Stripper Fashion, Exotic Dance, & Expressive Sexuality in American Feature Films and Life

expresive sexuality
Michele Merkin model and celebrity. “Merkin modeled for 15 years, living in Paris, Milan, New York, and Los Angeles, appearing in such magazines as ELLE, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and over 60 commercials …”  Exactly what provides the source material for sexually expressive fashion?

While watching movies, I wondered: presented with opportunity would consumers act in self-interest to create novel and expressive fashion motifs, especially involving human sexuality? human beings are, after all, cultural critters, and we learn culture from one another. Certainly we should learn – and teach – via the films we watch and make. Perhaps this is not always the case. But I’m guessing sometimes it is.

Women spend both more time and more money on fashion as communication. More dollars are spent, more retail outlets exist servicing women’s shopping, and more collateral matter is generated . . . 

Still, before looking particularly at movies it was easy to determine that guidelines do exist, governing time, place, and magnitude of expressive clothing and dress, probably more for women than for men, if only because we can determine that women spend both more time and more money on fashion as communication. More dollars are spent, more retail outlets exist servicing women’s shopping, and more collateral matter is generated – more advertising, blogs, magazines.

In addition, the lines of commercial distribution (including changing investment patterns in such goods as human beings transit the life course – women tending to spend more in young adulthood, slightly trending up through mid-life) can be and have been traced. Thus, social scientist can easily enough describe clothing as contributing to one’s communication and discourse options. However, Reception Theory suggests that meaning is largely supplied by the recipient of the communication. It’s easy to make a quantified record of what is being “communicated,” much more difficult to understand how the culture is receiving and interpreting the message.

Orientalism
Rosati, The Haren Dance. Long a facination of the middleclass, an imagined exotic other was there, but, in proper costume, could be here. Like Orientalist subjects in nineteenth-century painting, exoticism in the decorative arts and interior decoration was associated with fantasies of opulence and “barbaric splendour,” in the words of the English explorer, linguist, and writer, Sir Richard F. Burton (1821–1890). In western fashion, it was likely to be about, but not of, sex.

For this exploratory article, first I introduce the idea that leisure consumers will appropriate the work “costumes” of performers (that is, what is observed in film).  However, I must admit that the pathway could conceivably be that performers are appropriating and “sensual/sexualizing” material from quotidian sources. What characters wear is a complex decision, often largely in the hands of edgy costume designers.

Next, Stripper Fashion, Exotic Dance, & Expressive Sexuality in American Feature Films and Lifebriefly discusses entertainment options, quickly narrowing to film. In order to support this idea, I present a series of commonplace films. This group is especially focused on examples involving exotic dance—sometimes called pole, runway, stripping or, less accurately, burlesque dancing. Importantly, dance may not be the central or most important element in the film. Indeed, dance may be “used” as shorthand.

Burlesque is a very much less erotic form of dance theatre, much older and more deeply embedded in the tradition of battering or “knocking” the comfortable middle class. Burlesque involves cultural, economic, & political lampoons, parodies, and roasts – typically orchestrated by a female performer . . . 

Note that burlesque, noted above, is a very much less erotic form of dance theatre, much older and more deeply embedded in the tradition of battering or “knocking” the comfortable middle class. Burlesque involves cultural, economic, & political lampoons, parodies, and roasts – though also typically orchestrated by a female performer, and often if not quite always erotic in basic tone, burlesque tends to turn much less on the entirely sexually titillating in nature. However, the brutal, remorseless, even savage humor of burlesque with powerful men almost always the brunt of the “joke” is why this form, and other sexually explicit entertainments were so often driven from the boards.

strip tease.
So-called pole dancing expresses two “poles” of display: in public performance, an absolute reduction of costume for economy of “stripping.” However, in addition, as Wikipedia puts it, “….this performance art form takes place not only in gentleman’s clubs as erotic dance, but has also recently gained popularity as a mainstream form of fitness, practiced by many enthusiasts in gyms and in dedicated dance studios.” The pole is said to be a remnant of carny days, when hucksters shimmied around tent supports.

