Some books are worth reading for their amazing stories, some for their fabulous wit and some just for the smutty bits. Some, as with Len Roth’s The Queens of Burlesque, are visual essays made purely for poring over and soaking up.
The Queens of Burlesque is a collection of vintage photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, 112 pages of black and white shots of some of the most beautiful women working in burlesque at that time. An advertisement for stockings featuring Rita Grable graces the cover of this collection. She looks coquettishly over her shoulder and leans onto a plush rug. She’s seductive, sophisticated and classy, setting the tone for the rest of the book.
A brief introduction from the author explains that this book has been intended as a way to commemorate a time, a place and the people who made the burlesque scene of the 40s and 50s so vibrant and exciting. It mentions how television helped to kill off an appetite for live entertainment in the mid-50s and that through this book Roth hopes to re-invoke the glamour and beauty of this time. It certainly does what it promises: “It is real, it is fun, and strictly for your viewing pleasure and enjoyment”.
The images are collections of adverts, glamour shots and postcards from the era. Each one has the performer’s name and a little contemporary caption to explain the girl, for example “Lotus DuBois: The Parisian Un-Cover Girl”. Fans of Lili St Cyr will be pleased to see she’s featured fairly heavily, described as “The Absolutely Beautiful Lili St Cyr”, something that can’t be disputed when looking at the images used. Beautiful shadowing, flawless make-up and perfectly styled hair make St Cyr look absolutely stunning, and are elements each image used in this book shares. The photographs have been cleverly chosen to show the personalities and styles of the models. Tempest Storm has a couple of fabulous, though not consistently flattering shots, but this shows her as a cheerful woman as well as a fiery vamp.
Images of women in their underwear and barely-there pasties could be seen as pornographic but this really is a coffee table book that anyone should be proud to exhibit. The photographs are not explicit in their content; they are treated as the pieces of art that these girls deserve. Glittery fringing, boas, seamed stockings and a huge amount of rhinestones show that some things don’t change in burlesque, and these photos really do capture just what makes these costumes look so dazzling. There’s a wonderful image of Jan Mavis (“The Sunshine Girl”) wearing just a fur stole around her shoulders and a pair of sparkly heels with bows on. She is smiling widely and holding the stole to cover her modesty; she looks comfortable, sensual and fabulous.
These images capture the sexiness that being comfortable in your own skin can project. Some of these women’s bodies are softer and curvier than the modern models we are used to today and these photographs are a good reminder of why bodies of all shapes and sizes should be embraced in commercial photography. In this book we have girls of all heights, ethnicities, cultures and, refreshingly, ages. The common thread though is seductiveness, humour and beauty, which is what burlesque is really all about. This is a book to be savoured, enjoyed and inspired by. Who knows, it might give someone the confidence, male or female, to decide to pick up some stockings and wrap themselves in a feather boa.
The Queens of Burlesque by Len Roth. Shiffer Publishing, USA. 1997. ISBN: 978-0-7643-0449-1. 112pp. £16.95 from www.bushwoodbooks.co.uk.
Image supplied by the publisher.