The semiotics of burlesque



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Burlesque goes theoretical as performer Gwendoline Lamour explains where semiotics fit in with seamed stockings

  • The semiotics of burlesque

    Eat your heart out, Imelda Marcos (image © Sarah Ainsley)

  • The term ‘burlesque’ is being bandied about in a somewhat cavalier fashion at present with scant regard or thought as to what it might actually mean. Almost every man and his dog is offering ‘burlesque classes’ and readers should bear in mind that a pair of frilly pants does not a performer make.

    So, what is burlesque? Literally it means a pastiche. In terms of the twentieth-century American burlesque show, it was a mixture of comedy skits and striptease. In modern parlance it refers to striptease with an early-twentieth-century aesthetic. The burlesque diva is perhaps an even more rarefied creature now than in her original heyday as her appearance is historically and culturally distanced. She is the goddess of the distant silver screen as well as being on stage removing expensive costumes.

    This playground of female glorification allows one to toy with concepts of performative femininity. As a ‘burlesque performer’ one should hope to present a ‘burlesque’ of the feminine, an exaggerated cartoon of society’s expectations of the ideal gal. I am fully aware of why I like wearing corsets, seamed stockings and super-high heels. It is not by accident that my favourite show sees me cavorting in an 8ft by 4ft crystal shoe wearing nothing but Swarovski crystals. It is a highly theatricalised, fetishised and glorified performance of my gender.

    Having been corseting since the age of 15 and performing burlesque internationally for eight years it, has certainly been curious watching this rediscovery of femininity in women’s fashion. Certainly this ownership of an overtly feminine silhouette and elegant retro styling would seem to speak of a confidence in feminine sexual identity. It also provokes the age-old debate of the gaze – whose gaze and whether one is pandering to ‘what the boys want’.

    But after the shows it is invariably the women who are bursting with enthusiasm. In fact, the best compliment I ever had was from a young lady who told me 'I don’t know whether I want to fuck you or be you!'

    Then of course there is the complex issue of the semiotics of fashion. We all dress to conform to or rebel against social codification of one sort or another. Will this resurgence of corseted, chicly upholstered ladies hitting the high street cause the British male to lose his head and run amok?

    My shows are there to be enjoyed by both sexes. They involve striptease, they involve flirting with the audience – both male and female, they also involve costumes and props worth thousands of pounds and careful choreography. No longer the preserve of boys’ clubs, it has curiously become a rallying point for the girls.

    Gwendoline Lamour is presently reading for her PhD ‘Performative Femininity: Courtesan to Burlesque’.

    'A Night of Lamour' is at Soho Revue Bar on April 26. For details visit

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