Angel Carter, Pahrump, Nevada, 2012
Val Valentine, Toledo, Ohio, 2012
April March, Saratoga Springs, New York, 2012
The burlesque dancers of the mid-20th century, French photographer Marie Baronnet suggests, were feminists in a time before feminism. In a country wherein women were limited mostly to the home—and where female sexuality was overlooked by both science and society at large—they traveled the states, paving their own roads by doing what they loved to do. For Legends: The Living Art of Risque, Baronnet tracked down these women, now in their mid-sixties to mid-nineties, dusted off their timeworn costumes, and embarked on an unforgettable journey down memory lane.
The seeds for the book, says the photographer, were planted by Dixie Evans, a performer whose epithet is the “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque,” in 2011. Baronnet met Dixie two years before her passing at the age of eighty-six and was immediately taken with her. After photographing Dixie, she felt empowered and soon attended a festival of burlesque icons, who welcomed her into the fold of a vast network of supportive women who still worked or had once worked in the industry. In order to capture the essence of each lady, she visited them at home, a choice that necessitated a foundation of mutual trust. Part of the reason these women chose to invite her into their lives, Baronnet guesses, was the fact that she was French; many carried fond memories of dancing abroad and cherished the more liberal attitudes of the Europeans.
What separates burlesque from other types of stripping, Baronnet remarks, is that it requires both dedication and talent. The women she met are artists in the truest sense; they choreographed their own numbers and wore specially made costumes, many of which were sewn by their own hands. For them, burlesque was about creating a fantasy world from scratch, revealing only bits and pieces and allowing the rest to take shape in the realm of imagination. In some ways, this make-believe world afforded more equality than the real one that persisted outside; the women who worked in this field enjoyed a degree of creative and financial freedom. Women of all backgrounds and body types could make a name for themselves on the stage.
Despite the magic of the theater, life in burlesque was at times colored by heartache. As Baronnet learned from interviewing these women, the later part of the 20th century brought with it strip clubs and a resulting pressure to conform to what the photographer calls a “cruder” type of performance. Burlesque wavered and gradually faded from the American mainstream, and yet Baronnet was struck time and again by the resilience of her subjects. As the culture shifted, each adapted, rebuilding herself like a phoenix from the flames of change. One even salvaged a favorite dress from a catastrophic fire that burned most of her burlesque treasures to ash.
Even with the decades that separate each woman from the days of burlesque, Baronnet discovered that as soon as makeup, hair, and costumes were donned, the performers were instinctively transported backwards by muscle memory. In the portraits, she hoped to honor both the women they were and those they had once been; she had no interest in making them look younger but strived rather to find the places where the past and future selves overlapped. These ladies, she says, are possessed of a kind of beauty and sensuality than cannot be rubbed off but only reinforced with age. Many of her sitters still dance; at events and festivals, they can be seen taking the stage time and again, with each “last performance” being their final in name but rarely in practice.
Ellion Ness, San Francisco, 2012
Lottie the Body, Detroit, 2012
Penny Starr Allentown, Pennsylvannia, 2014
Kitten Natividad, Los Angeles, 2012
Monique Marlow, Chicago, 2014
Suzette Fontaine, New York, 2014
Velvet Ice, Seattle, Washington, 2012
Di Alba, Canyon City, Colorado, 2013
Stephanie Blake, Simi Valley, California, 2013
Lovey Goldmine, Las Vegas, 2014
La Savona, Indianapolis, 2012
Wild Cherry, New Orleans, 2012
Bambi Jones, Henderson, Nevada, 2012
All images © Marie Baronnet