When I was a kid, showgirls still seemed to be everywhere on TV… probably it was old syndicated variety shows from the 60s and 70s I was watching (just as I watched Bewitched religiously long after it was no longer running), but then there were also aspects of showgirl style everywhere in the sort of pop culture a young girl consumed in the 1980s.
My mother took me to the Ice Capades and there were a lot of rhinestones and ostrich feathers on their costumes, alone with synchronized dance routines reminiscent of Vegas floor shows. Barbie was more of a ruffle kinda gal than an ostrich feather gal, but she had plenty of bling back then with every doll having a faux diamond ring and faux diamond earrings and necklaces.
Sequins were everywhere, along with glitter.
Then as I grew older, ruffles and feathers and rhinestones became verboten in favour of ripped jeans (and in my case as a teen goth, lots of black fishnet). I took my style cues first from Kelly Bundy and later more from old photos of Robert Smith.
Certainly not from Barbie and not from showgirls anymore.
In more recent years, I’ve noticed the only socially acceptable place to get your rhinestone and sequin on is if you’re a bellydancer (and I sorta am, assorted wear and tear and antisociability not withstanding). Even in Vegas, the era of the showgirl seems to be waning or at least radically changing.
This was something I started getting interested in in 2020 when I was drawing and painting a lot and found myself attracted to frivolous high heels and cute handbags and the like and I got to think how the frippery of female dress has been denigrated in recent decades.
I remember my dad’s best friend’s wife Frieda and how she always wore costume jewelry and rhinestones when I was a kid. Frieda was the most glamorous person I knew and I hoped to be like her when I grew up.
The only people I can think of I’ve seen in person doing that (outside of bellydance showcases) in recent years is a lady antique dealer I used to see (and bid against!) at the local auction house, who was always decked out in rhinestone jewelry and vintage furs, fake or otherwise, and a lady who used to work at the Value Village around the corner from my old house in Richmond.
I swear I’m the only one in my circle of acquaintance who owns a pink purse, for example. It’s certainly rare that I see them in the stores now, even though when I use the purse below, I get compliments on it everywhere:
Honestly, it’s not even that frivolous and not at all frilly. It’s just in a color that’s not black, brown, or navy. Even if one wants to go with a black bag, there are solutions to not make it a boring black bag:
I also get compliments on this one all the time from women whose own purses probably cost more but have way less personality. When did we all agree to be so damn boring?
Anyway, I do also have a ton of rhinestones, fringes, even some feathers, and the like but I must admit in my day to day life I tend to live in yoga pants and t-shirts, which don’t really go with the rhinestones. Or with ruffles. And certainly not with ostrich feathers.
We won’t even start on how I have nothing to go with the fabulous yellow pillbox hat I have that I really should wear more often… I guess I’m guilty too, just not as much.
Is it too late to make a New Year’s Resolution to change how I dress?
Anyway, in related trains of thought, probably brought on by some exercise in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I got to looking at stuff I loved as a kid, and found myself not only buying some old Ice Capades programs (some I remember having had but had long since disposed of, plus others) and digging around to find footage of the old Vegas-style shows on YouTube, and started researching the old shows.
This led me to what I guess I can call the “book of the week”: Karan Feder’s The Follies Bergere in Las Vegas.
It’s a slim book, but packed with great photos and tidbits of information about the Vegas production of the Follies, which ran for just shy of 50 years at the Tropicana. Topics covered range from the costumes (including how every 3 years they had to have a bonfire of them and order fresh ones from Paris due to some customs rule wherein you had 3 years to either send the costumes back where they were made or destroy them lest you face obscene duty fees) to the hazards of the sets (you weren’t a real showgirl til you fell down the grand stairs during a show, sometimes this resulted in broken bones).
Many of the costume pieces featured in the book are from a large donation of thousands of costume bits and ephemera related to the Follies made by the Hotel Tropicana to the Nevada State Museum a few years back, and now, of course, I want to go see the collection there.
I loved every page of it. My only complaint is the book’s small size, lol… well… I guess that just means it’s time to order more books about cabarets and/or Vegas showgirls.
Fashion might not be so big on feathers and rhinestones now, though they’ll never completely go away and I’m sure there will be a revival of cabaret shows sooner or later. Even if we need to do it ourselves.
In the meantime, there are resources out there preserving as much of the art form as possible, this book being just one of them (it also has an accompanying Facebook page, if you’re into that sort of thing… Facebook, I mean). And reading this book has sparked me to maybe write a play or musical about the old Vegas shows… which sounds to me like a good excuse to buy and read more books on the topic. Research, you know.
And it’s time I dust off my costume jewelry… and my ruffles and feathers and the like. Barbie was right, not just about math class, but about fashion as well. And I mean Barbie from when I was a kid, not Barbie now who also wears yoga pants and t-shirts.
I’m now almost the age Frieda was when she used to rock it when I was little.. certainly too old to be dressing like a teenaged boy or teen goth still. It’s time I/we reclaimed our frippery.
Who’s with me?