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Dec 18, 2011

Whither the Chorus Girl? + ASSIGNMENT

Friends, to say that the chorus girl was a popular stock character in old Hollywood movies (by which I mean the pre-Sixties studio days) is to state the obvious.  But have you ever wondered whatever happened to her?  Look around: she's nowhere to be found.

Showgirls, chorus girls, burlesque queens -- how many thousands of them danced across the screen in the golden days of Hollywood?  They all had one thing in common: curves.  The chorus girl represented sex, pure and simple, in the days when graphic sexuality wasn't just a mouse click away.

While there were chorus girls even back in the silent era, it really took sound to put the movie chorus girl front and center. With sound came the movie musical, and musicals started out as little more than an excuse to display beautiful, leggy young women in skimpy costumes.  Later, when "book" musicals became popular (whose songs were integral to the plot) movies that took place in a show business milieu grew scarcer, and we didn't really need quite so many chorus girls.  There weren't any in Gigi but there were plenty in backstagers like Forty-Second Street or Ziegfeld Girl.

Nearly every actress with the exception of Marjorie Main ended up cast as a showgirl at one time or other, even actresses better known for dramatic roles, like Barbara Stanwyck (in Ball of Fire) or Joan Crawford (in Dancing Lady or Flamingo Road).

The showgirl story usually told the tale of a poor girl getting plucked from obscurity (Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl), or rubbing up against social class distinctions (Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady), or both. Naturally, there were plenty of musical numbers thrown in just to keep it real.

Showgirls and chorus girls were beloved, not only because they were glamorous and sexy, but also because, like most movie audiences, they were working class -- invariably from Brooklyn or the Barbary Coast or Tenth Avenue or some other location associated with "low-down" living.  Showgirls were "good" and showgirls were "bad" but there's no question they were everywhere, especially during World War II, when leggy stars like Grable and Hayworth were at their peak of popularity.

Movies that revolved around chorus girls allowed Hollywood costume designers like William Travilla, Jean Louis, Orry Kelly, Irene Sharaff, Adrian and so many others, to indulge their wildest showbiz fantasies in sequins, feathers, fur, lace -- the works -- though sometimes there was dangerously little of these on display!

After the major studios broke up in the Nineteen-Fifties, there was television, and well into the Eighties designers like Bob Mackie were still creating spectacular showgirl creations for musical variety shows starring Mitzi Gaynor, Cher, or Ann-Margret -- the last of the true "showgirl" types.

Today we still have shows (on Broadway, in Vegas) and occasionally there's still a chorus of "girls," but the chorus girl as pop culture icon is as dated a type as the screwball heiress, the shopgirl Cinderella, and the teenage soprano.

Sadly, for the home sewer, there never were any commerical chorus girl or showgirl-type patterns, even back in the Nineteen-Forties.  A few costume patterns can be found for the occasional community theater production of Annie Get Your Gun or Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but that's about it.  It's a little sad, really.

What or who killed the chorus girl?  So many things, readers!  Before she died as a film icon, the chorus girl had faded away in real life.  The popularity of television meant that more people were staying home rather than seeking out the nightclubs, stage shows, and burlesque venues that gave work to so many showgirls.  (This echoes what happened to theater when motion pictures became popular decades earlier, and it's not a coincidence that so many movie musicals took place in the Gay Nineties or early decades of the Twentieth Century when most forms of entertainment were live.)

A slow loosening of censorship after WWII and more openness about sexuality in American culture meant that men could get their share of scantily clad ladies on the pages of Playboy or in porno theaters -- they didn't have to sit through The Dolly Sisters, waiting for Betty Grable to show a little leg.  Today, when images of graphic sexuality are a keyboard click away, a low-cut bodice or tightly fitted dance costume may be alluring, but it's not the stuff of most contemporary straight male fantasies.  A "burlesque" performer like Dita Von Teese is a sentimental throwback to an earlier era, but it's more homage than a true resurrection, even if it's meant to elicit a frisson.  Judging by what I read on the vintage sewing blogs, performers like Dita Von Teese are more of interest to straight women of an intellectual bent than to men.

Dita Von Teese

Finally, the Pill meant that there were flesh-and-blood women to engage with, rather than just a celluloid or print fantasy.

Meanwhile, in the movies, films like the much-hyped Christina Aguilera vehicle Burlesque or the infamous cult classic Showgirls have ended up feeling dated, exploitative, or just plain embarrassing. 

We're about as far from the risque charms of Gold Diggers of 1933 as we could be.  Joan Blondell never gave a lap dance and Marilyn Monroe never licked a pole.