While a primary function of entertainment is to engage and distract the consumer, this article does postulate that a latent function is also to inform (as well as delight). Several decades of film’s “use” of exotic dance and stripper images may have done a poor job of informing consumers of legitimate role and wage concerns of these settings, but the films have done a good job of cataloging the exotic costumes of the dancers.

The entire world is a stage, just as Shakespeare suggested. And human sexuality interfacing with commercial exploitation and poly-cultural class-marker poaching just makes it seem more so. . .

 

The entire world is a stage, just as Shakespeare suggested. And human sexuality interfacing with commercial exploitation and poly-cultural class-marker poaching just makes it seem more so; all of us strutting and fretting our time upon it. With strip clubs in the United States over the past decade or two moving into the “popular” mainstream, and strippers sauntering about in the local pub, tavern, and “gentlemen’s” club, erotic costume has hopped the footlights for racks in chain stores, neighborhood boutiques, and discounter’s sale’s floors.

Thus, last I seek to analyze and outline how the commonplace scenes of exotic dance in American films may have helped in the transition from work wear (of the stripper) to leisure and fashion wear of the nation’s privileged consumer classes. In any event, from time to time – as it become fashionable – it’s no longer a viable distinction to make between the so-called professional sex worker and the rank and file citizen. Has quotidian, daily wear become generally more sexually expressive? Is clothing more revealing, tighter, more prone to offer explicit sexual gendered comment?

REAL OR PERCIEVED INCREASE OF EXPLICIT SEXUALITY

What would be now-quaint, brown paper wrapped Frederick’s catalogs of the sixties have been replaced by expensively produced and printed lingerie wish books touting serious—and expensive—nickerknacks in place of fanciful cat suits, complete with ears and tail, destined for fun behind closed doors. Even the tattletale “stripper pole” [which I believe devolves from Carny days and represents a tent support] has been artfully appropriated into pricy print media advertising for edgy spreads of glamorous fashion. It’s easy to identify such trendy crossoverexamples as Nylon magazine, conflating design, fashion, & personality gossip.

Today, in large part because of easily consumable entertainment media, especially popular-release feature films, the membrane is porous and the erotica of burlesque and exotic dance is commonplace.

 

Time was the costume vocabulary that supported sexually charged burlesque [properly speaking, burlesque is a deeply political form including but not primarily erotic] and stripper performances in front of almost all male audiences was forbidden visual territory for “good” girls. The stiletto heeled pumps, mules, court shoes, and lounge slippers; the black-widows, bustier, camisoles, corsets, baby-dolls, demi-bras, teddies, and so on along with stage artifice involving glues, tape, straps, padding, ivory eggs, and those come hither hose-n-garter ensembles (suspenders in England) create a ritualized version of age-old mate selection which is a deadly legitimate part of life yet is often just as seriously, and hypocritically, denied serious review. Today, in large part because of easily consumable entertainment media, especially popular-release feature films, the membrane is porous and the erotica of burlesque and exotic dance is commonplace.

strip tease
Pole dancers at work

Although I reference a recent re-print edition of Veblen’s important work on leisure theory, his notions were first promulgated in 1899 – and for this work he is perhaps best known. In this groundbreaking text the Midwest theorist invented the now cliché notion of “conspicuous consumption,” which has such special relevance to women’s fashion and the interior relevant to those concerned with women’s financial or social victimization. Veblen paid special attention to the distinction betweenthe owners of business(by which he meant the ability to profit via market manipulation, restriction of production, and related practice) and the notion of creation or engineering, and managing industry(efficiency per sein terms of human needs). The parallel between these qualities and sexual display/ sexual fecundity are obvious. However, if one gives even passing notice to the downward traverse of such fashion items as stiletto-heeled pumps which in cheap, virtually disposable or “costume jewelry” genre types have become everyday wear for what amounts to children on high-school and college campuses, it’s clear a shift in meaning has taken place or that multiple meanings existed.

Those knock offs may look like Jimmy Choo $600 heels, but certainly don’t convey the social status of the ultra-lux items.

