Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Burlesque Costuming and Sensationalist Circus Animal Acts

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Burlesque Costuming and Sensationalist Circus Animal Acts

Article excerpt

Burlesque In theatre history came to broadly denote exaggerated comic exchanges and female performers in stylised costumes that revealed the body. Female burlesque practices Included cross-dressing In male clothing and were Intended to be covertly sexually titillating. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, when body flesh Is on show everywhere, it is interesting to find that burlesque remains popular. But then, female burlesque was never simply an exhibition of flesh, even In the circus.

In brief, historically, female burlesque was a leg show within a dramatic narrative. But from the mid-nineteenth century, when theatre audiences were still predominantly male, burlesque became recognisable as a distinctive performance style. Female performers played with social and theatrical dress codes and the sexual mores as they flirtatiously and deliberately exaggerated the acted delivery through their pose, body movement, gesture and speaking tone. Stylistic details in the costuming and sexual innuendo in the acted delivery typified later nineteenth-century burlesque. Performers wore a mixture of adapted male and female clothing in a costume overlayed with feminine artifice, so that they were recognisably female even though they referenced male identity. A male character could be conveyed through an element of costuming to suggest even a farmer or labourer. Ultimately, such identity playfulness would lead to mid- and late twentieth-century burlesque shows and their numerous variations whereby a fully costumed or semi-nude performer delivered a sexualised act that both expressed and yet parodied sexualised femininity, in tandem with other aspects of social identity including nationality, and a cross-dressed burlesque performer could be male.

In this article, I am discussing costuming from theatre and circus in two historical eras - the 1860-70s and the 1890-1900S - and which provided precedents for the convergence of theatrical burlesque and circus in the leopard act of Dolores Vallecila (possibly Vallecita), working circa 1906. Accordingly, costuming practices in circus and theatre are outlined. It is argued here that even though circus costuming supported burlesque costuming to rise and rise up the leg to the top of the thigh, these were separate performance traditions and such a convergence is unusual. During the 1890s, trained animal acts appeared in the circus ring and these included women trainers in full-length, nineteenth-century dresses. The military-style coat-dress worn by Vallecila, however, revealed her thighs. While the top half of the costume is comparable to that worn by a male animal trainer, the bottom half of the costume is quite distinctive. The only other early example of a female animal trainer wearing this type of costume was a bear trainer,1 which strengthens associations with risk and danger suggested here. Vallecila wore a burlesque costume to perform in an act with leopards.

UP TO THE KNEE, 1860-70S

Burlesque outfits hovered around the knee from the 1860s, rising up the leg until they reached the top of the thighs by the 1890s. In a society where women wore fulllength, large-skirted dresses reaching to the ground, a visible ankle and calf could be titillating, so a skirt to the knee was unquestionably provocative, both socially as well as sexually. The composition of the burlesque costume was socially daring, but it was also theatrically significant. The burlesque performer was deliberately trading on the implicit sexual appeal of the female performer. While theatre performers had long transgressed the dress code of the wider society, burlesque played with, and parodied how, feminine identity was visually presented in theatre through the costuming. But it did more. Burlesque was theatrically transgressive because it insinuated that the female performer acted in manipulative ways to entice the spectator.

Female performers working both on theatre stages and in circus tents included acrobats and aerialists working on high wire and trapeze, and the first adult female aerialists were identifiable from 1868, which was around the time an English burlesque troupe travelled internationally. …

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