The word "striptease" entered the English language in the late 1920s, press-agent argot for a low-rent disrobing that promised more flesh than it ever revealed. Born in the sexual upheavals of the US Jazz Age, striptease flourished in burlesque theatres, stag parties and carnival tents before disappearing in the late 1960s, killed by topless bars, porno theatres and "nudicals" like Oh Calcutta!. Resurrecting this lost world is the aim of Rachel Shteir's book about "the untold history of the girlie show". At its best, her story and its characters are gloriously seedy.
There is the cigar-chomping showman Billy Minsky, who introduced the striptease to Broadway in productions like The Sway of All Flesh and Panties Inferno. Lenny Bruce's mother, Sally Marr, whiled away her declining years as dean of the Pink Pussycat College of Striptease (Joan Collins enrolled for a term). Above all, there are the strippers: exotic seductresses like Lili St Cyr, wide-eyed gangsters' molls like Candy Barr, and veteran gyrators like Carrie Finnell, whose "intelligent bosom" could set two tassels spinning independently and who was still twirling them in Vegas three weeks before her death aged 70.
Yet too often, that rich detail is submerged in the telling. Shteir chronicles striptease's development city by city, decade by decade, and ultimately what changes seems less remarkable than how much remains the same. Year after year, in town after town, stripteasers infuriate the guardians of morals; their theatres are raided; they promise reforms; and the whole process begins again.
Though a few performers flirted with respectability (most notably Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote a few novels and read Joyce), striptease thrived on an aura of sleaze. It may have sold itself as quintessentially modern, but at its heart lay Victorian taboos: a leering conviction that sex was dirty, and that the female body was dangerous.
The enduring hold of those taboos made stripteasing an art of invention, of putting on as much as taking off. Succeeding at stripping meant finding a gimmick that managed the tensions at work in the audience, its jocularity, yearning, fear and lust.
The burly Mae Dix stripped down to a body stocking and showered her audience with papier-mâché cherries ripped from between her legs. Rose La Rose gyrated alongside a life-sized replica of Woody Woodpecker. Zorita (née Kathryn Boyd of Ohio) peeled while fondling a python: when a drunken patron batted the creature away, she punched him. Rosita Royce filled her mouth with birdseed and struck artistic poses while seven trained doves carried off pieces of her evening gown. Blaze Starr, "the human heat wave", secreted explosives that set the stage alight, then tied pieces of steak to her bra and panties and lay supine on a red carpet while a panther chewed them off.
In all of this, what was at stake was less nudity than its withholding. Striptease repulsed moralists not simply because it incited arousal, but because it put women so firmly in charge. Rosita's trained doves aside, most women disrobed themselves, and the excitement, calculation and contempt they exhibited could make even sympathetic spectators uneasy.
The image of the stripper as a campily overblown naïve was well-established by the mid-1930s, sketched by poets like Hart Crane and critics like Edmund Wilson; 30 years later, it could be found in Diane Arbus's photograph of Blaze Starr, who bumps and grinds alongside her poodle in a room strewn with knick-knacks, in toreador trousers and bouffant hairdo - part hausfrau, part freak. In that persistent lampooning of the stripper's delusions, it is hard not to see a discomfort with her power. Yes, she could be a victim, and more than a few came to sad, lonely ends; yes, compared to the whips, chains, and pole dancing of today's clubs, her act seems almost risibly tame. Yet she created a potent, puzzling art of illusion, mocking desire even as she provoked it. In the end, the task of untangling that art and the fantasies that fed it awaits a different, more reflective book.
Marybeth Hamilton teaches at Birkbeck College, London, and wrote 'The Queen of Camp: Mae West, sex and popular culture'Reuse content