More is More

10 things about the Great Canadian Burlesque

Surrounded by suitcases bursting with incandescent crystal-laden braziers and fluttering ostrich-feather fans, trays of pasties, and women decked out in the best of pin-up vogue, it was like I had stepped into a different era. A warm era, with soft curls and hard eyeliner. I spoke with a handful of next-to-naked women of the Great Canadian Burlesque (GCB) troupe, getting ready to trade their bodies for applause and whistles that night at the Mod Club. I was dazzled by the flashy costumes, so delicate and intricate up close; and by the dancers themselves, who were stunning, with confidence and charisma any stage performer would aspire to have. I settled in to watch my first burlesque show, unsure of what was to come. By the end, I was cheering louder than anyone, completely caught up in the electrifying atmosphere and the sex that filled the air. However, I did manage to learn a thing (or 10) during my time with the talented ladies (and men) of the GCB.

1 // More is more
When it comes to burlesque costumes, you can never have too much of anything. Performers adhere to the three S’s like religion: sequins, shine, and shimmer. “The flashier the better,” says Fionna Flauntit, GCB performer, founder, and producer. Costumes are over the top, both in theme and application. There’s more Swarovski crystals at a burlesque show than a Michael Jackson impersonator convention (Miss Mitzy Cream’s Glamophone outfit has over 43,000 of them, trimmed with plenty of 18-ply ostrich feathers). “In any other application it would be cheesy as hell, but in the burlesque world, it’s perfect,” laughs Flauntit. But performers exaggerate the theme of their characters, too. Ms. Chaos Divine’s black widow costume, whose black nail polish was drying as we spoke, incorporates a spider web-cut leather corset and garter belt, a spider’s nest fascinator, complete with floralytes, a bouquet of roses I’m assuming for the funeral of her not-so-dearly departed (and digested) husband and a spider perched on top. Oh and spider-web pasties just for good measure.

2 // Face time
Makeup is an important part of every performer’s ensemble. It can contribute thematically to the character, like in Cherry Typhoon’s geisha routine, or simply enhance the drama of a performer’s look, like the seductive Sassy Ray. Performers sometimes paint themselves from head to… well, you can imagine… in which case makeup is one of the most prominent features of an act.

It gets heated onstage under the spotlights, so makeup needs to cover sheen, while amplifying facial features with fake eyelashes and gauche blush so even the audience at the back can see. Veteran Miss Mitzy does her own makeup meticulously in a little bathroom above the stage before the show (pantless, I might add), smudging foundation and powder onto her cheeks and forehead, and carefully applying dramatic eye makeup. Some performers like Miss Mitzy use their own products from home, while others have their makeup done professionally. Coco Framboise had her Cleopatra-inspired visage crafted by Stacey Laureyssens, a Toronto-based stage makeup artist and owner of theOriginalFace. The decision to use a makeup artist or DIY can depend on the complexity of the performer’s character, and how big a part the makeup plays during the performance. Hint: Flauntit’s Mystique costume is pretty heavy on the makeup.

3 // Size/age is just a number
Perhaps in response to the rail-thin young white models that grace most of our runways and fashion spreads today, burlesque has joined the ranks of counter-culture, frequently offering up a diverse array of performers that vary in size, ethnicity, and age. From size 2′s to 24′s, GCB succeeds in showcasing women from all walks of life that defy conventional beauty: black, white, Asian and Latin women, PYTs to impressive legends Tiffany Carter (Miss Nude Universe 1975) and Tempest Storm (one of the most iconic women in the industry). I think Forrest Gump once said that burlesque is like a box of chocolates. And he was right.