Those knock offs may look like Jimmy Choo $600 heels, but certainly don’t convey the social status of the ultra-lux items. And, since I have done field work examing each part of the ultra-luxury goods manufacturing process from the skin production in Louisiana, to the raw material sales floor in Paris, and the cottage industry shoe factories outside of Milan, I understand the enormous legitimate costs involved in creating fine Manolo Blahnik – like foot wear. Thus, there are issues of choice residing in a pair of high heel shoes ranging from sexual display to and including Veblen’s conspicuous consumption as class marksmanship.

Fan Dance
The Fan Dance begins with elaborate costumes and concludes with a formula solution defined by two huge ostrich “fans” – recall the scene in “The Right Stuff.”

It might be said that in confluence with other dynamic social change in the last few decades, by lucky chance the rapid expansion of stripper scenes in popular movies offered a wide avenue up which regular women could “window shop.” Because this involves a leisure class extraction of a working class resource, Cultural Studies scholarship has indeed devoted some gaze toward the phenomena of hot club gear.

INCREASINGLY BLURRED LINES OF MEANING

Exposure via film burlesque, sho-clubs, and strip show scenes offer especially fecund opportunities for display of these costume-like garments to begin a process of co-optation or “mainstreaming” into the “normal” (in the statistical sense) consumer population. A number of analytical perspectives exist once we scruple to discuss the segue from screen to street. For example, Kay Armatage makes mention in Topia 7, 57,of “Judith Butler’s notions of the performativity of gender inscriptions and the materiality of the (represented) body through questions of fashion (costume) and design (setting) in the construction of characteriological identity,” suggesting the range and power of the film image.

Presented with a desirable social grammar, or artifact vocabulary, the consumer-viewer makes selective appropriations, incorporating the result into a regular wardrobe palette. . .

 

Eschewing issues of gender invention and character development, I use, instead, a presumption of socio-biological markers and the process of Kantian reasoning. Perhaps the consumer identifies that the characters in the fictive world seem to successfully mark display characteristics desirable in the every-day, lived experience of the consumer. Presented with a desirable social grammar, or artifact vocabulary, the consumer-viewer makes selective appropriations, incorporating the result into a regular wardrobe palette.

urban night life
Urban down towns were once the stuff of fancy plastic swizzel sticks, chilled martini glasses. and tons of neon. There is still a profound silo of connection between putting on the dog and fashion.

Just as military garments, outdoor wear, sports togs, and related motley and costuming were spun into every day use–think about the ubiquitous 6-pocket cargo pants derived from bdu [battle dress uniform] fatigues–by a novelty driven consumer base so, too, is the stuff of the sex professional’s stage wardrobe. Over decades, the use specific meaning of these quasi-costumes, adventure travel, sport togs, military uniforms, fell away. Now such garments may be donned to imply some meaning, some membership – but by no means is that necessarily the case.

The fashion originally focused on snatching, so to speak, the much-ballyhooed male gaze. It gained general acceptance once middle-class women came to identify their advantages in the remorseless competition for a desirable mate. . .

It’s all been-there-done-that stuff: back in the Victorian era the racy painters in the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood combined the flowing hair and loose gowns favored by mistresses and prostitutes with the Classical settings much loved by the up-tight Burghers. Soon enough proper bourgeois women adopted the cascading tresses and copious cleavage of these sexy goddesses. The fashion originally focused on snatching, so to speak, the much-ballyhooed male gaze. It gained general acceptance once middle-class women came to identify their advantages in the remorseless competition for a desirable mate.

Obviously, fetish, sexually explicit, and eroticizing clothing has long been a feature of urban life. But for most of the past decades fetish and the rest was restrained by access, consumer inclination, and membership margins (means, motive, and opportunity to put it another way). Encouraged by the morphing of strip-bars into “gentleman’s clubs” or cabarets, and enlightened by strip tease dance scenes and characters in a broad array of mainstream films, perceptions of the erotic in fashion has evolved.

Gypsy
Natalie Wood in “Gypsy.” A film based on the Based on the Broadway hit about the life and times of burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee and her aggressive stage mother, Mama Rose.

