A naked woman is never ironic

Historian Jessica Glasscock chats about the first striptease, pasties, pubic landing strips, and the nude-friendly hippies who raised her.

By David Bowman

Published September 26, 2003 7:10PM (EDT)

I love to look at naked women. I bet you do too -- even if you're a girl. We may also especially love the act of a woman undressing -- her mystery being revealed bit by bit. Have any of you ever seen a good old-fashioned striptease show, say, Ann Corio or Watermelon Rose? Back in the '80s I saw a modernist strip show at a Manhattan performance space called the Kitchen. I watched a female "performance artist" strip out of a huge octopus costume, then return to the stage to strip out of a cheese costume. This was certainly not Sally Rand hiding naked behind bowling ball-size bubbles. Or Rosita Royce standing naked beneath a costume of nesting pigeons. The golden striptease shows of yesterday are gone forever no matter how many modern housewives practice pole dancing to empower themselves and spice up their marriages.

Every generation gets its own version of history, whether it's about Civil War battles or the making of the atom bomb or the invention of the striptease. Historian Jessica Glasscock has written a postfeminist history of bump and grind, "Striptease: From Gaslight to Spotlight." Smartly written and marvelously illustrated, Glasscock charts the stripper's progress from the original Victorian "Venus in Fur" Pauline Markham to America's foremost peeler Gypsy Rose Lee to "the World Famous *BOB*," a modern stripper who stands on stage agitating a martini shaker with her breasts.

Glasscock's history is certainly not your mother's striptease book. This is no feminist condemnation of Western society's exploitation of women. Glasscock's political bent is a form of loose postfeminist Marxism. Her book is a history of "undercurrents, underclasses, and underwear. And it is a history of undeniable fun aimed not at the head, the heart, or even the stomach, but just south of all three."

I meet Glasscock, age 33, in a greasy spoon across from my apartment on Second Avenue in New York. Glasscock sports a Louise Brooks bob. Her nostrils flare as she laughs and there is a tattoo of a Lalique Art Nouveau design on her left arm. A tiger prowls on her right. She is dressed in a 1940-ish blouse and dark slacks. I have to laugh when she tells of working for the ACLU in a room staffed with prim middle-aged feminists from the 1970s. "It really upset them how I dressed," she laughs. "The ACLU didn't have a dress code and they couldn't vocally disapprove of the fact that I wore a corset every day to work."

So how on earth did a girl like you write such a book?

I've been interested in transgressive women. That goes all the way back -- my mother was a feminist. She started a women's art group in Alabama where I'm from. She's been with feminists fighting pornography. When I started getting into stripteases, it was not my mother's kind of feminism. I felt like stripping and striptease related to the idea that you can control what someone can do with their body.

How did you get from Alabama to New York?

I always wanted to come to New York. In Alabama I was always, "I'll be out of here soon and in New York." I'm been in the city since I was 18, in 1988. I also ended up working for the ACLU because I thought I was going to be a lawyer, but after working for lawyers for four years, I thought, Why would I want to do this? So I got interested in costume design, and met a designer who did a lot of club clothes for drag queens and dominatrixes. I wanted to get my graduate degree in costume studies and wanted to write a book. My first idea was to write a book on Mardi Gras, but I found someone else was doing a book on that. Then I thought about striptease because I'd been very interested in turn-of-the-century Salome dancers, which was considered the first striptease. I did my thesis on the birth of striptease, tracing its costumes. That ended up being my book proposal.

I can't imagine a woman older than you desiring to write such a book. I'm 10 years older than you. When I remember the vast number of girls who got naked for me in the late 1970s, I realize that to gaze upon a naked girl in appreciation was considered "objectification." Back then, in order to not be a sexist, you had to look without taking in what you were looking at. The idea of hooting at a striptease show would have been considered the lowest rung of cheap sexism.

But in the 1970s, you didn't need striptease because everyone had pornography. And it was private. You didn't need to worry about being seen objectifying a woman because you had this other way to objectify a woman privately.

But there was no wonderful glory of finally seeing someone naked. When were you married?

Two years ago.

Before you were married, what ran through your mind when you finally presented yourself naked to a man?

I was raised by hippies. I grew up way in the country. Hippies in Alabama -- which is a weird subbreed.

So you went skinny-dipping?


And saw your father naked?

