Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show

Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show

Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show

Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show


The fascinating, untold story of the history of undressing: over fifty years of taking it off. Striptease combined sexual display and parody, cool eros and wisecracking Bacchanalian humor. Striptease could be savage, patriotic, irreverent, vulgar, sophisticated, sentimental, and subversive--sometimes, all at once. In this vital cultural history, Rachel Shteir traces the ribald art from its nineteenth century vaudeville roots, through its long and controversial career, to its decline during the liberated 1960s. The book argues that striptease is an American form of popular entertainment--maybe the most American form of popular entertainment. Based on exhaustive research and filled with rare photographs and period illustrations, Striptease recreates the combustible mixture of license, independence, and sexual curiosity that allowed strippers to thrive for nearly a century. Shteir brings to life striptease's Golden Age, the years between the Jazz Age and the Sexual Revolution, when strippers performed around the country, in burlesque theatres, nightclubs, vaudeville houses, carnivals, fairs, and even in glorious palaces on the Great White Way. Taking us behind the scenes, Rachel Shteir introduces us to a diverse cast of characters that collided on the burlesque stage, from tight-laced political reformers and flamboyant impresarios, to drag queens, shimmy girls, cootch dancers, tit serenaders, and even girls next door, lured into the profession by big-city aspirations. Throughout the book, readers will find essential profiles of famed performers, including Gypsy Rose Lee, "the Literary Stripper"; Lili St. Cyr, the 1950s mistress of exotic striptease; and Blaze Starr, the "human heat wave," who literally set the stage on fire. Striptease is an insightful and entertaining portrait of an art form at once reviled and embraced by the American public. Blending careful research and vivid narration, Rachel Shteir captures striptease's combination of sham and seduction while illuminating its surprisingly persistent hold on the American imagination.


A young woman appears upon a darkened stage, her movements picked
out by a colored spotlight. She is fully clothed, usually in an evening gown.
Moving with a curiously characteristic undulation, swaying hips and shoul
ders to slow jazz rhythm, she walks back and forth across the stage. Hesi
tatingly, her hands go to one shoulder to undo a strap. It falls, she catches
it. Suddenly, she is off the stage and the stage is dark. The beat of the
music increases and she is back in her colored spot, the shoulder strap
now hanging undefended. Always moving, usually smiling, her hands
release another catch, the dress falls, there is a fleeting glimpse of under
garments, the stage is dark again. And again she reappears, another bar
rier surrendered, beginning again her disrobing where she left off before
the blackout. Between the movements of the dance the audience applauds,
demanding more and more insistently. How far she will go depends upon
the city, upon the theatre, even upon the performance in which she is

This is a description of striptease, a distinctly American diversion that flourished from the Jazz Age to the era of the Sexual Revolution. I began thinking about striptease ten years ago, when an otherwise ordinary school friend of mine named Jane became an exotic dancer—a stripper—a descendant of the performers I write about in this book. Jane’s transformation seemed improbable at the time, but of course it was not, given the extraordinary instabilities of America right before the last millennium.

What began to intrigue me the more I thought about Jane’s apparently radical change in career was how stripping inspired a series of expectations about all the paradoxical things women are supposed to be: chaste amazon, lustful sovereign, sweet gamine emerging from nowhere, comic hag, coy femme fatale. It occurred to me that one thing that stripping stands for is a possibility that women could reinvent themselves as desirable creatures every night. That possibility tantalized, for it seemed to me to both appeal to women of my own era and be part of an American dream.

When my friend Jane switched careers, “classic” striptease had been extinct for three or four decades. Born in the Jazz Age, striptease persisted to the Sexual Revolution. In the late fifties, the “tease” part vanished, as it outlived its usefulness, and having been ravaged by time was shortened to “stripping” or traded in for the euphemistic “exotic dancing.” As I discovered through Jane, by contemporary industry standards, striptease was demure. It was a world away from the spectacle in today’s strip clubs, where . . .

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