Meanwhile, the once popular idea of the “social construction” of sexual display as a contemporary male gaze in today’s media was reconfigured by socio-biologists. Sexual display, the mass of data seems to indicate, is a wholly human undertaking extending back to the primitive ooze as well as broadly across varied cultures. The birds do it, the bees do it, and a statistically significant number of human beings do it. It is noteworthy that although sexualized fashions, especially for relatively young women, have stimulated an enormous amount of hand-wringing popular press “opinion” coverage and Moral Panic, there seems to be little or no statisticalsupport for assumptions that behaviorhas changed in any meaningful way with fashion. There may be smoke, but there seems to be no fire – at least no more than there ever was, which in itself might be vastly revealing.

As scenes of strippers became apparently more commonplace in movies, they did tend to completely refute, or perhaps displace, old time limitations. . .

As scenes of strippers became apparently more commonplace in movies, they did tend to completely refute, or perhaps displace, old time limitations. If this stuff looked good on the pros, it might be imagined audience members everywhere seemed to think, look good on me: erotic fashion exploded into the everyday, blooming outside formal settings, boudoirs, and concubinage. We can easily think of Madonna and her influence popularizing the whore look identified with Vivienne Westwood, but they were both largely style publicists amidst the steady flow toward a renewed relish women enjoyed for sexy fashion.

DRAWING THE EXPLICITLY SEXUAL EXPRESSIVE FROM THE MARGINS TO THE CENTER

Campus intellectuals have long known that clothing has a profoundlysocio-biological function. Seeing stripper events as a ritualized embodiment of human mating strategy suggests that the garb be considered concrete in meaning and not arbitrary or accidental. Sexual display is central to successful mating among many other forms of complex, sophisticated life on the globe. Of course it’s central in our own community of featherless bipeds. Eroticized fashion, like culture as a whole, is thoroughly dynamic, knotted into a rich and flexible series of features: biological reality under pins choices available in all actual human sexuality.

Fashion playing toward randy display is thus abouthuman sexuality without necessarily being sexual in any formal sense—sexual behavior is not necessarily paired with any form of dress; it’s calculated to gain closure for a preferred mating option. For socio-biologists, human beings but often especially women manipulate their costuming in a deadly important, hugely vicious battle for desired mates based in long forgotten drives rooted in the primal mud. It’s good to be hot; it’s good to be  “rich,” in the sense of having access to desirable resources.

Liza Minelli
Liza Minnelli, “Cabaret.” The film had a measurable impact on fashion.

For years the stripper character, a fully or partly nude female, such as the heroines in early “tropical films,” scampered about in their scanty, translucent, or tight garments.  Sexual display was, in addition, a mainstay of the “legitimate theater.” Which was, after all, sometimes none too legit, there being a traditional connection between performers and working girls – this connection was made obvious in the film Moulin Rougeand of course many others.

As recording devices and other media developed, sexualized display was incorporated into film and then video product, as it had long been a fixture in print. From the Classical Greek stage, where players would strap on enormous prop priapus-appendages, across centuries to the roots of today’s dramatic arts hundreds of years ago, the human sexual condition has been grist for the performance mill: “tits sell tickets” Bernard Shaw once pointed out.

Competitive pressure supports increased erotic display: fabric becomes drapier, necklines plungier, and swim attire briefer. . .

 

Competitive pressure supports increased erotic display: fabric becomes drapier, necklines plungier, and swim attire briefer. Millions of woman shelling out many millions of dollars for breast implants indicates how vital success in mate display is considered. Maybe the “falcon cannot hear the falconer,” but consumers in vast numbers understood that erotic fashion offers a strong competitive edge in the hardly playful game of life.

strippers
At terminal state strip clubs, brevity is the soul of wit.

Increasingly, films employed strippers or sho-girls strategically placed to add glamour or eroticism to a scene, as when two characters will talk back stage of a club or theater while unclad or barely clad performers populate the space around them. Such eye candy may have been considered a perk for men in the audience. But women viewers got insight into brave new ideas for individual display as well as job opportunity. Including a stripper scene in a film today is almost typical, about as likely as the rolling credits at the end. And if the story involves a stripper in any way, it’s likely to fluff out some hokum about woman as victim (dealing with complex, legitimate issue of victimization would break the narrative flow). Keep in mind that performers in real life easily out earn faculty members at most universities. No wonder women in the audiences so quickly began to turn costume into everyday wear.