Exactly. And my mom. And her friends. Also my mother was an artist so there was nude modeling in her art classes. It was a normal thing to invite a man over to sketch him naked. I myself was sketched in all-women art classes. Nudity was really normal to me. So it was really weird when I turned 11 and had to start wearing my shirt during recess at school. I didn't get any of that. I had trouble keeping my clothes on.

But when you were 18 and 19, did you still get naked for anybody?

No. I'm sexually -- fairly -- I was a very, very clean teen. Part of having parents who were living a different lifestyle than other nice Southern Christians around me is that I had no desire to rebel. In high school I was a very good student. I didn't drink. I didn't smoke. I didn't do anything like that. Which is how most kids in high school end up getting naked for someone for the first time. Then when I came to college I didn't date much. I didn't think about it that way. And when things like that happened [getting naked] in college it was in a haze of inebriation, so it wasn't in the context of "Oh my god, this is happening now." It was more: "Hey! Time to take our clothes off."

Only a clothed civilization could have invented striptease.

Absolutely. Just nakedness doesn't really work. Because there is no tease. There is no narrative.

This is turning into a chronologically backward interview because the whole tradition of striptease was lost in the late 1960s.

I would say so. A lot of the people that worked back then would say so as well. By the '70s it was a whole other thing. Although there were always "gentlemen's clubs," where you might have topless and bottomless all day, but then some kind of headliner would come in. But it was never the same atmosphere that was in the 1950s, where striptease was almost a cabaret.

Let's go to the 19th century when striptease was invented in -- Paris, wasn't it?

I would argue that striptease is an American invention. There is a very commercial aspect to it that I would consider very American. Now when you think of Paris you're talking about the cancan and Moulin Rouge.

I remember reading that some Parisian artist model took her clothes off in a cabaret and the audience dug it.

Striptease probably came out of the collision of Orientalism and vaudeville trying to adapt it. There was this idea of an Oriental woman -- barbarian, sexually free, open, available, colonized -- Oriental women were huge in vaudeville.

Don't you think it can also be seen as a reaction against the "binding" of women by the corset? When was the corset invented?

They say Crete because of little figurines that wore them. But that's not really the Western corset. It goes back to the 15th century -- they were really just supposed to make you rigid. Then as the technology evolved you could make more of a waist with it. It's not until the late 19th century that you get the boning that can displace everything above and below the waist.

So striptease was invented during a time when wealthy women were wearing tons of stuff, like corsets and bustles and slips.

One history places the first striptease in France at the 1896 World's Fair where an exhibit ran called "A French Woman Goes to Bed." It was just a show of a woman taking off all her stuff and getting into bed. Then later you have the Dance of the Seven Veils at a time when the corset is going out of style. After the corset went away, women were wearing less and less, and you had this problem of just flesh. It's not much different from now, where you are supposed to be firm and toned, and not supposed to expose extra weight.

[A woman walks by the window with an absurd pair of breasts jutting out like watermelons.]

I just finished reading a book on the history of plastic surgery and breast argumentation, which goes back to the 19th century. The first boob job is 1896. And there are things like paraffin injections that go back to the 1910s.

They injected their breasts with paraffin?

Paraffin, mixed with vegetable oil. It's really no less gross than silicone. There had been implants in the 1950s, and there had been problems with them, but then in the 1980s suddenly it was OK to get boob jobs. I think it was related to the feminist movement. Suddenly it was OK for women to make this "decision" for "themselves." Doctors used the rhetoric, "This is a decision you are making for you, you big powerful woman you." It was amazing until the bubble burst -- as it were -- with all the conflict of implants in the late '90s.

I am as American as any guy, but I am not obsessed with large breasts. I used to think the whole 1950s obsession with big breasts was a mom's mammary obsession, but it came to me that big breasts are the one erogenous zone that can never be hidden by clothing. Men didn't realize they were obsessed with the idea of breasts, rather than the actual breast revealed.

I think the emphasis on breasts in striptease is just this whole shaking, moving jelly body -- the emphasis on "bigger is better" is about what registers from the stage. You might be 50 feet back in the room. A good stripper has to have a body that registers in the back of the theater.

Who invented pasties?

I don't know. It probably goes back to the 19th century. Before there were pasties there were "fleshings" -- full-body stockings. Pasties are an obvious thing, a jokey piece of stage business. But I don't know who invented it.

What about a performer revealing pubic hair?

