Fashion Shows, Strip Shows and Beauty Pageants: The Theatre of The Feminine Ideal
Chapter I: Introduction , part b
Each of these seven aspects illustrate striking similarities between performances that are generally claimed to be totally dissimilar to each other. These similarities indicate the presence of some strong linking factor among beauty pageants, strip shows and fashion shows. It is the contention of this study that there is a common goal in all three performance areas. The elevation of the performer from an ordinary person into a depersonalized conceptual ideal is the chief linking factor, and these three genres of performance are, in fact, merely variations on a broader theme which shall be called "The Theatre of the Feminine Ideal."
The runway is a major element in this type of performance because it helps to support the performer in appearing to the audience as an ideal, the costumes are used in order to give shape to the particular ideal chosen, and the performers are silent on the runway because this helps to de-emphasize their individual personalities and better meld them into an abstract role of an ideal female image. All of these characteristics, common to each genre, support the overall goal of elevating the performer into the figurant of an ideal. It is for this reason that the label "the theatre of the feminine ideal" has been applied to all three. At this point, it would be desirable to explain a few terms as used in this work: The term "ideal" must be understood to be used with two meanings in this work, one signifying an archetype of a person who is "an ideal or perfection of kind; existing as a perfect exemplar," and the other as a mere conceptual image "existing in fancy or imagination only." As most often used, "ideal" is meant to signify both simultaneously: an imaginary or impossible image of human perfection personified.
Burlesque for the purposes of this study will usually be taken to refer to the American burlesque theatre of the period between World Wars I and II, not the literary or dramatic burlesques which were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is an artificial distinction since there was no clean break from "old-time burlesque" to "modern burlesque," just a gradual change from a leg-and-jiggle show with a satirical dramatic script to a leg-and-jiggle show with lewd comic skits featuring "bathroom humor." Some old quotations in this work may use the spelling burlesk. Burlesque or burlesk of the Twenties through Forties could best be described as a variety show which consisted largely of chorus numbers, strip acts, and comic "bits."
A stripper is the term commonly used to describe a woman who takes off her clothing in some sort of artistic manner while on stage. The act of a stripper doing so is called a strip act. A strip teaser is a stripper who does a strip act very slowly, and often demurely, building suspense as she removes garments. This kind of strip act is called a strip tease. An exotic dancer is a term used since the Fifties to describe both strippers and women who dance either wholly or partially nude. A strip show is a show composed largely or wholly of strip acts.
Strippers quoted in this study may make use of several pieces of occupational argot, which Skipper and McCaghy in "Stripteasing: A Sex-Oriented Occupation" define as follows:
degenerates-male exhibitionists and masturbators in the audience, bird-female genitalia, flashing-lowering of the G-string so that the pubic area is displayed, floor work-that portion of a strippers performance done sitting, kneeling or lying on the floor, holding their own-men masturbating in the audience, and a strong act-a show with a high degree of overt sexual content.
A G-string is a narrow strip of fabric held up with small straps, glue or dental floss, that covers (barely) the female genitalia. It is supposedly named after the narrowest string on a violin.
Pageantry in the context of this work is a noun covering the whole world and concept of beauty and talent pageants. It is commonly used as such by the small army of semi-fanatical supporters of pageants who take part in them as contestants, judges, producers and audience members. A beauty pageant is a contest wherein at least part of the official judging of the contestants is based on their personal appearance.
A beauty queen is a winner of any beauty contest, no matter how minor. So, for example, the Miss America Pageant is a contest between 50 beauty queens who won contests at the state level for the purpose of crowning one of them a beauty queen at the national level.
Mannequin is the archaic name for what is now called a fashion model. It was in use almost exclusively until 1920 when the term model began to replace it.
The interrelationship between fashion shows, strip shows and beauty pageants, has never been the topic of serious study. The omission, it may be surmised, has been merely an oversight, since burlesque theatre has been the object of sociological scrutiny since the Thirties in works such as Burlesque as a Cultural Phenomenon (1937), Striptease: The Vanished Art of Burlesque (1938), and Hot Strip Tease: And Other Notes on American Culture (1937). Further, beauty pageants have been examined by feminist scholars since the Eighties; and fashion shows, while they have not been studied historically with the attention they deserve, have had their staging dissected from a purely technical standpoint, since the first runway modeling manuals were written in the Sixties.The lack of writing on this topic appears to be the result of the fact that no one has thought to connect the data from these three forms of theatre to create a synthesis. It is not because fashion shows, strip shows, and beauty pageants were regarded as too unimportant to write about. It would therefore be valuable to review the literature which relates to these three forms of theatre individually, as well as any literature which relates to runway staging:
Burlesque as a Cultural Phenomenon has been studied since David Dressler first analyzed the supposedly corrupting nature of burlesque on youth in his 1937 book of that title. (Dressler was a juvenile officer and social worker.) According to Ann Corio, "the Queen of Burlesque":
"Scholars who should be spending their academic hours poring over equations or philosophy have battled instead over the origin of this entertainment--and spent hours looking at the pictures."
