Spectacular, Erotic, and Slightly Shocking: A Timeline of American Burlesque

View of BHoF exhibition

What is “burlesque”? While the term tends to conjure images of scantily-clad females undressing to a bump and grind beat, such descriptions only fit the form in its declining years. With roots in the tragicomedies of ancient Greece, burlesque as we know it first made a splash on America’s shores in the mid-1860s.

Driven by the industrial working class’ hunger for entertainment, an individualistic mindset at odds with turn-of-the-century Victorian mores, the poverty of the Great Depression and the economic resurgence of World War II, burlesque alone has endured while closely related art forms such as vaudeville and minstrelsy have faded from view. At the height of its cultural impact, it was a dynamic, immensely popular form of mass entertainment whose appeal transcended barriers of race, class and gender; – a unique hybrid of live music, ribald transgressive comedy, and beautiful women whose performance has kept audiences entertained for well over a century.

With photos, posters, and artifacts from dancers including Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Lili St Cyr, and Blaze Starr, “Spectacular, Erotic, and Slightly Shocking” explores the development of burlesque in America from early “leg” shows, through the much-disputed “invention” of the striptease, the ascendancy of certain burlesque queens to iconic status and, ultimately through the art’s decline, dormancy and late 20th Century revival.