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20s – 30s Burlesque – Through a period of great change

December 2, 2014

The 1920s saw prohibition with a permanent ban on alcohol throughout America, and here burlesque took its place with shrinking hemlines and a period of great change, especially for women. Showgirl glamour gave way to striptease, but the first stars of 20s – 30s Burlesque, in America at least, would go on to achieve fame and notoriety while others would go onto appear in talking films.

20s – 30s Burlesque

20s - 30s Burlesque-Theda Bara

Theda Bara, 1919


1920s burlesque star

1920s burlesque star


20s - 30s Burlesque

20s – 30s Burlesque

20s – 30s Burlesque stars of the twenties

There was Josephine Baker who went by many names including Bronze Venus and Black Pearl. She would tour Europe and become a roaring success in Paris and go on to become the first African American woman to appear in film with “Zouzou,” in the mid-thirties. So famous was she that she was asked to take an unofficial leadership position after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.


There was Mistinguett from France, a singer, actress and showgirl who appeared at the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergere. Her legs were her greatest asset, acting as a gimmick for her act. She would also go on to appear in a talking film in 1936 at the age of 60. Then there was Hinda Wassau who made the bold claim that she had in fact invented striptease herself. She had started out as a chorus girl and when her dress strap had snapped halfway through a performance, the audience fell into rapturous applause, and so Wassau’s life as a 20s – 30s Burlesque performer would begin.


20s - 30s Burlesque-mistinguett


1930s – and burlesque loses its lustre

The 1930s brought groups of burlesque stars dancing together, who by this time had turned 20s – 30s Burlesque into more of a strip show than the satire it had once been known for. Margaret Bourke White’s famous photos taken during the mid-thirties reveals scantily clad women waiting to go on stage, their costumes would even by today’s standards be considered risqué.


Sadly, the stripping came without the wit and humour leaving just the strip for audiences to enjoy. Sometimes up to 6 strippers would perform at the same time with up to 2 comics supporting them, which at one time included the famous comedy actress Fanny Bryce.

This is how you undress for your husband

They even took it upon themselves to issue advice to women on how to strip for their husbands with step by step pictures. You could say at least, that they were speaking from a place of expertise seen as stripping was their forte.

Sequins and feathers

The 20s – 30s Burlesque performances were highly stylised and came with much razzmatazz, every bit as exciting as a large scale show. The glitter, sequins, sparkle and feathers of the burlesque shows were as glamorous as you could get. It is here that many women may have got some of their inspiration for their costumes, although many burlesque stars today, since the 90s revival, tend to prefer a 40s and 50s style.

20s – 30s Burlesque – The beginning of the end

However, 20s – 30s Burlesque was on a downward spiral at this time in history. In New York especially their performances were considered a bad influence due to their highly sexualised content, believing them to be the main cause of sex crime. As a result, many anti-burlesque campaigners planned to rid New York of burlesque stars, and initially they succeeded, as many burlesque venues had their applications to renew their licenses turned down.


20s - 30s Burlesque-The Ban on Burlesque

The Ban on Burlesque


However, the forties and fifties saw a revival of this old and established dance form with Lili St. Cyr, Gypsy Rose Lee, Carmelita and Rose la Rose. And this is where our journey through Burlesque continues next time.


If you feel inspired by some of the early 20s – 30s Burlesque stars then plenty of sparkle and feathers will be the order of the day, finger curled hair and ruby red lips, with a dash of mascara for those extra-long lashes, and perhaps a sequined skull cap with a few feathers?



Folies Bergère, Paris, France, 1920, Édouard Boubat

Burlesque-Jean Richey

Barbara Yung

gypsy rose lee

josephine baker

Josephine Baker Banana Costume

Josephine Baker – ostrich feather costume

Hinda Wausau

margaret bourke white

margaret bourke white – burlesque photos

A clandestine French cabaret,