REPRESENTATIVE MOVIES – EXOTIC DANCE AND STRIPPING

Stripper scenes are by no means new. Although now common, they were once more typical of “B” grade or “schlock” films eager to enlarge their audience. . .

Stripper scenes are by no means new. Although now common, they were once more typical of “B” grade or “schlock” films eager to enlarge their audience. InThe Flesh Merchant(1955) young girls are sold into sin by lords of organized crime. And in The Sinister Urge(1960) the good guys hurry to crack down on smut peddlers — including in the action imaginatively if fancifully nasty scenes of the porno business — and to arrest the maniacal killer whose actions are

stripper movie
“B” style movies oftend promised more than they delivered.

stimulated by the smut images. Then, in Satan in High Heels(1962) an energetic stripper dumps her zonked-out husband, attempts a career as a singer, seduces an older patron, then his son, and then tries to get her ex-husband to kill for her. In Hollywood After Dark(1964) the would-be starlet finances her run for stardom by working the pole on the stage of a sleazy dive. Although there is precious little glamour here, compared to parallel roles, some of these women seem independent and successful.

showgirls
Meanwhile, showgirls in “legit” theatre were still working broadway and other entertainment centers.

Some releases actually carried entertainment in addition to general display. Biopics like Gypsy Rose Lee’s Gypsy (d. Mervyn LeRoy, 1962) lace a deeply voyeuristic story with flirtation. A reprise of the tone is available in The Right Stuff(d. Philip Kaufman, 1983; he directed Henry & Junein 1990, and Quillsin 2000) when the spacemen watch a Lee-like figure fan dance in the vast bar-b-q hall. Blaze (d. Ron Shelton, 1989) with Lolita Davidovitch, provides a colorful, though certainly not fact, filled and humorous segment of Louisiana’s political history. But other sorts of movies were probably more important in spreading the gospel of the garter than potboilers still aimed at bored or shy men or tentative biopics. Ten feature films of the mainstream might be:

A SELECTION OF FEATURE FILMS INVOLVING STRIPPERS

1) Lenny (d. Bob Fosse, (1974)); Fosse staged the dance numbers for the visually influential Cabaret, (1972), and was choreographer on All That Jazz, (1979), also important for its costuming impact), which purportedly tells Beat comedian Lenny Bruce’s story, includes suitably lush portrayals of his beautiful stripper wife, Honey. Valerie Perrine creates the role of Honey, repeating the mood she established in Slaughterhouse Five (d. George Roy Hill, (1972)). The exotic dancer character is rendered nice and sultry while not portrayed as a thoroughgoing slut—almost certainly what she (Bruce’s real wife) would have been called, and thought of, at the time.

2)Ruby (d. John Mackenzie, (1990)) offers a narrative version of the story of L.H. Oswald’s assassin, Jack Ruby. This film uses stripper performances as a scene-setting device but with a twist. Intriguingly, Rubycontinues to subvert bourgeois assumptions when Oswald’s killer is cast as an unusually decent sort and the tarts, which decorate his life, seem to be essentially normal women rather than dim victims. Showing the suberraneans as “normal” or even desirable types wrong-foots the usually moralistic gaze and sets Rubyapart in the genre.

3).Beverly Hills Cop (d. Martin Brest, (1984)) although the stripper scene is brief, BHCacts as a bridge to co-mingle male and female audience members and thus help educate young woman on “proper” exotic dress mores. Wiseacre Murphy meets his straight-laced colleagues in a “titty bar” to discuss police strategy and it all turns out ok in the end. Fairly coy fare focuses on thongs and heels.

4) Striptease (d. Andrew Bergman,  (1996)).  Demi Moore gives grade A examples of stripper standards, including pole work, and then models aprèsbeaver shooting ensembles suitable for flea market, mall, or trailer’s living room. Although there is appropriate complaint about the failure to “capture” the books foundation, the film does embrace a good part of the sleaze factor emanating from these settings. Yet, its just work. They’re just girls making a living. Too bad it does little justice to Carl Hiaasen’s very funny novel (and none to Hiaasen’s bitter political message).