Finally, the demise of the showgirl reflects a culture in which it is no longer officially acceptable to objectify women.  Most women don't want to be considered objects and would probably judge the role of the showgirl as she was depicted in movies of the past to be demeaning.  We don't "glorify the American girl" anymore, even if we still have beauty pageants and the leggy-but-wholesome Rockettes.


Lindsay Lohan may be in this month's Playboy, in an homage to Marilyn, but the whole thing feels forced and joyless.

I had the privilege of watching a most fascinating film about chorus girls last night, Ladies of the Chorus from 1948.  Cheaply made and just one hour long, it's nevertheless fascinating, hilarious, and highly entertaining, not the least because it's Marilyn Monroe's first starring role and we get to see her before she'd developed her dumb blonde persona.  Here she seems like a normal young woman, or as normal as a woman can be playing a character who's the "Queen of Burlesque."

The entire film can be viewed on YouTube, and if you have an hour to spare today, please do take a look, if only to hear such hilarious showgirl pearls as "Why you gray-haired old hag, shut your mouth or I'll slap it shut!" and "I'm quittin' -- this turkey can fold for all I care!"  

Your assignment, friends, is to watch Ladies of the Chorus (it's in roughly seven parts) and report back.  Anything seem strange about this film, which occasionally has the feel of a high school health film and the production values to match?  

What do you think of Marilyn, or "old hag" Adele Jergens, the woman who plays her mother (Jergens was just nine years older than Marilyn)?

In closing, do you have a favorite film featuring or focused on chorus girls?  Do you find the chorus girl/showgirl of yore entertaining, demeaning, or a little of both!

Ever sewn a chorus girl outfit -- or wanted to?

Jump in!


  1. I was lucky enough to meet Jane Russell a few years ago. She was so sweet! Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is my favorite showgirl movie :)

  2. LOL - the one name you mention as the anti-type of the chorus girl, Marjorie Main, is the actress I admire. Ma Kettle is an amazing role model of a good wife and great mom. (I am not being facetious; she was great.) I'm not so into the chorus line.

  3. Marilyn Monroe was loved by the camera much more so that Lohan. Lohan doesn't show that inner spark.

  4. "Most women don't want to be considered objects and would probably judge the role of the showgirl as she was depicted in movies of the past to be demeaning."
    Maybe the intellectual women you meet. But in fact it seems the young, churlish ones are perfectly happy garnering attention that way. Do you think Lindsey Lohan has actually watched the body of work or Marilyn Monroe, or is merely capitulating to the popular notion of Marilyn as "sex kitten"?
    I believe the double edged sword of the sexual revolution (as I'm sure has been discussed here before) is that it has afforded women the ability to CHOOSE if they want to be objectified.

  5. Rita, Rita, Cover Girl! Love her!

  6. It's the choreographed dancing and precision that I always like in the productions with the chorus girls. The outfits and the way the girls moved in them was the background for the shots. Those girls must have been made of iron to do all the practicing then who knows how many takes for each scene! No wonder none of them carried any excess weight.

  7. I can't look at the picture of the woman licking the pole without getting hate shivers. Disgusting!

  8. Very funny that they put the gray temples on Adele Jergens to try to age her beautiful face and figure. Thank you for pointing us to this film. It's corny and sweet with a nice twist at the end. At times it seems like two movies woven together - the serious relationship dialogue comes off stilted and awkward, while the backstage banter is smooth and natural. Maybe it started out as pure entertainment and then someone decided to add a "message." Fun to watch, though, and I love some of the dresses.

  9. What about Natalie Wood as Gypsy Rose Lee? She looked beautiful!

  10. Sitting here with my dad watching 'State Fair' I have not seen him happier in days. He gave me my love for old music and movies. We had a great night remembering some of the old movies we love.

  11. I've honestly never even considered sewing a chorus girl outfit...mmm, could be interesting. Of course, it could be aggravating too if you don't have the right sewing machine, I think.

  12. I think if you were serious about sewing a chorus girl outfit, you could start with professional ballroom dance or skating outfits. There are designers who specialize in this type of wear.

    Makes me speculate that your cousin Cathy might be in the mood for spandex, sparkles and feathers...

  13. "Ladies of the Chorus" is now on my to-watch list, thanks. In the same vein, check out this British Pathe newsreel from 1946--it's a "day in the life" feature on a 16-year-old showgirl, complete with risque shower sequence!

