Costuming plays a unique theatrical role in burlesque. It establishes the character and tone of a piece, but even more interesting to me is that the manner of its removal can dictate the entire choreography of a number. Elements that almost instantly call burlesque to mind, such as feather boas, opera length gloves, and of course pasties, combine in a way to make burlesque costuming distinctive and irresistible to fans of glamour. If you go to Atomic Todd in Las Vegas, you can see many of the amazing costumes from burlesque's golden era, collected by Dixie Evans.
Many burlesque performers really raise the bar when it comes to costuming. Dirty Martini works closely with David Quinn; Bambi the Mermaid and Bunny Love, among others, have elaborate costumes made by Garo Sparo. Although few of my costumes are very elaborate, I make most of them myself--probably the only aspect of costuming on which I raise the bar is in making tails, but I have yet to cover one with rhinestones.
Me in my Godzilla costume, for which I made lizard-print mittens, boot toppers, corset, and pasties, not to mention an articulated six-foot tail designed to strip off.
Bambi in the lobster costume I made for her. I like to make tails.
Lili St Cyr said that she sometimes enjoyed coming up with costumes even more than she enjoyed performing. Dita Von Teese, who is partially if not mainly responsible for the current association of burlesque costumes with corsets, says in her book: "Catherine has made me one dozen (and counting!) such jewel-encrusted costumes, using only the finest fabrics and drawing me perilously toward bankruptcy with every stitch. When I feel desperate about it, I remind myself that opulence is my signature...."
Dita performing at Erotica 2007--with a tail! Click image to view more at celebrity-gossip.net.
Liz Goldwynn's book Pretty Things uses the costumes as a basis for a study of burlesque memorabilia, including the cash record book of Gussie Gross.
To give you a sense of how much work can go into these creations, here is Patricia Gorman making a costume for Bustout Burlesque. I love that she's using some beads provided by a burlesque performer of the 1950s. This clip is the first in a series of three, culminating with the dancer performing and modeling in the costume:
Bustout Burlesque, raising the bar in more ways than one: