Fashion Shows, Strip Shows and BeautyPageants:
The Theatre of The Feminine Ideal
Chapter I: Introduction
Fashion shows, strip shows and beauty pageants would at first glance appear to be three radically different forms of performance sharing only one obvious similarity: their focus on women. However, despite their obvious differences, these three genres of performance do in fact share an astonishing number of additional similarities, so many in fact, that they can reasonably be argued to be merely three variations on a single form of theatre--"the theatre of the feminine ideal."
In all three genres the emphasis is on the concept of femininity. The majority of performers in burlesque strip shows, beauty pageants and fashion shows are women. Beauty pageants traditionally have a male Master of Ceremonies and sometimes also include a male singer as entertainment, or a group of military men as walking set pieces (i.e. "escorts"), but the body of the performance is dominated by the female contestants who sing, dance, play musical instruments, parade in assorted attire, answer questions, and even make speeches.
Fashion shows also are generally female-dominated, although before World War I John Wannamaker introduced male models into fashion shows in New York with "the simultaneous entry of a masculine and feminine model" in a show of Poiret designs. However, except in all-male fashion shows (a rarity), most fashion shows include more women on stage than men, if they include men at all. The longest running series of touring benefit fashion shows, the Ebony Fashion Fair (founded in 1958) included only one man in its shows until 1967, and presently has eleven female models and a female commentator, as compared to only two male models. This ratio of female to male models is fairly typical.
In addition, male models in shows are often used merely as walking set pieces for the female models to play to or lean on in attractive poses:
Then slowly, descending from the ceiling, three lovely models are lowered, posed on flower-covered perches in exciting, flowing gowns of Hawaiian prints. Smiling prettily, each model steps from her perch into the arms of three handsome male models in matching tunic shirts who place leis around their necks before they begin their routined walk down the runway.
The men in this scene are clearly equal in importance to the hanging flowered perches. Even their matching shirts identify them as mere reflections of the women and their clothes. It is rather amazing that the use of male models as mere objects or fashion accessories in fashion shows hasn't ever received criticism for demeaning men.
Old burlesque shows of the Twenties and Thirties used men as comics and singers but they became increasingly outnumbered by the strippers and female chorus until in the late forties and early fifties the men disappeared altogether. As early as 1937, when Geoffrey Gorer was writing his Hot Strip Tease; And Other Notes on American Culture, cheap burlesque houses had very few men, even as comics;
The number of the comedians who are exclusively male, varies between two and six; In the burlesque shows women are to be seen, men to be heard.
In addition to the obvious emphasis on female performers in fashion, strip and beauty shows, there also are seven other similarities that connect these genres: All three genres typically use a form of runway stage. A runway stage is a stage which has one or more raised runways (platforms) extending out from the main stage into the audience seating area. In most cases, this means that the stage is a T-shaped area with audience members on either side of the bottom prong of the T. However, some runway stages also are I- shaped, U-shaped, TT-shaped, and Y-shaped as well.
Fashion shows employed runways in their staging many years prior to burlesque strip shows and beauty pageants. As early as 1911 the modern-style formal fashion show took place on the kind of raised runway stages commonly used for present day fashion shows:
Crowds are thronging the Emporium during the fashion show to watch the handsome living model who displays all manner of pretty gowns and hats...a platform about 30 feet long has been erected, separated from the throng by wide white
ribbons extending from potted bay trees placed at
each corner.To this the model comes in one dainty costume or another, walks slowly up and down for 10 or 15 minutes and then retires to put on another gown.
Fashion shows were the first to encourage audience participation--in the form of sales--by the use of the runway. Burlesque theaters followed in 1917 with the insertion of the first runway in the Minsky's National Winter Garden theatre, and the Miss America Pageant brought runways to pageants with their move indoors to Convention Hall in 1940.
The featured performers, strippers, models, and beauty contestants, rarely, if ever, speak, and they are even less likely to speak on the runway. In burlesque strip shows not only were women given only very minor, often silent, roles in the comic scenes, but while doing strip acts they usually did not speak. The typical strip of the Thirties required only a passing acquaintance with singing ability:
While the orchestra plays some well-known but fairly out-of-date song she makes her way to a microphone at the front of the stage, grasps it, and goes through the motions of singing. She is nearly or quite inaudible and we cannot distinguish words or tune; But since she is not there to sing it is of little importance...This prelude passed, the serious portion of Miss Glory's performance commences.
