Sexuality and the Stage:

How the theatre of the 1920’s era led to the Evolution of the American Woman

In the heat of the roaring ‘20’s a new American woman was emerging.  Hair was cut shorter, skirts were raised higher, and lips were painted stimulating shades of red.  Beauty was perceived at a new angle and sexuality was becoming more prevalent amongst the female population.  The metamorphosis that occurred amongst American women was sparked by a parallel society that existed only on the stage.  Show-business had the power to manipulate society’s perception of what was considered acceptable social behavior.  As Broadway theatricals and musical revues became more provocative, so did the women of society; what was appropriate enough to present on stage in front of the general public was appropriate enough to portray in the real world.  The burlesque/vaudeville, Follies variety, and Broadway shows of the early 1920’s through the late 1930’s reshaped society’s perception of tasteful entertainment and forever changed the way women would view beauty and sexuality as observed on the stage.

            In the early twentieth century, live theater was meant to both entertain and distract the American people.  As the United States began its plummet into the Great Depression, the country was in desperate need of a boost in morale.  George M. Cohan, also known as the “Father of Musical Theatre,” was the man who lifted America’s sunken spirits.  Cohan was a producer, writer, director, singer, and songwriter who was said to be the “symbol of American ingenuity, can-do attitude, and patriotic fervor.”  In 1901 he released his first original musical “The Governor’s Son”, followed by “Running for Office” in 1903, and then “Little Johnny Jones” in 1904 (Broadway Data Base).  These first three shows of Cohan’s career were extremely patriotic and premiered the popular anthems “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”  The country went wild for Cohan’s work and attending the theatre became a primary “must-do” for both family and social affairs.  (Bloom and Vlastnik 192)

            While the patriotic spectaculars of George M. Cohan attracted the public eye, smaller theatres and clubs still featured vaudeville sketch comedies and barely-there burlesque routines.  Prohibition had deemed alcohol a social taboo, so while wholesome citizens turned to vaudeville for nightly excursions, bootleggers hailed to night clubs to drink and watch scantily clad dancing girls.  The burlesque performances were the male dominant society’s idea of entertainment.  The performances were composed of small skits that proposed rehearsed scenarios which a woman would act out.  Documented accounts of the performances reveal shows in which a woman would “enter through the door on stage right, unbuttoning a full length polka dot costume…she mischievously slips a strap of the garment off one shoulder and ducks behind the screen…she then emerges wearing a risqué decorated costume…her legs appear to be bare.  The woman brandishes a sword…and strikes a seductive pose.”  More often than not, a dancer would execute a scene without the use of props or scenery.  In one archived performance, Karina, the dancer simply used her costume to entice the audience as she “seductively raises her skirt to reveal the multiple white petticoats as well as her lacy, white bloomers…white tights, and a garter on her right thigh.  Peering over her lifted skirt, Karina slowly turns around and lowers to her knees and leans back…still holding up the skirt she covers her face with one arm…she performs a dance consisting of circles, leg lifts, and twirls” (American Variety Stage).  Burlesque performances such as the latter, gave live theatre a bad name in early 20’s society.  A precursor to the modern strip tease, society was not yet ready to openly embrace this type of entertainment. (American Variety Stage)

            Burlesque and Vaudeville paved the way for a show-business phenomena known as the Ziegfeld Follies.  Much like burlesque entertainment, Ziegfeld Follies featured an entourage of dancing girls.  However, instead of using nudity to lure patrons, it was the natural beauty and the dancer physique of the women that attracted the public.  The costumes were, in fact, revealing, but the Follies dancers depicted sexuality in a beautiful way.  Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the man who created and produced the Ziegfeld Follies, believed that “beauty, of course, is the most important requirement and the paramount asset of the applicant”“How little the public realizes,” he continues “what a girl must go through before she finally appears before the spotlight that is thrown upon the stage”.  (Florenz Ziegfeld) 

The stage performances of the Follies girls not only showcased their physical attributes as well as their sexuality, but appealed to audiences due to their non-ribald themes.  In an interview conducted by Victoria Wilson in January of 1999, former Follies girl Doris Eaton Travis recalls that in a specific 1918 routine performed during the First World War “…the entire chorus had costumes simulating the uniforms of the French Foreign Legion.  We came up out of the middle of the stage, through the trapdoor; it started with just the rip of the tent, and gradually the whole tent was brought up onstage.  And then the girls began to come out of the tent to make formations and do a tap dance.”   “…The showgirls,” she continued to contest “were tall, willowy creatures, anywhere from five-six to five-ten.” (Wilson)  The Follies routines served as the bridge between tasteless and acceptable public performance.

The dancing beauties of the Ziegfeld Follies became immediate icons of beauty and physical perfection; men wanted them and women wanted to be them.  These invigorating women of the stage set the standards for beauty and reshaped society’s perception of the female.  Justine Johnstone, Marion Davies, and Ina Claire were Follies Dancers whose pictures were featured in a “Liggett-Ricker-Hegeman’s” ad that was published in the July 30th 1916 edition of The New York Times.  The ad read, “New York City is home of America’s most beautiful women.  Blessed with natural rose tints in the early bloom of youth, many a New York matron has retained her exquisite complexion by the careful use of proper toilet requisites…The beautiful actresses whose pictures are shown above will tell you that their good looks were not ‘wished’ on them, but were obtained by devoting a portion of each day to care a preservation of the skin.” (The New York Times)  Beauty was no longer in the ‘eye of the beholder’; beauty was what the entertainment business labeled it to be.  The Follies endorsed the idea that sexy was beautiful.

The theatre world had cashed in on sexuality and women were no longer scrutinized in the public eye for dressing more provocatively.  Cole Porter, a renowned composer and lyricist of the era, allowed people to be open about their sexuality by pushing the envelope with sexual innuendoes in his work.  Some of his more risqué lyrics include “night and day under the hide of me, there’s an oh such a hungry yearning burning inside of me” from the ballad “night and day” from Gay Divorce, “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.  Lets do it, let’s fall in love”  from the show Lets Do It, and the ever-famous “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking but now, God knows, anything goes” from the original musical comedy hit Anything Goes (Cole Porter).  Upon hearing the Anything Goes lyrics on opening night, Porter’s own mother, Kate Porter commented “Cole is a naughty boy”. (Bloom and Vlastnik 17)  Cole Porter’s own homosexuality prompted him to use his musical works as an outlet promoting sexual promiscuity.  Porter’s advances on the public prevailed.  Women were more apt to take sexuality to the next level, for, if it was acceptable on the stage, it was more than acceptable in life.

            The impact of theater on the women of the 1920s was more than just a short term affair.  The stage beauties of the time influenced a universal change in wardrobe, hair, and physical attributes.  Standards had been set as to what would define beauty; the dancers on the stage had longs legs, small chests and short skirts so naturally that is what the everyday woman wanted as well.  Women of the 1920’s and the 1930’s underwent a sexual evolution during that time which paralleled the transition from taboo burlesque shows to adored Ziegfeld Follies spectaculars.  Women became fully aware of how they were being perceived by men; the standards were set.  The American woman had undergone a sexual metamorphosis that would for ever define beauty in the eyes of the public.