  14. That photo of Russell and Monroe from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" really points up the genius of designer Bill Travilla. His mission would have daunted most people - he had to come up with ONE design that would look good on both the tall, rangy Russell and the shorter, much curvier Monroe. As the world knows, he succeeded very well.

  15. Like DreinPA i don't agree that "Most women don't want to be considered objects and would probably judge the role of the showgirl as she was depicted in movies of the past to be demeaning."

    One only needs to turn on the television or pick up a gossip magazine to see that we are inundated with women who are happy to objectify themselves as a means of making a living. Think: the Kardashian's, Parish Hilton and that ilk.

    There is still a class aspirational aspect to today's show girl replacement, however instead of the working class show girl moving upwardly mobile we have the what-appears-to-be already upwardly mobile girl pretending to be the same as her followers. Of course this faux working class girl is not at all working class and has a relationship with huge multi-national companies to encourage her followers to aspire to be the same by consuming 'stuff' that she appears to own/use/wear etc. This girl who presents 'as the same' as her followers promises that her followers can be the same as her by owning these material objects. Sadly, if the followers could think rationally they'd work out that if they were actually the same as their idol they wouldn't need to purchase material objects to make them the same.

    These girls appear to be the mode by which these companies reach their female market. The happily objectify themselves to the masses and they are well rewarded both economically and socially to do it.

    Once upon a time socio-economic class indicators were one's education achievements and material objects for example one's car,house, clothes, perfume etc. Now due to a capitalist free market economy driven by consumption these material class indicators are easily attained through credit, or mobile phone plans etc even if you can't really afford them. On the surface it's so easy to attain social mobility; to belong to the same social class as the modern day show girl.

    That's my take on it all.

  16. While it's not exactly 'showgirl' I have a real fondness for Funny Girl. I also love the Ethel Merman and Esther Williams films. What about showboys? I watched An American in Paris last weekend and by god Gene Kelly had great legs - in fact great everything. I'm a sucker for these old films.

  17. Terrific post! Never sewn one, but {blush} wanted to wear one. Like Carol, I've always loved Esther Williams movies. Showgirl with a twist.

  18. Oh, I love chorus girls films and outfits (feathers! paillettes!). If anybody has updated the concept in recent years it's been Kylie Minogue in all her tours. The appropiately named Showgirl, but also Les Folies or On a Night Like This tour. I read somewhere that her mom had hand sewn many, many sequins during her Intimate & Live Tour. God, I love her!

  19. LOVE White Christmas. Not only one of my favorite Christmas movies, but one of my favorite movies of all time! And I especially appreciate your pic of Vera-Ellen in the movie (second one shown in the post).
    This movie is special in the show girl category, as it shows Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby in semi-drag as showgirls themselves.

  20. OMG - I nearly died when I saw your first picture - I adore Jane & Marilyn...two women who had voluptuous figures and weren't afraid to show it off - loved those gals!

  21. I adore the show girl. I always wanted to make a costume, I will really have to do that soon.I always liked Better Middler and her showgirls. If I make a whole costume I'm going to have to make a routine. And if I'm working out a script I better find a stage...Burlesque here I come.

  22. Gotta love all the sparkles. Re Dita being attractive to straight men - maybe vintage sewing blogs aren't the best place to research that. Fun pictures!

  23. Peter, I read your blog every. single. day. You manage to get the best comment conversations going. Big fan of the "this decade in fashion posts."

    I had to comment this time because of the White Christmas pic you posted. White Christmas is probably the biggest visual influence in my life! I grew up watching the movie, usually several times a year. It's the scene where they go to the club "Novello's" in Florida that really got me. I wanted that world so badly- to walk into a club like that, dressed like they were. Being born in 1981, it was already long disappeared by the time i was watching the movie.

    So as an adult I joined a burlesque troupe here in Hartford, CT. It's the closest I can get to recreating that world! I sew my costumes from vintage patterns. I just did a film noir act to music from the movie "Laura," and sewed a black satin 40's robe. So the chorus girl is alive in some of our hearts at least!

  24. Thanks so much for commenting, Maureen. Very inspiring (and I'm envious)!

  25. "I'm quittin' -- this turkey can fold for all I care!" - why didn't I include this in my letter of resignation???

  26. One of the things that has always struck me about Betty Page, similarly, was how much she smiled! (All the old pin-ups, really.) The looked like happy girls next door ... that just happened to be wearing bathing suits.

    Just when did "sexy" turn into "dangerous" / "hungry"? All those "fierce" faces they talk about on Next Top Model? What if we're really just scaring "the boys" away?


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