"Miss Glory" then proceeds to strip down to a rhinestone G-string to moderate applause. Modern strippers do not even pretend to sing since their strip acts are typically done to a pre-recorded vocal rendering of a popular tune like Bad Girls or The Lady In Red. The prevalence of silent stripping is best illustrated by the fuss that was made over strippers like Blaze Starr and Gypsy Rose Lee who could manage to be articulate while undressing: Even Morton Minsky seemed amazed that a stripper could talk and undress at the same time:
While other strippers were scared to death at the thought of speaking words of more than two syllables, Gypsy, in her expertise, let her erudite, insinuating chatter seduce the audience into a state of near-hypnosis.
In contrast, beauty pageant contestants are now expected to be able to speak both publicly and in one-on-one interview situations. However, contestants are required to exhibit these skills only minimally in the public performance of the competition. The majority of their on-stage time is given to displaying a talent (usually singing or dancing), participating in the show "production numbers," and, most importantly, silently parading in evening gown, swimsuit, and regional costumes. Usually it is only the semi-finalists who are called upon to talk on stage in a one minute "interview" with the Master of Ceremonies, and the finalists who are asked a single interview question where their answers are judged. All this speaking, singing, and dancing activity takes place on the stage proper, not on the runway, which is used only for silent parading in gowns, suits, etc.
The runway is also used for the official perambulation of the old and new title holders. As if to underscore the silence of the women walking on the runway, the Master of Ceremonies usually recites pertinent facts about the contestants while they parade, and frequently sings a song in honor of the new winner, as she takes her first official walk down the runway. Since the electronic age, it is also traditional to play a recording of the farewell speech of the exiting title holder while she silently waves and walks down the runway for the last time. Depending on one's personal social prejudices, this either gives her grace and dignity, putting her womanhood on a pedestal, or silences, dehumanizes and objectifies her into an inoffensive "ideal." Actually, it does both, but the supporters and attackers of pageants generally don't grasp that their opinions are far from being mutually exclusive.
Naturally, in fashion shows the models generally do not talk, although there have been rare exceptions to this rule. For an example, when a group of actresses performed in a fashion show for the benefit of the Actors' Aid Fund in 1915:
There was an attempt to speak lines written by Pierre de Lanux, but lines at a fashion exhibit should be seen and not heard, and after an act or so the players resorted largely to pantomime.
Other benefit fashion shows at this time had story lines woven into the show, but most of these were pantomimed also. Between 1912 and the mid Seventies most fashion shows in America had a commentator, a person who either read or extemporized a commentary about the clothing being worn. The San Francisco Call reported in 1912:
Something new in the display of these models was the presence of a demonstrator, who told of the modes and materials of the gowns thus displayed. This addition of a person who told the audience the particulars of the gown, relieved the model of the necessity of speaking to the audience.
During the Seventies the role of the commentator waned, but as late as 1976, in How to Produce a Fashion Show, a whole chapter was still devoted to commentators and commentary. The last section of the chapter, however, noted the change towards shows without commentary:
In the late fifties, Mary Quant staged an entire press show without commentary. This developed into a trend in the sixties, starting with the big press shows in major apparel markets and eventually filtering into local level presentations in smaller cities around the country. The technique is an effective one for communicating excitement, movement and drama--by bypassing words and relying on strong visual and emotional response for impact.
These shows are so effective that they have almost totally replaced shows with commentary. (The only major fashion show to routinely use a commentator today is the Ebony Fashion Show.) This trend, however, has not signaled a significant movement towards fashion models speaking for themselves on the runway. On the contrary, the whole point of this recent movement has been to rely "on strong visual images" and to do this by "bypassing words" altogether.
The fashion commentator is now exclusively limited to television fashion programs like Style With Elsa Klench, and speaking models only perform in television commercials. The staged fashion show now is totally wordless, and any acting done by the models is in pantomime.
The runway performers are not only generally silent, they are also generally women. Except in the rare all-male fashion, strip, or beauty shows, which are merely imitations of female shows, only the female performers use the runway. For example, one never saw Bert Parks, a fashion commentator, or a burlesque comic on the runway. Only models, strippers, chorus girls, and beauty contestants use the runway. According to Morton Minsky, in burlesque the prima donnas who sang the operatic numbers, the tenor who did the interludes, and the straight man had nothing to do with the runway. Neither did the comics. Instead, the runway encouraged the prominence of the female dancers and their sexually oriented acts:
Once the runway was established, it led by natural steps to the growing dynasty of "exotic," "Oriental," or even "classical" dancers who wiggled, jiggled, and bumped in a way that was new to theatre goers. It was on a Minsky runway that New York first saw the tassel dance, originated by the immortal burlesque queen, Carrie Finnell.