4 // A pastie party

Pasties are pieces of material that performers use to cover their nipples. The tradition of wearing pasties is about as old as burlesque itself; troupes in the 1920s used them as a way to get around moral laws of the time (no nip, no foul, right?). They come in countless forms—like the traditional conical shape, hearts, stars, X’s, alpha letters, or just plain glitter—and can encompass various features, from dangling tassels that spin rhythmically with any slight upper body movement, to the flaming ones that Tanya Cheex courageously dons. Dancers can buy them online, or locally from women like Cheex or Patte Rosebank, who make them by hand and sell them on platters at events. They are attached securely to the breast using double-sided adhesive tape, or wig-tape, which occasionally can be painful to remove. But it’s better than having them fly off during a particularly intense twirl.

5 // To prop or not to prop
A giant gramophone complete with rotating platform. A feathered crown composed of removable fans. A classic stripper pole. Depending on the performer, acts can incorporate varying degrees of accessories. Some performances keep it simple, involving only a chair or an umbrella filled with rose petals, a choice that puts more focus on the dancer’s choreography. Others lean toward the more sublime of sets, like Divine’s subterranean lair, a world rife with jars full of creepy crawlies, baroque furniture, and gloomy drapery. Coco Framoise included some “sex slaves” as props in her Cleopatra routine, and Sauci Calla Horra used her male volunteer’s (ahem) props to juice some lemons.

Choosing to use props can depend on the context of the routine: they can get in the way of choreography-heavy performances like those of troupes (the Harlettes, Glamourpuss Burlesque), but they can add to the laughs in more comedic acts. I’m certain old Will Shakespeare would approve of the glitter shower Akynos (the Incredible Edible) gave herself on stage, or Miss Mitzy’s baby that poops and vomits crystals.

6 // The show must go on
What happens if a performer steps on her hem and her whole outfit unravels, or a pastie flies into the crowd? “You just roll with it and make it look like it was meant to be,” says Flauntit. It helps that burlesque is rooted in comedy, but having to stop to wrench open a zipper mid-act sort of kills the mood. Not many women have the issue of unfastening a zipper (it’s generally the opposite we struggle with, trying to fit into too tight jeans). But Divine has experienced that one. “I think the mark of a seasoned performer is one who can manage a costume mishap, because it’s going to happen,” she says. And there’s always wig tape and safety pins for quick fixes. Worst case scenario, a performer pulls a Janet and the audience gets an eyeful. But something tells me they wouldn’t mind.

7 // Howling at the moon(s)
Wolfman, like his time-honoured shark fin suit(?) that he purchased at Winners for Girlesque 6, is a mainstay within the GCB organization, though he came into his role almost by fate. Playing off a nickname bestowed upon him by bullies in his adolescence, Wolfman had pitched a song to the fledgling company to use on stage. Back then, GCB was spookier (Miss Mitzy “Scream” was a vampire, and founder/producer Chris Mysterion, a local mentalist, hosted the shows), and the werewolf thing kind of fit. Before long, Wolfman started hosting due to a chance double-booking, and the rest is history. Like many others in the industry, though maybe more appropriately, he moonlights at the burlesque shows, and graces the stage of many other events locally, emceeing everything from rock shows and magazine launches to animal rescue events and fundraisers. Awoo!

8 // The stuff characters are made of
A sexy song, an entertaining figure in the media, an especially inspirational fabric: burlesque performers’ characters are born in many ways. Flauntit found a particularly hideous dress in a thrift shop (crushed velvet, lime green, over $300 of crystals sewn on). But with some alterations, it was perfect for her Green Lady performance. Divine is occasionally motivated by chakras and energy, or deep emotions like heartbreak, but more often by the costume itself as she pieces it together. “The character usually develops as I start creating the costume and start rehearsing,” she explains. “It’s funny how I can feel myself changing into something else, and embodying whatever I’m doing after I put the costume on.” Sometimes the performance is entirely about the costume, like Miss Mitzy’s self-described look at my pretty outfit routine. But each performer has an extensive rotation of characters they can embody on any given night. Miss Mitzy has over 65 different acts, each with its own costume. You can imagine her closet!

