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Vintage photos of Victorian burlesque dancers and their elaborate costumes, 1890


The term "borlesque" refers to a literary, dramatic, or musical work intended to cause laughter in the manner or feeling of serious works by sarcastic or ridiculous treatment of their subjects.

It is a form of theatrical entertainment characterized by parodic humour, usually involving comic skits and sometimes chorus lines or striptease.

Burlesque originated in nineteenth-century music hall entertainment and vaudeville. In the early twentieth century, it emerged as a popular mix of satire, performing arts, and adult entertainment. The word derives from Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from Italian burla - a joke, ridicule or joke.

In burlesque, performers often create elaborate sets with lush, colorful costumes, mood-friendly music and dramatic lighting.

It may also include novelty tasks to enhance the effect of the performance, such as fire-breathing or a display of unusual flexibility.

Burlesque turns social norms on the heels. The genre has traditionally included a variety of acts including dancing girls, singers of singers, stand-up comics, mime artists, and strip tees, all satirical and with a clever edge.

Later use of the term, particularly in the United States, refers to performances in a variety show format. These were popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, often performed in cabarets and clubs as well as in theatres, and in bawdy comedies and women's striptease.


The 1840s, at the beginning of the Victorian era, arose a time of cultural conflict between established aristocratic social rules and a working-class society.

Perhaps due to historical social tensions between the upper classes and the lower classes of society, much of the humor and entertainment focused on lowbrow and ribald themes.

In its later heyday, however, burlesque was similar to earlier literary "burlesques", parodying widely known works of literature, theater or music.


The popular burlesque show of the 1870s through the 1920s was a raucous, bawdy style of Variety Theatre. It was inspired by Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, who first appeared in the United States in the 1860s, and also by early "foot" shows such as The Black Crook (1866).

American Burlesque's form, humor, and aesthetic traditions were partly derived from minstrel shows. Another well-known early burlesque troupe was the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company, founded in 1870 by M.B. Levitt, who previously feminized the minstrel show with the female minstrels of her group Madame Rentz.

The genre often mocked established entertainment forms such as opera, Shakespeare's plays, musicals, and ballet. Costumes (or lack thereof) focused on forms of dress considered inappropriate for polite society.

By the 1880s, burlesque had developed some informal rules for defining itself: sexually suggestive dialogue, dance, plot and staging; Contains fast-paced humorous sentences, but lacks complexity; short routines or sketches in a show with minimal plot coherence; and minimal dress for female actors.


By the late 1920s, the striptease element had overtaken comedy and became subject to widespread local law. Burlesque gradually lost popularity in the early 1940s.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, many producers tried to capitalize on nostalgia for entertainment by recreating burlesque on stage and in Hollywood movies.

The photos collected here range from burlesque to clubs from the exotic dances of the Charles H. McCaughey collection. He is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Bowling Green State University. Charles H. McCaughey's personal collection.

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