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The Nudie Artist: Burlesque Revived

Situated on a very sexy Manhattan corner on Fifth Avenue in the 20s, the Museum of Sex is a handy one-stop-shopping place for libidinal learning, as I found out last year when I was able to pose there in front of a giant slide of bears copulating, as opening night guests were graciously allowed to do. (I still have the photo! I’m gonna make it my screensaver!)

This is my kind of museum—one where eroticism, art, and commerce collide to make for some of the city’s most entertaining and informative displays. And the other night, it was a whole new opening with all new poses available. The exhibit “The Nudie Artist: Burlesque Revived” premiered to a glittery group of multigender ambisexuals, all dolled up in their finery to look at other people taking theirs off.

Wall panels told us that burlesque derived from European concert halls like the Follies Bergere and Moulin Rouge and made a splash in America when a visiting stripper actually dared to wear skirts that showed off her lower calves and ankles. (Ah, for those more innocent days before celebrity sex tapes and xtube.)

The golden age was in the 1930s, when a lot of burlesque performers were broke and trying to get some tips placed in their garter belts. But by the 1950s, strippers were obviously amassing some nice cash because a costume of the infamous Blaze Starr is featured, and it’s a knockout—a sleeveless black ensemble studded with silver mirrors and red faux jewels. It looks like something one of Charlie Sheen’s gal pals would wear!

When you reach the room with Leland Bobbe’s photo portraits of today’s neo-burlesque stars, you realize that in the revival that started in the 1990s, the tease became less about exploiting the female flesh and more about making witty sociopolitical comments while seizing female sexual empowerment (though I’m sure many a man has sat there in nothing but a trenchcoat, oblivious to the larger statements being paraded around the stage.)

The exhibit also includes personal artifacts from professional showgirl Mara Gaye and footage from Leslie Zemeckis’s Behind The Burly Q, last year’s excellent doc looking back at the art of the tease.

But for me, the most fascinating pieces are the actual footage of really old (we’re talking 1890s) movies starring gyrating women doing the “Hoochy Coochie.” When one of them started showing more than just her navel, white fences graphically appeared on the screen to cover her nibbly bits. Upsetting? Nah. As the man next to me murmured, “As usual, censorship makes it sexier.”