Dita Von Teese single-handedly ushered a divisive art form into the mainstream in the ’90s, and at 47 the entrepreneur and Queen of Burlesque shows no signs of slowing down.
She was seduced by the world of fashion and glamour at an early age. “One of my first jobs as a teenager was working in a lingerie store,” she recalls. “My love of lingerie is what led me to recreate vintage-style pin-ups in the early days of my career.” Her pin-up persona – the same jet-black hair, red lip and cat-eye liner she sports today – had Playboy calling, which spurred a move into striptease and burlesque; perhaps a natural progression given her background in ballet.
While she has her critics – who cannot accept her views on striptease and feminism; many calling it ‘degrading’ – Dita’s philosophy is simple. If you like it, great, come along; if you don’t like it, so be it. “That’s what I love [about burlesque] – it’s women deciding,” she says. “We no longer have to apologise for our sensuality; we are living in a time where we can truly have it all. We can reconcile being feminists and indulging in something like burlesque, all at the same time.” This mentality is certainly reflected by a shift in the audiences who go to see Dita’s shows. She says while she once performed mainly under the straight male gaze, it’s now women and the LGBTQ community who fill the seats. “Most of the straight men who are there are [there] at the request of their wife or a girlfriend,” she adds.
Her unapologetic stance on female sensuality might explain her extreme popularity with women, or it could be the fashion. Known for her elaborate costuming, Swarovski-adorned props and sets, and a Louboutin shoe wardrobe to rival all others, Dita works with some of the biggest names in the business. Famous corset maker Mr Pearl, a close friend, created dazzling pieces for Dita’s currently-touring Glamonatrix revue (“No one does it like he does!); British designer Jenny Packham brings her trademark femininity and sparkle; while French couturier Alexis Mabille has done couture tuxedos. Naturally, footwear designer Christian Louboutin crafted a bespoke range of one-offs for the star. “He’s a very close friend so it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes I just tell him an idea and he sends sketches and sometimes he draws options right in front of me.”
Fashion aside, Dita believes there has to be something more substantial contributing to the ongoing popularity of burlesque. “Having something to say behind the glamour and glitz of burlesque is part of what helps it live on,” she says. “I don’t think burlesque could really be a thing these days if we women hadn’t flipped the script and decided we were going to make the burlesque stage a place of acceptance, you know?”.
Dita’s recent New Zealand shows followed this inclusive philosophy and speaking to FQ before she arrived in the country, she placed emphasis on the diverse cast performing alongside her. “I’m joined by a full cast of the very best in burlesque, performers from all over the world that I think represent beauty in many forms, and innovation in performance.” Dita also features an equal number of men and women in her cast. “I am proud… watching burlesque unfold into this space where we indulge in glamour and sensuality, a place where people often feel inspired to harness their own beauty and sensuality in a way that the mainstream media hasn’t promoted much,” she says. “It is starting to change, as we are starting to see brands talk about inclusivity finally, but I can tell you that we’ve been doing this in the burlesque world for a long time now.”
More recently, Von Teese walked the runway for Alexis Mabille’s Spring 2020 couture show in Paris.
Words: Kelly McAuliffe
Photos: Getty Images
This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly Issue 4 2019.