Corio's statement is something of an exaggeration, however, since scholarly studies of burlesque have definitely been in the minority. The most comprehensive work of a serious nature is Irving Zeidman's The American Burlesque Show (1967) which does very definitively trace the origin of the strip tease back to 19th Century precedents, as well as providing a very detailed history of early American burlesque. In covering so much time, however, the eras of the Thirties and Forties are given short shrift; and no connection is made between strip shows and other forms of theatre used to idealize the female.
Other scholars since Zeidman have studied parts of burlesque as dissertation topics, focusing on areas only indirectly related to the topic of this study. Joseph LeRoy Lesser's Top Banana Joey Fay: The Evolution of a Burlesque Comedian (1987), Joel Harvey's American Burlesque as Reflected Through the Career of Kitty Madison 1916-1930 (1980) and Patricia Sandburg Conner's Steve Mills and the Twentieth Century American Burlesque Show: A Backstage History and Perspective (1979) all are studies that focus on very particular aspects of burlesque performance. Strip Shows in Britain have also been described as part of Erotic Theatre (1978) by John Elsom, who hypothesized that strip tease would not die out (as Marshall McLuhan said it would when nudity had become acceptable as entertainment) because stripping was part of an erotic signal system in which lovers indicate their acceptance of each other, and was not simple undressing.
More common (and oddly, more useful for raw information) are the popular works of the "Racy Memoir" and "Naughty Picture" variety. For example, H.M. Alexander in Striptease: The Art of Burlesque (1938) gives the most detailed description of a burlesque performance and its audience's behavior to be found in any work, but much of the book is simply devoted to backstage gossip of the private lives of strippers accompanied by clear black and white photos of strippers in various stages of undress.Equally filled with interesting information and gossipy superfluities are Morton Minsky's Minsky's Burlesque (1986) and Bernard Sobel's Burleycue: An Underground History of Burlesque (1931). There are many more works like these (far too numerous to mention), all providing intriguing and useful data along with gossip, but none of these works focuses more than passing attention on the staging of strip shows, or comparisons with other forms of theatre.
The Miss America Beauty Pageant, the seminal modern beauty pageant upon which most presently existing pageants are based, has had its history documented in great detail in Frank Deford's There She Is (1971). Deford's book is not only an amusing work that gives countless details of pageant history but it contains many points of analysis about the significance of pageant rituals. Deford, however never makes the connection between pageants as promoters of "ideal" women, and the similarity of strip and fashion shows. Beauty pageants are also one of the topics covered in Lois W. Banner's 1983 feminist study, American Beauty, where she discusses the obvious truth that beauty pageants exist as an affirmation of the idea that it is acceptable to judge women on their appearance. Feminist author Susan Dworkin, discusses the social context of Bess Myerson's 1945 victory in Miss America 1945; Bess Myerson's Own Story (1987). The details of Myerson's reign are analyzed with an insightful historical perspective; however, again no connection is made with strip and fashion shows.
Just as important as the popular and scholarly works on beauty pageants are the many books written by the women who follow pageantry as a profession, hobby, or even something close to a religion. For example, The Beauty Pageant Manual: A Complete Training Guide (1987) by Marie Leazer Farris and Verna Meer Slade not only gives hundreds of purely practical tips for modern contestants wishing to win a beauty title, but also dwells at length upon the ideals and "improving" nature of pageantry on contestants:
Pageant winners aren't always the most beautiful. They are the most well rounded. They are the girls who have worked on and perfected their appearance, attitude and the way they carry themselves. Pageants are good for all contestants because they usually motivate girls to improve themselves in many areas.
Anna Stanley's The Crowning Touch: Preparing for Beauty
Pageant Competition (1989) and Barbara Peterson Burwell and Polly Peterson Bowle's Becoming a Beauty Queen: The Complete Guide (1987) are both works, similar to the Manual, which follow in a direct line from Jacque Mercer's How to Win a Beauty Contest (1960). All of these books, as well as too many others to mention, contain information about the mechanics of pageant production as well as the philosophy on which it is based. But none of these authors make the connection between the central focus of the ideal in beauty pageants, and the way strip and fashion shows similarly highlight idealized depictions of femininity. In these works, pageant staging is never compared with strip show staging. (Pageant enthusiasts feel they are on an altogether higher plane.) Fashion show staging is occasionally mentioned in these books, but only to offer a comparison of the differences between events such as pageant swimsuit competition and fashion show bathing suit modeling.
In no survey history of fashion shows has there ever been an attempt to study the staging of shows from a theatrical standpoint. Surveys of fashion show history are few, short and lacking in scholarly analysis. The most complete books on fashion show production and history, Mary Ellen Diehl's How to Produce a Fashion Show (1976) and Kay Corinth's Fashion Showmanship (1970), both devote only a single chapter each to the history of fashion shows, and, naturally, do not provide any detailed analyses of the staging, or any kind of comparative analysis between fashion shows and strip and beauty shows.Showmanship merely gives hints of some of the past in its brief descriptions, offered without context or analysis:
Another history-making trade fashion show took place in Chicago, in 1917. The presentation featured a new technique that was later used extensively in the 1960s--that of showing movie footage to set a background scene for live models. For example, the first scene, "The Dawn of 1917," opened with a view of snow on the screen, quickly dissolving into a "picture of daisies with a vision of the Orient in the background." The movie screen then lifted to reveal an Oriental setting.
Most of the information in Showmanship is similar to the above--interesting facts without any background, enough to interest the reader in the subject but not sufficient for an in-depth study of the subject.
How to Produce a Fashion Show (1976) provides very similar information in a similar format. Indeed, one suspects that the earlier book served as a model for the latter. Diehl, however, does attempt somewhat analytical statements about trends in shows at different times, but, in trying to cover over 100 years in one chapter, her analyses are cursory at best.
By 1911, "living models" were used in the United States as a regular part of fashion promotions for retailers as well as manufacturers. However, from the reports, they seemed to be more akin to informal modeling than to a fashion parade. The runway show must have evolved rapidly from this because Women's Wear carried a report [on a 1912 convention that] featured two fashion shows daily on living models, with cards on stage indicating manufacturers' names--"No Lecturing." An orchestra rendered popular songs during the showing.
Since neither of these books is intended to be a scholarly analysis of the history of fashion shows, these cursory analyses are perfectly understandable. The fact remains, however, that these two one-chapter synopses of fashion show history are the most in-depth studies so far written. As such, they are hopelessly insufficient for making a judgment about how fashion shows relate to strip shows and beauty pageants.Other books on fashion show production, such as Thelma Hunt Shirley's Success Guide to Exciting Fashion Shows (1978) or Bernie Lenz's The New Complete Book of Fashion Modeling (1969), have information on fashion show style over the last few decades. However, the styles described, and the advice given, far from showing a synthesized theoretical approach which might prove as true now was when the book was written, seem mired in the production styles of their times. For example, in Shirley's Success
Fashion is Drama Always think of fashion production as drama. Completely let go of the old idea of a model walking out on a runway, expressionless and pivoting as she shows new garments. That look, that approach is passe. Think Sensationalism Curtain opens on a bare stage with a large white screen on the back wall. Up front is a simple palm tree. Hawaiian music begins to fill the auditorium and on the large screen breathtaking photos of Hawaii are rear-projected as the audience begins to look with great anticipation to the wings for the models to appear..."Ladies and Gentlemen," says the commentator, "vacation and cruise fashions for your sun and fun holidays, by the talented and unpredictable (name of designer).
What Shirley was unable to predict was that within less than 10 years of her writing, proscenium staging, projections, and commentators would be "passe" and the "old ideal of a model walking out on a runway, expressionless and pivoting" would be back in fashion, stronger than ever. As such, Shirley's book, and the many others like it, are of more use as artifacts of recent history than as analytical studies of fashion show production.
Runway staging in Japanese No drama has been touched upon in studies of Japanese theatre such as Noh: The Classical Theatre (1971) by Nakamura Yasuo, A History of Japanese Theatre I: Up to Noh and Kyogen (1971) by Inoura Yoshinobu, and Japanese No Plays (1954) by Toki Zemmaro, and the development of the Hanamichi Bridge of Kabuki Theatre (the closest counterpart to Western runways) is traced from its No antecedents in Earle Ernst's The Kabuki Theatre (1956). Nowhere in these works, however, is the use of Japanese-style runways or "bridges" connected with their Western theatre counterparts in burlesque, pageants or fashion shows.
However, Leonard Cabell Pronko in Theatre East and West (1967) does discuss the Hanamichi Bridge as it relates to more typical forms of Western staging:
The Hanamichi cannot be compared with Western forms of central staging, or with Western uses of the theatre aisles or even with the strategic placement of theatre seats for interaction among actors in different parts of the auditorium and/or stage, because the Hanamichi is always a platform related to, but set apart from, the stage. It does not put the actor on the same level as the spectator, thus destroying the actor's distance and glamour.
Conversely, it may be assumed that the raised runway staging of the fashion, strip, and beauty shows which is physically similar to the Hanamichi runway, augments the performers' glamour and distance, unlike these ground-level playing areas. The ground-level incursions into audience space practiced by many Western theaters in several forms of experimental staging were used instead to reach toward the audience on a human naturalistic level.
Despite the fact that no previous work has been focused on the theoretical interconnectedness of beauty pageants, fashion shows and burlesque strip shows, it should be possible to document this interconnection using the copious quantities of raw data which exist in areas related to this thesis.
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