Talking Burlesque Costumes with Missy Malone

Talking Burlesque Costumes with Missy Malone

Missy Malone is a burlesque artist and performer, and she also puts together burlesque events. She's an actor, she's a model, she has her own vintage shop in Cheltenham, and she also sells online. Today she tells us about her collection of vintage burlesque costumes.

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Early Film and Circus Costumes

This costume was one of my earliest purchases, I studied costume design at Edinburgh College of Art, and it was costume design that I specialized in. I had an interest in sort of '40s and '50s films and musicals and things with sparkles and all sorts of things.

So this one, I actually found on eBay and it was just called an old show girl costume, but it said cloth, set rhinestones and glass bugle beads, hand sewn, handmade. So I thought it would be an interesting piece to have a look at the construction.

When it arrived, it had a nice little surprise inside it because it's got the Paramount label in the back.

This one is one of my favourites and one of my earliest in my collection and it weighs a tonne!

Silver sequinned vintage burlesque costume

Vintage showgirl costume from Paramount Studios, Hollywood

When it arrived, it had a nice little surprise inside it because it's got the Paramount label in the back.

Vintage Paramount Studios Costume Label

The bra cups are heavily padded

I've probably got probably at least 10 suitcases of costumes so this is just a little selection today. My preference is 1940s and 1950s and I'm really drawn to original burlesque costumes because that’s the area that I work in. A lot of them do get worn quite hard so they are harder to find, than costume pieces, film costume pieces are kept in nice storage, burlesque costumes are worn to death until they are destroyed, which is still usually the case today. Any burlesque performer will tell you how many pairs of things they've gone through in their career.

I'm drawn to anything, '40s, '50s, but I do have earlier pieces. An early one from my collection, probably early 1900s, is probably a circus costume. So it's not technically always film or burlesque, it's any interesting performance costumes like this clown costume. This was an early piece that I bought as a student, but it's very delicate and the silk is all shattering down the sides. So a lot of the things I buy at the time, I bought them to just study them, to look at the construction of them and the fabrics. And then when I started buying burlesque costumes, I wanted to sort of mimic the originals rather than just buy lingerie, like a lot of my peers did. I wanted to try and recreate the shapes that I liked, so I've mimicked quite a few of the burlesque pieces.

Those neat points? The black trim is made from ribbon

The inside of Missy's early 20th century circus costume

Inside the costume it's not quite as neat

Professional Burlesque and Stage Costume Designers

These sequinned knickers are made by costumiere Mme Berthe based in New York who made costumes for burlesque performers as well as Broadway productions from the 1930s-1970s.

Made from a nude illusion mesh with minimal stretch they feature a heavyweight metal zip at the back along with hook and eye for extra security!

Stage Burlesque knickers by Mme Berthe

Stage/Burlesque knickers by Mme Berthe

Pink vintage costume by chicago costumier Tony Midnite

Costume by Chicago costumier Tony Midnite

This second costume is labeled 'Tony Midnite'. Tony Midnight was a famous drag performer (or female impersonator during their era) based mainly in Chicago where they also had a costume studio. It's difficult to know if this was a piece mad for Tony to wear, or if it was made for another performer.

Throughout their life Tony was a campaigner for gay rights and in 1996 was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.

If the costume doesn't have labels, you just have to sort of keep searching. I collect a lot of original burlesque photographs, and books, and I looked really closely at everybody in the picture. So everybody in the background, if it's a changing picture, everybody getting dressed, everybody on stage, everything to see if I can recognize any of the pieces at all, because that would be the only way that you could really identify it, if you matched it in a photograph.

Handmade Burlesque Costumes

I have a few pieces where I do know the performers who wore them, but most of them are unknown burlesque performers. Burlesque costumes that were made by the performers themselves, they're most commonly, quite crudely made, like most burlesque costumes today. If you make them yourself, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you're not having a designer make them, they can be not so great up close.

This one is a real classic design, which you'll have seen if you look at any 1950s burlesque performers, late '40s into the '50s, right up to late '50s. These flesh net bras, which are pretty much nude. This one has an embellished nipple area and some of the States in America had laws where you couldn't go topless, you had to wear pasties. Some places you couldn't even wear pasties, you had to wear some sort of covering so this I'm sure would have been used in the States where you couldn't remove the bra. This was as skimpy as you could get legally, and this one's got lovely beaded, embroidery, and sequins done by the performer I think and this would have been the final piece of the striptease on the top half.

Classic 1950s burlesque triangle bra

Classic 1950s burlesque triangle bra

Another one of my favourites is a plain sheer triangle bra, it’s not very showy, but it was owned by a very famous burlesque performer called Blaze Starr. She was a famous burlesque performer in the 1940s, and '50s, right up to the '60s, I think in New Orleans. And there's a film about her and everything, she's a fascinating character. I don't know if it was an unfinished bra or if it was just an under piece, but it came from an estate sale of her items so it has a nice story.

Gold burlesque bra adorned with gold bugle beads

The bra that inspired Missy Malone's 'Gold Rush' act.

This is another piece I love, and I've mimicked it with one of my own costumes for my Gold Rush act. It's a really heavy glass bugle, beaded triangle bra, all the elastics are usually gone in these old bras, but this has such great movement and shape.

I love the triangle shaped bra, which is really typical of the early to mid '50s burlesque performers. And crudely made, they don't stand up to close inspection very well, but I love them because it would have been sewn in dressing rooms and repaired on the go.

That's why I like them because if you look at my costumes closely, they'll be exactly the same.

So carrying on with the handmade burlesque costumes. This is another piece that I bought from Neil Kendall, who is a well-known burlesque photographer. And this is a great example because it shows you how the construction works with my favourite style of burlesque costumes. So if you were to check any of my stage costumes, a lot of them are this shape. So the triangle bra, the sort of V shaped panel and the panel skirts like this and all of these pieces detach, so that piece has a button underneath, modern day, it's usually a popper. So there's a button under here that comes off so that you have a panel that you can dance with and then remove one at a time.

The bra has great little tassels built in, and this one didn't have this original elastic, but usually they unclip from the front, the centre front for a quick, easy release. That's how you can usually tell if it's a stripper's bra, because there'll be a front release of the triangle bra. But yet again, hand sewn, not amazing sewing skills, lots of little repairs, little tears that have been sewn up where they've stood on it on stage with their heels.

Vintage handmade burlesque costume
Vintage blue handmade burlesque costume

A handmade Burlesque costume purchased from UK photographer Neil Kendall

I would find it hard to sell any of my costume collection, but it does happen. Sometimes I get more than one. So I've got three of the same one. I was in one of the old film costume shops in Burbank and they were having a sale and there were three matching dancing leotards so I bought all three. I still have them because I sort of liked the idea of doing something with three people but I probably would eventually sell them. If it's a piece like this or a piece of burlesque history, I probably wouldn't be able to sell that.

In my shop, however, I sell a lot of vintage swimsuits, bikinis and things that could be used for pin-up modelling, burlesque or performance, but maybe didn't start off with that life.

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