5) Exotica (d. Atom Egoyan, writer-director (1994)). Heavy on the hot but light on the obvious, story line holds interests while Mia Kirshner steams up the place and buys back the eroticism of school girl costumes lost to overuse in telephone both outcall cards. Costumes more subtle, and this is seems more typical over time, in feature films.

6) Showgirls (d. Joe Eszterhas (writer), Paul Verhoeven (director) (1995)), Story is very weak, production values acceptable. Happily, this appallingly bad narrative lessons at its center of this release. Elizabeth Barkley is a kind of role model in this witless no brainer, relevant only here for its costumes. Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi in spite of their talent fail to make much of the Eszterhas mess. However, the costuming, even with the occasional continuing glitches, is representative and useful (although Barkley spends almost 20 minutes of the film essentially naked and thus hardly useful as a costume communicator).

7). The People vs. Larry Flynt (d. Milos Forman, (1997)).  Courtney Love is plainer but far more authentic, sleazier and sluttier, than firm-body Barkley or Moore. Exotic dance scenes and sleazy action with Larry Flynt’s career high points getting cinematic representation.  Like Ruby, this film shows gutter girls as regular folk, in a sense. Voyeuristic prying into Flynt’s amazing life, decorated with various retro-look tarty scenes. While it’s not cinema verite, many of the images of work-a-day dancers seem to be done with legitimacy rather than glamour.

8). Kandy Land (d. Philip Marcus & Robert A. Schnitzer, (1987)), provides a catalog of costumes and fashion options. In its improbable story, the protagonist slowly becomes involved in the exotic dance world and finds it strangely embracing and supportive of her individual life style.

9). Flashdance (d. Adrian Lyne, (1983)). This ham-handed drama follows a female welder who dreams, and works, to gain entry into a professional dance troupe. What audience members see is that those snobs don’t deserve her. According to movie lore, Jennifer Beals’ now trademark collarless sweater was a serendipitous invention, not the brainchild of some prescient designer on the set. This garment, which was for a time enormously popular, emerged when Beals brought it from home, shrunk in a recent wash. The actress cut the collar off to get it over her head. In the filmic reality, Beals’ character sticks to the upper crust, while her girlfriend Sunny Johnson slides onto the runway at the local tavern and immediately delights authentic crowds of happy, lusty, unpretentious men.

10). As a group, the cults:  these larks hardly make a pretense to a story, but do offer a wacky ride dotted with thongs, slingbacks, mules, suspenders, g-strings and the rest. Naked Obsession (d. Dan Golden, 1990), Dance of the Damned (d. Katt Shea, 1988; usually uncredited remake in 1993 as To Sleep With a Vampire), creepy fashion plates, jostles on video shelves with Dance of Death (d. Charles Philip Moore, 1991) the various wildly popular Porky’s (Porky’s, d. Bob Clark, 1981; Porkey’s 2: The Next Day, d. Bob Clark, 1983; Porkey’s Revenge, d. James Komack, 1985) and many others will segments devoted to on screen images of exotic dance more or less tangential to the story line.

DANCER’S EXOTIC COSTUME AS FASHION

Monroe
Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. Broadway? Burlesque? Showgirls? Lots of references here.

Reviewing entertainment with an eye to survey its terrain as a donor region for fashion does not answer many questions which seem obvious in this terrain, since the “why” of selection remains. Moreover, it’s quite obvious that the membrane is porous in both directions – dancers quickly appropriated all sorts of costuming from the quazi “traditional” if, for example, one can call the Japanese school girl stripper look such a thing, to painter’s loop-sided dungarees to farmer’s bib-front overalls. But there can be little ambiguity in the observation that paths exist linking entertainers, both working-class burlesque and exotic dance with its roots extending to the sawdust and hay of the carnival tent, and the post-modern orbit of the Madonna-esque stream of video based performative/singers. As is always the case, all forms of media, certainly including film, operate in symbiotic ways to message this message into the more or less receptive masses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *