen: Saucy, I like that.

Molly: So that's the thing. We have this argument going on right now, is it a saucy, fun entertainment where everyone just kind of gets to be themselves in a non-threatening manner, or as we'll see whatever shakes out of Britain in the next few months, is it stripping and they're getting away with something?

Cristen: Yeah. I think it is important to realize that there is - I think there is, at the end of the day, a very big difference between burlesque and stripping, because the point of stripping isn't to perform and entertain, show off comedic wit at all. It's to get naked. Whereas with burlesque, it is more of an entire production!

Molly: Right. But both make people uncomfortable because - just because burlesque can be campy, it doesn't mean it's not arousing. So the fact of the matter is that societies will probably always be uncomfortable of things that are designed to provoke and arouse.

Cristen: Yeah, it's still very sexually provocative. And I would say even more provocative sometimes, because women, like you mentioned earlier, aren't actually getting completely naked. I mean, the fact that we have such quick access to whatever kind of, I don't know, pornography that you want to see, this idea of a woman, not even - or a man, if you're a Dream Bear - getting down to just next to nothing and just taking you up to that point and then kind of dropping you off and walking off the stage is almost, I would say, even more provocative. So, I think Molly, this is time to turn it over to our listeners. I would like to know what you guys think about burlesque and whether or not it is something that's a positive form of entertainment, or if you think it should just be acquainted with stripping and more heavily regulated.

Molly: All right. It's up to you guys.

Cristen: Men, women, please tell us your thoughts.

Molly: Or your thoughts on why Dita Von Teese might have married Marilyn Manson.

Cristen: Yes. And Dita, if you're listening, just let me know. And speaking of writing in, I've got a couple of emails to read. We've gotten so many responses from you guys. Great stories from the episode on whether women should give up their maiden names! And I have one from Catriona, a.k.a. Cat in L.A., and she says, "I felt you two missed a point that irks me personally." I'm sorry Cat. "Maiden names aren't really feminine. For example, if I was getting married and was choosing between my fiancé's name and my maiden name, what I'm really choosing between is my fiancé's name and my father's name. E ven my mother's maiden name is really my grandfather's name. All of my choices are men's name, and no last name is truly my own." Which is a really good point that Cat brings up?

Molly: Yup. Men, always keeping the ladies down!

Cristen: And now I've got one from Michelle, and she says, "You mentioned a bit about world traditions, and I wanted to add that in many countries in Asia the child takes the father's name. The women never change their last name after marriage. I've always found this interesting because keeping your last name in the U.S. is considered freeing, but in Asia, which is still very much conventional, it's tradition. And I've heard two reasons as to this. One, it keeps a woman as part of her proud family. There's great importance placed on family names in Asia, which is why it's last name then first name when it's said or written." Which I didn't know? "And then number two, though she marries into the family, traditionally living with the extended family, she is still not part of it, and this is also a way of keeping her apart. There are many horror stories I've also heard that it's to not let her have claim on her children who take the father's last name. Granted, since Asian surnames aren't that varied, there may not be any difference between the couple's last names. Asian-Americans who are raised in Western society however, I've noticed do all three things. Change, keep, and hyphenate.

Molly: Interesting.

Cristen: Yeah. So thanks Michelle.

Molly: And to continue with around the world tradition, we got several emails from Canadians who pointed out that in the French-Canadian province of Quebec, women must keep their maiden name when married. So as I said, numerous listeners emailed us about this, but I'm going to read from Elizabeth who copied and pasted the law which says, "Both spouses keep their birth names after marriage and continue to exercise their civil rights under that name. I.E., they must use their birth names on contracts, on credit cards, on their driver's license, et cetera. This rule applies to all spouses domiciled in Quebec, even if they were married outside Quebec. However, women married before April 2nd, 1981 who were already using their husband's surname before that date may continue to exercise their civil rights under their married name." And Elizabeth goes on to explain that this ruling was adopted in 1981 to promote both gender equality and preserve the heritage of traditional French surnames. Newlyweds can go through the same legal official name change application process of somebody wanting to change their name for other reasons; however, marriage is not listed as one of the reasons for a name change to be granted and as such, women are usually forced to keep their maiden name. It is a contentious issue among some Quebecers and adds fuel to perpetual fire between English and French speaking Quebecers.

Cristen: Very cool. And to round things out Molly, I have a correction that I caught when I was listening to our podcast on whether or not menstruation is the last taboo. And I incorrectly said that Suzanne Somers was a star in All of the Family, and I'm so wrong. That was Three's Company right?

Molly: Yeah.

Cristen: It was actually Sally Struthers's character that I was trying to refer to. So I'm sorry all of you All in the Family fans.

Molly: It's the double "S."

Cristen: I realize my mistake, and it was Sally Struthers.

Molly: Okay.

Cristen: And that's it. So guys, if you want to check out what me and Molly are doing during the week, you can head over to our blog called How-to Stuff. And if you want to read about a lot of different things - not burlesque - but a lot of different things aside from burlesque, you can check out our wonderful website called For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit Want more HowStuffWorks? Check out our blogs on the homepage.