9 // Hand-made-ens
It’s rare that a performer can find exactly what she needs off the rack. There is a strong DIY culture in burlesque, as women often need to alter a fantastic thrift shop find to fit their measurements, or adorn it with crystals or bows. There are performers on a shoestring budget who you would never guess shopped at Dollarama, thanks to their darn-ed skills. Some performers are quite talented seamstresses, like Divine, who has been sewing and putting on fashion shows since she can remember. Most of her outfits have dual purposes, starting as one thing and then transforming into something else. “I like having versatility in the way I look,” she says, and like many performers, she would not wear something straight off the rack. Other performers may not have the skills themselves, and so employ others in the industry to create their costumes based on their direction. “I’m horrible at it, I’m hopeless at making costumes,” admits Miss Mitzy, whose glamaphone outfit was created by fellow performer and costume designer, Patte Rosebank. Alternatively, performers can shop at various specialty stores, like Danger Dame or Lip Service, and piece together an outfit like a puzzle.

10 // All the dance classes in the world…
When it comes down to it, a burlesque performance isn’t just about one thing. It’s about the way the costume, the makeup, the choreography, and the sex appeal all come together. “It’s the whole package, it’s about how you feel on stage and how you come off on stage to the audience,” says Flauntit. It takes guts to get up on stage in a room full of people and take your clothes off. It’s seemingly simple, but it’s hard to do well, in a way that makes the audience laugh, get turned on, and widen their eyes in awe at the same time. “You know, you have to have the charisma, and the audience loves to see when you’re enjoying yourself,” Flauntit emphasizes. “You could have the most elaborate costume, but if you don’t have stage presence and the personality… Personality is the one thing you can’t teach people.”

photography // Claire Ward-Beveridge

Change Room

A tale of great customer service—or a SPIRITUAL AWAKENING?

As a plus-sized woman, clothes shopping is the bane of my existence. I can spend over an hour eyeing the racks at the stores looking for Whitney-friendly wear (loose-fitting or oversized tops, stretchy sweaters, princess-cut dresses, and nothing that can be described as “form-fitting”), only to meet my match in the fitting room. The worst is when the mirrors are outside the change room, forcing me to walk the plank and parade around in front of everyone in the store. This almost always comes with prying eyes from the skinny salesgirls and customers, whose main concerns are if a colour looks good on them and not that they’d look like a stuffed sausage. It’s the same story, repeated again and again—I’ll leave the store with only a broken spirit.

Until one fateful evening in Montreal, that is. After hours of trying on baggy tunics in a bunch of outlet stores, I noticed a brightly lit Betsey Johnson store, appearing as a beacon in an otherwise gloom-filled day. Frilly frou-frou dresses, bedazzled cardigans and sky-high heels hung from racks, sat on shelves and burst from display cases. Wall to wall were rock-chic tutus, gloves, arm warmers, and berets shimmering with decals; purses in leopard prints, shiny metallic silvers, blues, reds, and purples; and bold, sparkling belts and jewelry. I stared longingly at all the clothes that I wished would fit my plus-size physique; this was, in every other way, “Whitney’s Wonderful Emporium.” It was the intersection of so many fun and wonderful places, containing the glamour of a rock show, the whimsy of Willy Wonka’s factory, and the meticulous curating of a museum. And like a real museum, I dared not touch anything. I took one wistful look around me, then turned around to leave.

I didn’t get far before a sales associate stopped me, asking if she could help. Normally, I would have politely said “no thank you,” but I couldn’t abandon those clothes without giving them a fair chance (Did I mention the tutu?). In a small voice I explained that while I loved every single thing in the store, I bore no delusions of petiteness and knew nothing would fit. But the sales girl wouldn’t take no for an answer.

She plunked me in the change room and set out to navigate the wild rapids of frothy dresses, bringing me lacy and delicate garments I would have never dared pick out myself—one wrong move and I would split these in half like the Hulk. But she encouraged me to give them a try.

