On November 9th, I flew to Seattle. There was turbulence on my flight. A guy fainted in the aisle near the bathrooms, where he lay prone, drooling slightly.
A day after the election, it was hard not to think of this as a sign.
I was en route to The Emerald City because I’ve written two books about burlesque striptease, an extinct form of entertainment performed between the Jazz Age and the Sexual Revolution. The producers of Burlycon, a convention for burlesque performers and fans now in its ninth year, were kind enough to invite me as a guest of honor, though I’m no longer even a casual observer of the scene.
I did spend over a decade obsessed with burlesque striptease, which, by the time I arrived, had vanished thanks to the modern porn industry. Burlesque’s heyday was the Depression, when it allowed women to escape rural poverty, provided escapist fantasies to working class men (some unemployed), gay people, and slumming literati, and ultimately influenced more PG forms of pop culture.
I was interested to see what meaning the glamorous, seedy, populist theatrical genre might have for our tumultuous moment. I wanted to see some glitter populism.
Boas and doggerel hurled against reactionary politics, if only for a moment.
In Seattle, I thought, if we were at the beginning of a burlesque revival, it would not be not the first one I have lived through. In the 1990s, so-called neo-burlesque appeared, likely inspired by the rise of third wave feminism and a decade of Republican presidents. (Could “Make Burlesque Great Again” be a bumper sticker?)
A set piece on the tour for my first book, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show in 2004 was the (to me) moving fact of young women coming up to say that performing in neo-burlesque troops had saved their lives. Twelve years later, the scene has exploded, with dozens of festivals worldwide and more performers than audiences. Judging by Burlycon, many young women still thought that neo-burlesque could save them.
The mission statement in the 53-page convention program defines burlesque as a “feminist, humanist, and uniquely American performance art form that has global influence and expression.” In the insultingly carpeted conference rooms, speakers pitched neo-burlesque as offering Beyoncé-style feminism to women (most people at Burlycon were women): a more inclusive ideal of female beauty and sexuality than porn, Hollywood, and the runway provide.
But maybe even more forcefully, Burlycon presented a vision that, at times, seemed touchingly innocent. In addition to a nice cheese plate, I got a swag bag that included an apron presumably worn with nothing but the matching mitts made by a company called Sinning Linens and a plastic envelope holding one gross of Jonquil beads. There was a plastic flower for my hair. This being the Pacific Northwest, there were many types of granola bars, and two bottles of craft beer and beer openers.
One striking thing was that two names missing from the sponsor list were the Seattle-based mega companies Amazon and Starbucks. Those companies could probably learn something from Burlycon’s glitter-in-dark-times appeal. Maybe I was imagining it, but the employees of Zurich Insurance attending meetings elsewhere in the hotel seemed glummer than the burlesque performers sashaying through the halls with their rainbow hair, brocade waist trainers, silver shoes, spangled bras, hot pants, fishnets, turbans, leopard print, and satin sashes.
As Montaigne said, “the most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.”
I sat in on the end of a talk about how to do your hair in styles from years gone by. The lecturer, costumed like a 1940s pinup, wore a mohair sweater Jayne Mansfield might have owned. Her hair was gorgeously curled into a victory roll. She wrapped her make up in a flowered kerchief and tied it in a big knot at the top, the way I had seen movie stars playing hobos do in films whose names I couldn’t remember.
The vendor area bustled with an amazing array of booty — rows of pasties of all sizes and shapes, bedazzled G-strings, body harnesses, long satin gloves, and velvet jazz shoes. The yoga pants patterned with iridescent blue fish scales or lime cannabis leaves were more fanciful than anything I had seen in my vinyasa class.
Some Burlycon-goers’ sense of humor remained impressively undimmed. One woman was wearing a t-shirt that said “Harvard Law: Just Kidding.”
“I went to the talk about the history of underwear and learned a lot of different ways to take it off,” a young woman with Betty Page bangs deadpanned to her friends in the elevator.
But Burlycon was not all just Summer of Love meets Etsy or a deep dive to forget the world outside. In the shadow of the election, the neo-burlesque scene, like other arenas of American life, tried robustly to grapple with complexities that the golden age never faced. There were lively talks about burlesque and the erasure of people of color, ageism, trans and disabled people, and the line between stripping and burlesque. The phrase “safe space,” which I associate with political correctness on college campuses, was used to describe some of the most contentious exchanges.
A number of women who said they were constrained by their situations and identities, by the tyranny of real life, were relieved to be there. A law student confessed, “this is the only place I can really be myself.”
On Sunday, at the closing session, one speaker invoked the goofy serious rituals of Jewish day camp. Another mentioned Audre Lord, Toni Morrison, and Leonard Cohen, to cast burlesque as social protest, self-empowerment, and cultural healer rolled into one. A third referred to burlesque people as tricksters and shape shifters.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a kind of popular performance whose most famous representative was once described as being “the most talented no talented woman in show business.”
But I get it. We find hope in all sorts of places now.
The flight back to Chicago was smooth. But as we landed, the sky was grey. It looked like there was going to be a storm.