Victorian burlesque dancers and their flamboyant costumes

Stefan Andrews
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If you have ever doubted that the Victorians knew how to entertain themselves — relax. Victorian burlesque is surely proof that these people knew how to be bawdy, obscene, and ribald.

The 19th-century burlesque shows drew in audiences to venues such as the Royal Strand Theatre and the Gaiety Theatre in London.

This form of entertainment was present since the early years of the 1800s, and by the latter part of the 19th century, it had strongly established itself. English style burlesque reached New York in 1840, where it blended with music hall and vaudeville-style shows.

Typically, the parodic performances did not last more than an hour, which gave audiences just enough time to be enchanted by the extreme femininity of everything onstage: the dancing, the intriguing and evocative dialogue, minimal costuming, and loads of puns. It was a travesty — and it was fun.

Some of the images featured here faithfully evoke the entertainment.

Full portrait of an unnamed actress with her legs crossed. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Full portrait of an unnamed actress, on antique tobacco card. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Full portrait of the actress Theresa Vaughn, on antique tobacco card. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Full portrait of unnamed actress pointing at something, on Little Rhody Cut Plug tobacco card. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Full portrait of unnamed actress sitting on a sofa with her legs crossed, on Little Rhody Cut Plug tobacco card. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

Full-length portrait of female facing front in short sailor-style costume, with knee-high stockings. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

The Victorian burlesque performers were powerful and provocative. Men did not hesitate to take female roles and vice versa. This greatly added to the laughter coming from the crowds. Such an approach gradually subverted the ideas of the previous Neoclassical Theater of the 18th century, which was less joy and more “catharsis.”

The content and the format of the performances resonated well with the working class, which faced friction with the established aristocrats. If showing some skin on stage was unacceptable among the “more cultured” people, here on the burlesque scene it looked just fine. That too can be felt through the pictures. Some outfits look pretty kinky.

Jennie Dickerson in a pseudo-military outfit. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

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Jennie Lee sitting on a chair holding a headdress. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Jessie Barlett-Davis’ costume suggests 15th century. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Leontine wearing ballet shoes. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Louise Montague in a mini dress with fringe. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Minnie Marshall sitting on a stone fence, in a short dress and boots. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Miss Darcey in short male Renaissance costume with over-the-knee leggings. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Miss Farrington in a short sleeveless costume, holding bow and arrow, with quiver and arrows on back, buttoned and heeled boots. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Pauline Hall in a short, Greek style costume, flat shoes. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Rose Hamilton in a short costume, shoes with a strap over the instep. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Rosie Gregory in a short, Mexican style costume. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Sylvia Gerrish with draped dress and pointed hat. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

Originally, the Victorian burlesque used imitation to mock, and as it evolved, it used other mediums such as the opera, ballet, and drama within its format. The humor was recurrently obscene and bawdy.

During the one-hour show, audiences enjoyed three different acts: jokes at the beginning, a section with more sketches and some spoof, and the musical parodies that usually came at the end.

Cabinet card: Eliza Blasina, “The Devil’s Auction” c.1890. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

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Unnamed actress. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

Unnamed actress. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

 

Vernona Jabeau, in high boots, hat, holding a candle in a long holder.

 

Viola Clifton facing front in a sleeveless, short, fringed top and short, fringed trunks. Photo by Dr. Charles H. McCaghy Collection

Besides Shakespeare, parodies mined material from contemporary figures such as playwright William Schwenck Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan.

Burlesque composers such as Meyer Lutz and Osmond Carr appeared when the genre was more established and also composed some original music.

By the early decades of the 20th century, Victorian burlesque was exhausting itself. The shameless performers were losing their magic. The world was ready to experiment with new artistic forms; the days of the modernists were just around the corner.

However, it’s always delightful to skim through photos depicting these real stars of the stage in the 19th century.