Rowland Barber also noted that only the girls doing sexy material used the runway: "The runway was alien territory to Prima Donna and Tenor, who were rooted to the stage proper like the pillars of the proscenium."
In beauty pageants usually only the Master of Ceremonies is male, although sometimes for production numbers or between-competition entertainments, male singers and dancers are used. Since these entertainments usually are provided only in televised pageants for the benefit of the home audience, they usually occur only on the stage proper, where it is easy to film them.
The Master of Ceremonies does not use the runway, despite some erroneous conceptions about his role. While speaking of the Miss America song, There She Is, Frank Deford noted in 1971 that:
Many people are also under the impression that [Bert] Parks sings the song while crowning the new queen, dancing with her or escorting her down the runway, none of which he does.
Deford also noted that while the runway was there for the beauty queen to walk down, she too was there chiefly to walk down the runway:
Even the Pageant will acknowledge that the modern queen is functionally a display package, and that basically she is required to do nothing more than trigger the right response. Her mere ambulatory presence on a runway automatically obliges any dutiful audience to rise, reverently. It is both a symbolic and a critical reflex...From any point of view the scene is liturgical.
In fashion shows, models are literally "display packages" for the clothes they sell. In fact, the original name for fashion models, mannequins, was taken from the name of shop window dummies, much as early typists were called typewriters. Models, (usually female), walk down the runway as part of the visual display of the clothes. Commentators, who naturally were not part of this visual package, were usually relegated to one side, often behind a lectern. The only men who walk down the runway are male models who are also display packages for clothing.
In fashion modeling more than in any other area, the featured performers' costumes define their image and are an integral part of the performance. Models are there chiefly to give expression to the clothes; strippers in burlesque are on stage in order to publicly remove their clothing, and contestants in a beauty pageant are judged both on their choice of clothing and their appearance in it.
Models as they wear different dresses and show different designers' "concepts", are expected to alter their walk, expression, and gestures accordingly:
A bathing suit calls for a livelier, more sprightly walk and expression than does an evening gown or a mink stole. A negligee may call for anything, from maidenly innocence to complete sophistication, but the showing technique for any negligee would always differ from that used for teatime ensembles or town wear...it is a matter of refining her approach until she walks, looks and gestures in accordance with the costume she is showing.
Beauty contestants are given similar instructions in order to change "personality" with their clothes:
A good exercise in evening gown characterization is to pretend you are Princess Margaret being presented at court; like Margaret, you are almost, but not quite a queen. The princess character is lovely, regal, her walk slower, her smile soft and not so broad as in a bathing suit. Aim for a mood of dignity, elegance, and just a touch of humility. The characterization in bathing suit should be bubbles. Walk with a brisk pace. Think of the drum majorette who leads the parade. Your personality should never be sexy, but lively, exuberant and peppy.
Beauty contestants, however, are not models and can choose the clothing they wear in competition. As a result, contestants are judged not only on how well they look in clothes, but on the clothing they choose. The 1990 Judges Committee Manual for Miss America Preliminary Pageants includes notes in the swimsuit and evening gown judging that indicate that dress is a criterion in judging the contestant:
Value your first impression; Consider the contestant's total look, and note that the gown and the woman should complement each other.
Training books for pageant contestants also emphasize the importance of suitable dress as part of the presentation of each contestant. While Anna Stanley in The Crowning Touch (1989) speaks generally of "good taste" in dress, offering advice only on suitable colors and unsuitable sexy styles, The Beauty Pageant Manual (1987) gets down to specifics--for instance, shoes:
- Evening Gown--Shoes should be pumps dyed to match. Contestants still occasionally wear evening sandals with their gowns, sometimes with dressy trim (rhinestones). Anything other than a pump is much more difficult to walk and turn in, and you will almost always sacrifice a better walk with a shoe other than a pump.
The author goes on for half a page more on the virtues and problems of dyed to match satin pumps. Other clothing items receive similar detailed attention in this book and in others written for pageant enthusiasts.While pageant officials (and successful contestants) downplay the role of effective clothing in selecting a queen, most contestants and their trainers take pageant clothing very seriously. Swimsuits built exclusively for pageant competition are produced by several companies in styles that squeeze, truss up, or flatten down any body area that a contestant feels is in need of alteration.
