The History Of Striptease

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC The History Of Striptease

Gypsy is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of the famous American burlesque striptease artist, Gypsy Rose Lee and focuses Rose, the ultimate show business mother. To celebrate the filmed production of the stage show coming to DVD and Digital Download on 28th November, we take a look at the history of striptease and its surprising origins.


In ancient Greece, the lawgiver Solon established several classes of prostitutes in the late 6th century BC. One class, known as the auletrides were made up of female dancers, acrobats, and musicians, noted for dancing naked in an alluring fashion in front of audiences of men.

In ancient Rome, a dance featuring stripping was also a common part of the entertainments at the Floralia, a festival in April honouring the goddess Flora.

Empress Theodora a 6th century Byzantine Queen is reported by sources to have started life as a courtesan and actress who disrobed as part of her act; a little like Gypsy Rose Lee.


Though stripping was incorporated in ancient entertainment, an early version of striptease as we know it now, became popular in England at the time of the Restoration. A striptease featured in the famous play, The Rover, written by Aphra Behn in 1677. Though the stripper is a man in this instance, he sensually undresses and goes to bed in a love scene. The concept of striptease was also documented in other works at the time, such as Thomas Otway‘s comedy play, The Soldier’s Fortune in 1681, in which a character declares, “Be sure they be lewd, drunken, stripping whores” suggesting stripping was a common known practice.


The dances of the Ghawazee in North Africa and Egypt consisted of the erotic dance of the bee performed by a woman known as Kuchuk Hanem. In this dance, Kuchuk Hanem, disrobes as she searches for an imaginary bee trapped within her garments. The French colonists at the time observed this tradition and took it back to form the stripteases seen in France. Middle Eastern belly dance was also seen as a form of striptease in that it is dancing in barely-there clothing to entice the opposite sex.


Striptease became increasingly common in the brothels of 18th century London, where the women, called ‘posture girls’, would strip naked on tables for popular entertainment.

Across Europe, striptease was now also combined with music, as we often see today. In Germany in 1720, one particular act saw dancers, to please their lovers, drop their clothes and dance completely naked.

Some claim the origin of the modern striptease lies in Oscar Wilde‘s 1893 play Salome. In the Dance of the Seven Veils the female protagonist, Salome, dances for King Herod and slowly removes her veils until she lies naked. After Wilde’s play, the erotic ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, became a standard routine for dancers in opera, vaudeville, film and and the popular striptease style of burlesque.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Parisian shows such as the Moulin Rouge  were featuring attractive scantily clad women dancing on stage. An act in the 1890s featured a woman who slowly removed her clothes in a vain search for a flea crawling on her body, inspired by the Kuchuk Hanem of North Africa.


Gypsy was born Rose Louise Hovick but was commonly referred to as Louise. She started on the Vaudeville scene with her younger sister, baby June. However, when her sister left, it was clear that Louise’s talents could not sustain a lucrative career. She soon discovered that there was far more money to be made in striptease and took on the stage name Gypsy Rose Lee.

Lee viewed herself as a “high-class” stripper, and so she maintained class and dignity throughout her routines, her stripping act was only initiated when a shoulder strap on one of her gowns gave way, causing her dress to fall to her feet despite her efforts to cover herself. Encouraged by the audience’s response, she went on to make the trick the focus of her performance.

She has since been immortalised in a film starring Natalie Wood and most recently on London’s West End stage starring Imelda Staunton as Mamma Rose and Lara Pulver as Gypsy Rose Lee herself.


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