After building my confidence with a few sunnily-patterned sheath dresses, I found myself worming into a tight black pencil skirt with a jaunty peplum. I was attracted to that skirt, but in the same way I might be attracted to Leonardo DiCaprio—that is to say, from a distance. Actually trying it on could be enough to end a love affair; if this one didn’t fit, that would be the end of this little pretense. With a loose white cashmere poncho on top and a pair of electric blue heels that felt alien on my feet, I was ready for my usual disappointment.

As I emerged, the customer in the change room next to me said “Whoa.” I looked in the mirror and was shocked; I had legs. The skirt fit perfectly and clung to my body in all the right places. I looked tall and polished and felt flat out sexy. For the first time ever, I felt great in a fitting room.

I purchased the outfit and sincerely thanked the sales associate. I wish I could remember the name of the woman who guided me through this intimate awakening. I never go shopping with girlfriends, mostly ’cause we can’t shop in the same stores, so I could never relate to other women who spoke of shopping as some female bonding experience—until now. What was probably a regular work day for this woman helped me overcome some pretty deep personal insecurities. I walked out of the store grinning and high off my epiphany into a twilit evening. Suddenly all these possibilities were in front of me, and I couldn’t stop putting outfits together in my head. Was it an artificial high brought on by consumerism? That’s one way to interpret it, but I finally felt like I could fit in with these cultural arbiters so often relegated to femininity (after all, it’s a lot easier to think about subverting convention when the rules automatically apply to you). I finally knew how Becky Bloomwood felt after a particularly erotic session of shopping at Prada, or the cult of Carrie Bradshaw that swept the nation in the late ’90s.

This was going to change everything.

photography // Brianne Burnell

Whitney Wornette

Our editorial intern loves Mindy Kaling and her bike

My friends and family are used to my, ahem, talking points by now (read: feminist rants, generally concerning politics and women’s rights), but they seemed genuinely surprised when I started discussing fashion.

I had never entered vintage stores or boutiques because I knew the clothes in there weren’t made for my body. Then I started researching for my first blog post for WORN on plus size fashion, and I found women that looked like me for once, and they looked good.

At first I was upset that this whole world of real beautiful women wearing awesome clothes had been hidden from me, and I was upset that I had spent so many years of my life trying to hide my body instead of feeling good about it. I started to look in those stores and try things on. Lo and behold, with a little patience and creativity, I started to piece together a wardrobe that I am becoming really proud of. Look out Toronto—I’ve bought my first vintage piece, and there’s no going back!

Current inspirations

Daniela Gesundheit of Snowblink
Gesundheit’s perfect mix of wit and wispyness is crush-worthy, and every time I see her play, the next day I am in front of my mirror for an hour trying to recreate her look. From her antler-adorned guitar to her ’70s-inspired style, Daniela always seems effortlessly cool.

Ma Bicyclette
I cycle to work almost every day, so any outfit I wear must be bike-friendly. You will find nary a bell-bottom or floor-length skirt in my closet. I probably have more tights, leggings, and skinny pants than Russell Brand.

My dad
I admit I’ve been caught a few times snooping through my dad’s side of the closet. Mostly it annoys him, but I think he is a little proud that his daughter thinks he’s cool. Some recent finds: a black braided belt, a lovely cable-knit sweater, ridiculously comfy track pants (why are men’s clothes so much more comfy?) and a real cowboy hat, though he made me give that one back (background: he used to live in rural Saskatchewan. Yes there is non-rural Saskatchewan).

Mindy Kaling
The Mindy Project is so damn funny. I love seeing a curvier woman headline her own sitcom; one of the first since, what? Roseanne? Sure, she’s a bit of a hot mess, with the operative word being “hot.” I love her outfits. My favorite outfit appears when she meets the guy in the bookstore as she is shopping for tote bags, and they end up going out for multiple flavours of fro-yo and pretzels.