While people assume that clothing is unimportant to a stripper's art, it is an obvious prerequisite to stripping that the stripper should begin with a costume on, before taking one off. As in many forms of theatrical endeavor, people don't consider where these costumes come from or who designs them. What is unusual in the case of strippers as performers is that, like clowns, most often it is they who design their own costumes, and, unlike clowns, strippers are generally expected to come up with new costumes regularly for each new act. Consequently, strippers often make their own costumes in order to save money and so have to be fairly proficient in the skills of a stage costumer.
The stripper's costume is generally there, not only to take off, but also to create an image for the stripper in the act she is performing. The costume provides the context, the fantasy-image of the girl, and without specific fantasy costumes, a series of strippers would be simply a series of indistinguishable undressing female bodies. The variety of costumes that strippers presently use to convey fantasy images is best illustrated in the 1986 documentary film Stripper, where strippers are shown to have chosen costumes that depict a bride, a rhinestone cowgirl, a fashionable reader of Cosmopolitan, an etherial Loie Fuller butterfly, a "flashdancer," a woman covered with stuffed hands, a futuristic "space suit" with metal breast cups, a race car driver, an American Indian complete with full headdress, a whip-wielding dominatrix, a fire-eating vampire who enters in a prop coffin, and a little girl with a Teddy bear, writhing on a "Teddy bear skin" rug. The fantasy aspect of these costumes is what establishes the context of the performance. For example, Sara Costa's costume of a blue chiffon butterfly cape establishes her character as a representation of ethereal idealized sex which silences her audience in awe; while Danyel's costume with spiked collar, studded leather garments and spike heeled, thigh-high boots made her use of a stage-blood soaked whip seem so depraved that an audience composed predominantly of other strippers gasped in shock at her act. Strippers of the Thirties and Forties also often used elaborate costumes, frequently with very gimmicky themes. The song in the musical Gypsy, "You've Got To Have A Gimmick" was not an exaggeration in a time when strippers had costumes that included live doves (which fluttered from body part to body part showing areas of exposed flesh), or a giant sequin-covered "padlock" on a "chastity belt", or strategically-placed domino masks, or a fringed drum majorette costume with tassels on the breast, or a feathered costume which was removed by trained parrots, or a girl graduate with cap, diploma and backless graduation gown, as well as the usual balloon dancers who popped their costumes into nudity. Gypsy Rose Lee specialized in wicked black silk stockings, lace panties, and red garters, while Ann Corio often went for à la naturel South Sea princess and Indian maiden exotic ensembles.
Strippers' acts naturally follow in the steps the costumes lead. For example, the previously mentioned cowgirl outfit included a prop hobby horse which the stripper "rode" suggestively while imitating the gestures of rodeo riders; while the girl in the bondage and discipline costume lashed at the stage and herself while crawling on her knees in a submissive manner. Both sets of gestures would be unintelligible and senseless without the costume establishing the context of the act. Strippers' costumes not only provide a functional ensemble for practical removal, but a functional ideal of female beauty that is "sexualized" by the revelation of nudity.While the wearer is symbolicly sexualized by removing her clothing, she first must be defined in terms of some kind of idealized female sexual figure in order for this act to be of any significance. This is why most costumes now are less gimmick-oriented and instead portray an archetype of female beauty such as a cheerleader, a dominatrix, or a bride.
Naturally strippers themselves have become one of these archetypes, as have fashion models and beauty queens, because all three forms of performance are seen as a display of exceptional female beauty of one sort or another. Lois W. Banner in American Beauty notes that the traditional beauty pageant helps to affirm that the pursuit of beauty is woman's proper role, by judging women on their physical appearance:
Although the contest rhetoric, the composition of the [Miss America] Parade, and the festival setting were all attempts to make a display of women's bodies respectable, they did not overshadow the fact that the contestants were being judged on how they looked in bathing suits. Even when later pageants added talent divisions and gave college scholarships as prizes, the review of the contestants in bathing suits was still the most important part of the competition.
While pageant enthusiasts discount the role of physical beauty as the overriding feature of most "beauty pageants" they still claim to be searching for beauty of a higher kind which they describe as "inner beauty";
In order to be a WHOLE beautiful person, you must have this special gift of inner beauty. You have heard the expression, "Beauty is as beauty does." Basically, this means how well we relate or conduct ourselves in relationships with other people.
