By modern standards, the burlesque dancers of the 1890s are barely deserve notice for their attire — tights covering their legs from foot to waist, many wore long sleeves to cover their arms and nary a spot of cleavage to be found.
But in their time, these women were positively scandalous. Their form-fitting clothes showed off the shapes of their legs and thighs. Their corsets accentuated their bosoms. And everywhere they performed men threw themselves into frenzies of erotic desire.
Vintage photos collected by Charles H. McCaghy, a professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, reveal just how different beauty was 120 years ago than it is today.
‘Loose women in tights’: Burlesque performers may seem tame to modern eyes. However, Victorian-era American audiences went mad with erotic desire over these shapely women wearing tights, which exposed the form of their thighs and legs
Burlesque began in the United States when Lydia Thompson brought her troupe, the British Blondes, to New York City stages in 1868.
They were independent, confident women who performed on stage and defied most of the social and cultural mores of women of the day. And they were as wildly popular as they were reviled.
Most people in ‘proper’ society viewed these ladies as being in the same category as common street prostitutes — selling their bodies for sex.
But men adored them. Their acts were considered ‘low brow,’ but that simply made them more approachable for the common man.
It was said some men were willing to kill themselves in fits of lustful passion after seeing Ms Thompson’s shows. The veracity of these stories, however, was somewhat dubious.
The secret of burlesque dancers’ sexual appeal was not that they revealed skin and sensitive body parts — like modern-day strippers. Burlesque was so scandalous because women showed off their feminine shapes.
Performers: Burlesque shoes weren’t just about sex, though. They were about entertainment and some of the costumes, like the bizarre horse get-up at right, pushed the boundaries of social norms and the way women were supposed to behave
Gender-bending: Many performers donned masculine attire to challenge gender roles, like the policewoman at left
Where most women wore layers of skirts and petticoats, concealing their legs and thighs, burlesque dancers wore tights.
This led to the frenzy of ‘loose women in tights,’ which might seem ironic to modern sensibilities.
Women of the Victorian era were expected to be modest, conservative and concerned about domestic affairs of the home.
Burlesque performers were anything but this. Some posters of the day even depicted tall, burly, Amazonian women who emanated a sense of danger.
In their own way, burlesque dancers — while being the object of sexual desire for men — worked to improve the standing of women in American society.
They presented the image of a woman who willfully defied the place society had dictated. Through exaggerated humor, performers addressed political issues of the day and spoke freely and challenged the men in their audience.
By the 1920s, however, burlesque declined with the advent of motion pictures, vaudevillian theater and Broadway revues.
Lifelong work: These photos were collected by Charles H. McCaghy, a professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Academic: McCaghy, who taught sociology, collected images of strippers and burlesque dancers for his study of the link between burlesque art and criminal deviance
Reviled: Many women of the time disdained burlesque performers and regarded them
as little more than prostitutes
Frenzy: Audiences became so wrapped up in the beauty and sex appeal of these performers that stories circulated about some men who were willing to kill themselves in fits of lustful passion
Curvacious beauty: Unlike many of the slender sex figures of the modern day, burlesque women were expected not to be skinny. Instead, curves were viewed as an asset
Over-sexualized: As more and more forms of entertainment competed for the attention of audiences, burlesque dancers were forced to shed clothes — down to pasties and g-string thongs in the 1930s to keep audiences
Revolutionary: Burlesque was surprisingly political, as well. Women openly defied social conventions on stage by speaking their minds, showing off their bodies and challenging the role a woman should play in public life