It wasn't as much of a problem as it is now. Remember that Black Crows record cover that showed a girl wearing an American flag bikini bottom and she had big pubic hair coming down her legs. It had to be airbrushed out in America, but not in Europe. [She shakes her head.] It is much more of a problem now. The whole "landing strip" line of hair -- I don't get that at all.

The whole "landing strip"?

It's like a line. Everything is gone except for that line. I call it the landing strip. [Pause.] During the many obscenity trials that the Minsky brothers went through in the late 1930s, they brought in these fake merkin things and claimed that these were what their dancers were really wearing, and they hadn't been completely naked at all. Morton Minsky later said, "I don't know of any women who wore anything like that." So I think there was full nudity in the 1930s, and it was a problem.

How did striptease and prostitution intersect?

That's a really interesting question that I couldn't get into as much as I wanted to in the book. There is no such thing as prostitution in the 19th century as a legal category. If you were a certain type of woman you may be called a prostitute. There was a lot of casual prostitution in the 19th century. There were tenderloin districts and full brothels, but prostitution wasn't something you could get arrested for like you can now. It was a weird amorphous zone for women who weren't quite "right." At the same time, there was the whole Storyville thing in New Orleans. The city didn't make prostitution legal in Storyville. They just made it illegal everywhere else in the city.

So it was a restrictive act, not a liberation?


How did the audience for striptease change over a century?

I had a terrible time about this in my book because I would read about vaudeville, and then I'd read about burlesque, and these were separate things, but then when you read the Broadway theater reviews in the 1910s you realize all these things overlap. Something you could do on the "legitimate" stage at Ziegfeld in the 1920s would be called striptease if you did it on the Bowery. So this dictates who is going to see it. In the 1920s and 1930s, a woman and her husband might go out to see a star strip, especially if she was in the context of a couple or more cabaret acts. By the 1950s, there were stars and there were the B-drinking girls who got paid for the number of drinks they got patrons to buy. Striptease was for businessmen and bachelor parties, very similar to what you would think about now.

Pretty much after the 1980s, any kind of striptease was ironic. I remember going to the Kitchen to see this woman strip out of a lobster suit. She thought she was making an ironic statement, but I just wanted to see her naked body. A naked woman is never ironic.

Good for you. She probably wanted to be seen naked, too. You were in on the joke. That's the thing with the new burlesque people right now because their goal is ironic and being in on the joke and being seen as well as being sexual. It overlaps with drag queens and queer culture. It's OK to want to be sexual and be funny, which hearkens back to original striptease.

A naked woman may be funny, but never ironic!

Those naked women were being funny a lot of the time. Gypsy Rose Lee was a comedienne, and beautiful, and willing to strip and she did really interesting things. Someone like Blaze Star, who had all these set pieces -- like a couch that went up in smoke -- she must have known that was funny and hokey. That's a big part that people don't remember that [strippers] were being funny. And in the cabaret, you'd have strip, and juggle, and a comedian, and maybe another stripper.

The whole art of early 20th century striptease was a bubble dance/fan dance when you never really saw as much as you thought you saw.

There was a lot of nudity in the 1930s, but that was squashed, so by the 1950s you had pasties. In the 1930s Minsky would have his girls come off the stage and walk among the audience. That is the key point; when the performer is in the middle of everybody you get the sudden shift in what could be seen and what could be performed. Then in the 1960s, go-go dancing brought people together. My mom was actually a go-go dancer for a pizza place for a week. Her friend, who was very buxom, was asked to work there, and she wouldn't work there unless my mom went with her. My mom only lasted a week. She got fired for being a sharp-tongued lady. I'm proud of her for that, both dancing and getting fired.

Have you yourself done a striptease?

Oh no. I had some friends in the late 1980s who did it for a week. To start to strip at Scores is like being a waitress with better tips. You're on your feet all day, and you have to put up with people who aren't that great. I have a friend who is a stripper in New Orleans, and the rest of her life is devoted to bodybuilding, and dieting, and her hair and doing nails.

Does she actually strip or does she just dance naked on a pole?

She strips. Some people come onstage in less than others, especially young girls who tend to get into costumes. My friend is someone who has been at it for a long time, so she goes out in a spandex kind of dress, and then goes around to do lap dancing. As for me doing "new burlesque," I don't know if I'm up for it. All the girls I know who do it up here are spectacularly buxom. [She looks down at her chest.] I don't know. I'm a married girl so I've got to go talk to my husband about it. [She looks up and laughs.]

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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