In loving others, be patient and kind to them, don't be jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty, selfish or rude. Love for others will not demand its own way. It will not be irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges. It rejoices in the truth.
As may be inferred from the Biblical source of these paraphrases, "inner beauty" in beauty pageants has often been equated with born-again religious fervor. Besides which, for all the emphasis on spiritual beauty, contestants are rarely successful winners without good looks to back up their "inner" beauty.
Fashion models and strippers are not generally idealized in terms of spiritual inner beauty, but rather admired for their physical beauty exclusively (although the types of physical beauty are different for each form). Naturally, this widespread emphasis on physical beauty is perceived as demeaning to women so, all three forms are periodically attacked by feminists for objectifying women.
Strangely, the form that most tries to distance itself from the image of mindless physical beauty, the so-called "beauty pageant," is the form most ardently attacked by feminists. An entire organization called Media Watch was formed originally in order to protest the Miss California Beauty Pageant; although now Media Watch fights all media images of women it finds derogatory. Media Watch is headed by Ann Simonton, a former beauty queen, fashion model, and Sports Illustrated cover girl, who now believes that beauty pageants exploit and degrade women:
Do Beauty pageants Have Value In Today's Society?
No. While judging women according to their physical attributes is an almost universal pastime, it is hardly a "harmless" one. Judging women distances them. This leads to sexual harassment and contributes to an environment where women are not safe. Society loses with the "losers" because we live with a narrow beauty standard that defines 90 percent of the women as "rejects."
The image of the fashion model has also received feminist criticism. Even as early as 1970 Kathrin Perutz in Beyond the Looking Glass: America's Beauty Culture saw that the image of models was that of a commercially malleable object:
Models are beautiful objects, publicly owned. Though they have been invested with personality--which seems to mean they have some gimmick--models are not generally desired as women. They are ornaments, idolized in a country where gift wrapping can be called an "art." Models with their blank faces are totally manipulatable. Their function is as close to nothing as one can get and still make money: They just stand there, admired for their masks.The set pose, the blank face, the dead eyes of a model become the mirror held up by many young Americans.
Strip shows are also held in little esteem by feminist critics. The Take Back the Night movement of the Seventies began with a protest march through San Francisco's Broadway district, the home of the City's strip scene; and Women Against Pornography routinely offers anti-pornography tours of New York's Times Square's strip and porn district as part of WAP's campaign to get it shut down.
Finally, all three forms involve much of the audience in the acting out of an inner fantasy. Helen Fraser in Assignment in Modeling (1950) insists, "The art in retail modeling consists in making the customer see herself as she would like to look." Lucy Duff-Gordon, the couturiere Lucille, believed that "It is themselves they are watching really, and when the lights are lowered to a rosy glow, and soft music is played and the mannequins parade, there is not a woman in the audience...who is not seeing herself as those slim, beautiful girls look in the clothes they are offering her."
Poet Hart Crane described a night at the "National Winter Garden" watching strippers as a fantasy sex experience used as a prelude to lovemaking with someone else:
Outspoken buttocks in pink beads
Invite the necessary cloudy clinch
Of bandy eyes...no extra mufflings here:
The world's one flagrant, sweating cinch.
And while legs waken salads in the brain
You pick your blonde out neatly through the smoke.
Always you wait for someone else though, always--
(then rush the nearest exit through the smoke.)
Beauty pageants also appeal to the fantasy life of the audience by elevating an "ordinary" person to celebrity status and adorning her with the accoutrements of a fairy tale princess--crown, scepter, glittering gown, title, and the royal carriage of a parade float--as Jane O'Reilly admitted in an article in T.V. Guide titled, "I Can Scarcely Bear To Watch, But I Do." She continues to be fascinated by the Miss America contest, even though she dislikes it; "While I never wanted to be Miss America, honesty forces me to admit that somewhere deep inside me stirs a yearning to ride on top of a float covered with paper flowers. Especially if I could wear sequins."
The fantasy aspect of audience identification with the winner explains why the majority of modern beauty pageant viewers are women, despite the common perception that such contests are geared mainly to appeal to men who want to see girls in swimsuits. While it is possible that some of the audience members, both male and female, at a beauty pageant are thinking erotic thoughts (another kind of fantasy), the majority of the women are probably imagining themselves as the winner.
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