Burlesque Past and Present: Lydia Thompson
The art of the tease is on everyone's lips; with a rising interest in burlesque, cabaret clubs are in full swing and new acts are cropping up every week. At Playful Promises we just adore a bit of cheek, and would love to introduce you to our favourite burly girls, past and present! Keep your eyes firmly peeled, as each week we feature inspiring performers guaranteed to set pulses racing!
Kicking off our naughty series it is only fitting that we discuss the woman that helped shape Burlesque as it exists today: Lydia Thompson.
Often credited as the burly-godmother of American Burlesque, Lydia was a dancer and producer, who successfully introduced this quaint English vaudeville act to the American public. Back when the art form stuck strictly to the origin of the word (in Italian 'burla' means a mockery), the acts revolved around parodying rather than the sexual striptease we are now familiar with. Popular during Victorian London, burlesque was a form of musical theatre, which was often quite risqué for the time.
Flesh-coloured tights shocked and thrilled the audience, giving the impression of naked flesh (rather like nipple pasties are used since!). While this became ever so slightly passé in fashionable London, in 1868 Lydia Thompson took her troupe, The British Blondes, overseas to New York. When this group of women with bleached hair landed in America with little but a pair of tights, tickets we snapped up in a fit of ecstasy.
Whoever had been dealing with Lydia's PR had hit a goldmine. I just love this story which spread itself around before the debut shows: "Captain Ludoc Baumbarten of the Russian dragoons took some flowers and a glove belonging to Miss Thompson, placed them on his breast; then shot himself through the heart, leaving on his table a note stating that his love for her brought on the fatal act." Whether this dramatic tale is true, we don't know, but the men of America were stricken with a lust for Lydia.
She must have been particularly charming, as the view of young women's legs was no new experience - "leg shows" had been around for years. This new format of titillation had captured it's audience, allowing the shows to develop into full length revues, and their original schedule of 6 months was extended to a jaw-dropping 6 years.
Not only did these ladies look amazing, but you definitely didn't want to mess with them. Bizarrely, an incident where Lydia, her husband and another troupe member, Pauline Markham, horse-whipped a critic at gunpoint only lead to a fine and increased popularity. Burlesque is serious business after all.
Another particularly interesting point to mention about Lydia was that she was known for her roles as the 'principle boy', the leading male character. While this was a standard in burlesque, many claim she was one of the first great Drag Kings, and the idea of a woman dressed and acting like a male further infuriated critics.
While burlesque went out of fashion in England at the end of the 19th century, the American style grew into it's own genre. Sexuality became an increasingly common feature; what began with "cooch" dances moved into strip shows in the 1930s. But that is a whole other blog post!