A mind-numbingly detailed chronicle of the rise and fall of a ribald form of popular entertainment that flourished from the 1920s through the 1940s.
Shteir (Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism/DePaul Univ. Theatre School) begins her extensively researched study with an examination of striptease’s 19th-century antecedents in tableaux vivants, which featured naked or semi-naked women posing as statues or figures from paintings. The real story, however, begins when posing undressed turned into undressing seductively in burlesque theaters, vaudeville houses, nightclubs, carnivals, and fairs across the country. Shteir ties the rise of striptease to the rise of the sexually liberated New Woman in the Jazz Age. This rebellion against the confines of Victorian prudery did not go unchallenged; the author describes struggles between theater owners and various anti-vice reformers who tried to shut them down. The text is packed with lengthy descriptions of various strippers’ costumes, props, and routines, including even the lyrics to the songs they sang; the abundant illustrations include photos of such well-known artistes as Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Lili St. Cyr, Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, and Candy Barr, as well as many lesser-known peelers. The author also examines these women’s private lives in an attempt to discover who they were and why they became strippers. She cites a variety of factors for the decline of striptease: audiences lost to TV, federal investigations into organized crime, the changing roles of women in society, the rise of the pornography industry. By 1969, which Shteir pinpoints as the year of its demise, the Sexual Revolution had so changed how Americans thought about nudity that striptease’s once-glamorous stars seemed downright old-fashioned. Its golden era may have long since ended, but the author asserts that striptease will continue to command our attention as long as the promise of sex is more alluring than the reality.
Nuggets of fascinating lore lie buried in mounds of dull prose. (50 b&w illustrations)