Burlesque: seedy spectacle or high art?

Neon lights, graphic posters and a smattering of questionable clientele are enough to make any unsuspecting passerby feel uncomfortable with this view of London’s Soho area. Home to most of the capital’s strip, cabaret and burlesque scene, I was sheepishly brought along to the renowned velvet sofas of Madame Jojo’s club to witness my first burlesque show: a performance of the The Folly Mixtures.

Anxious at the prospect of the ‘deflowering’ of my burlesque innocence, I was concerned at how I would react as a 19 year old girl watching women playfully undress on stage. Would it be seedy and squalid, or perhaps make me feel prudish and conventional? Having previously felt greatly uncomfortable at games like ‘good pants bad pants’ played at Oxford’s infamous crew dates (where general consensus is passed on the attractiveness of your undergarments), I was rather daunted by the idea of flailing nipple tassels and glittery thongs.

I can, however, assert that I experienced none of the discomfort or unease that I was expecting. No obscene nudity amidst the puffs of cigarette smoke – instead, it was a lively and empowering performance. The voluptuous figures of The Folly Mixtures revealed on stage proved just how detrimental the supposedly ‘perfecting’ use of Photoshop is in our media; it proved just how skewed our perception of the attractiveness of the female form is. A mixture of fire-eating acts, a barbie-girl parody and the occasional sassy strip-tease ultimately transformed my first experience into one of liberation.




The line between burlesque and stripping can be a difficult one to draw. Does simply labeling undressing wittily as an art form actually make it legitimate and acceptable? Returning with a boom once again as a genre in the 1990s with icons such as Dita Von Teese, burlesque has recently been picked up by the media, who’ve dressed it up with glitz and glamour. With the release of the film Burlesque in 2010, starring the likes of Cher and Christina Aguilera, and with the future airing of Channing Tatum’s reality TV show  about the happenings of a burlesque club entitled Saints and Sinners, it seems that the burlesque genre is catching the public eye, far from the fluorescent gaze of Soho’s backstreets.

The nature of burlesque can, however, cause problems close to home, literally speaking. ‘The Lodge’, Oxford’s own gentlemen’s club on Oxpens Road, had its license refused by Oxford City Council this July on the basis that its situation near historic buildings and schools made the area inappropriate for the presence of this ‘type’ of club. The question to be considered here is that, if burlesque is considered an art form, is it right for it to be thus marginalised?

Speaking metaphorically, the problem with the burlesque genre is that we’re still struggling to view entertainment involving women exposing themselves in a provocative manner as valid artistic expression. In circumstances in which they are not in any way coerced or exploited, is it not right for women, as artists, to feel confident in showing their bodies? To recognise that exposure doesn’t necessarily symbolise vulnerability, but is actually a bold statement of self-confidence?

PHOTOS://The Independent; Wikipedia