Like the plumage and color markings of lesser species, style and fashion help send signals to the opposite sex. More than 300 years ago, Robert Burton expressed this view when he wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy, “The greatest provocations of lust are from our apparel.”
On a fine spring day at the Comet Bar in Newark in 1958, Lou Costello said it best, “Who the fuck wants to look at a goddamned naked broad? Put somethin’ on her, for chrissake! High heels, a bathin’ suit, somethin’!” More recently, Anne Hollander, in her brilliant 1978 book Seeing Through Clothes, observed that “Christian theory that clothing is unnatural or profane in its very essence, the result of man’s fall, undoubtedly grew out of the direct experience of the erotic pull of dress, even modest dress. People’s clothes had the effect of making their inferred nude bodies seem more, not less, desirable. Nakedness, of course, has its own fierce effect on desire; but clothing with nakedness underneath has another, and it is apparently even more potent.”
History abounds with tales of notable disrobings. The Greek myth of the Judgment of Paris dates from at least the eighth century B.C. To the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis, the fated father and mother of Achilles, came all the gods and goddesses of the heavens, bearing gifts. The exception was Eris, or Discord, who arrived uninvited and threw to the ground a golden apple inscribed “For the Fairest.” Hera, the violently jealous wife of Zeus; Athene, the goddess of war and of wisdom; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love and of playing doctor, all claimed the apple. The contention was referred to Paris, the most handsome of mortal men. Hera offered him an empire, Athene offered him military glory, and wet Aphrodite offered him Helen, the most beautiful woman in all the world. Then the goddesses stripped, each in turn, as the handsome prince stood and stared, getting so worked up in the process that he chose the payout Aphrodite had offered. Paris carried Helen off to his native Troy, and in doing so, brought about the long Trojan War, in which the rejected strippers Hera and Athene supported the Greeks (and during the course of which, according to recent classical studies, more than a thousand men died for every ounce of princely sperm that lovely Helen swallowed). Dubbed the first great strip show, it has been written about by ancient authors like Ovid and Lucian.
Aspasia, the lifelong mistress of Pericles, the great Athenian statesman of the fifth century B.C., ran a school for whores in Athens, where women were taught the art of seductive stripping. Then there was Phyrne, the most infamous whore of the classical world. Every December, she stripped for all of Athens during the yearly feast of Poseidon. Phyrne organized a club for young girls ostensibly dedicated to the worship of the Thracian god Isodaetes, and was charged with impiety and the corruption of morals. Ultimately, Phyrne persuaded the jury to acquit her by stripping in court.
The story of Salome tells how, in the year 29, that sanguinary slip of an Idumaean woman danced the dance of dick hunger, stripping off the seven veils of her modesty before the lustful eyes of her stepfather, Herod. By the finale of her performance, Herod so burned to experience the miracle of love, with his stepdaughter, that he offered to give her whatever gift might please her. Salome, by no means your average roses-and-anklet type of gal, asked for the head of John the Baptist, which she was gifted within just a matter of time.
In his scandalous Epigrams, Martial explained that the dancing girls of Gades, a Roman colony near the Spanish coast, were the most wondrously skilled in stripping and wriggling. They ended their dances, we’re told, by sinking to the ground and reclining on their backs, thighs spread and buttocks quivering in rude oblation. Martial commented that the Gaitan dancers “might well stiffen trembling Pelias.” Juvenal, another observer of these Spanish dancers, described them, in his Satires, as “a sight to sting languid senses of love.”
12th Century Britain
Life was less lubricious in damp, stony Britain, and it is not surprising that the earliest reference to stripping in the English language, found in the twelfth-century Life of St. Juliana, is an act of sinful outrage. In time, though, the harsh wimple fell from the face of British life, and in the seventeenth century we encounter our first full-blown piece of strip poetry, from the pen of none other than that bell-tolling, panty-sniffing Anglican preacher, John Donne.
19th Century America
It was in the America of the nineteenth century that strip teasing finally became a defined, recognized and appreciated art form. As early as 1843, in his poetic drama The Spanish Student, we find Henry Wadsworth Longfellow looking down his sensitive nose at “a mere dancing-girl, who shows herself nightly, half-naked, on the stage, for money.” By 1847, the American Theatre in New York City was, it is known, presenting revues that featured dancing girls in various states of dishabille. In the spring of 1904, the exotic (read “dirty”) dancer Little Egypt became the sensation of the St. Louis Exposition. At the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles, in 1908, Anna Held, the first wife of the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, disrobed behind a screen as an orchestra played a song called “I’d Like to See a Little More of You.” By the following year, the Columbia Theatre in Manhattan was staging shows with titles such as “Tease for Two” and “Strip, Strip, Hooray.”
Now this is something we can talk about. Early 20th century was limited to burlesque shows in old theaters up until the late 1960s. This coincided with the explosion in adult print magazines, most specifically Playboy and Penthouse magazine. The magazines led to clubs that personified the magazine's cultures. From there it was a short step to organized crime using contemporary strip clubs, later called topless bars, as fronts for their vast organizations. As corporate America took control of previous Cosa Nostra controlled businesses like casinos and strip clubs, the modern topless clubs became almost franchised in nature. The formula, pricing and process were institutionalized in the 1990s to cater to a Wall Street and financial service industry consumer, entertaining clients and blowing off steam. From Florida to the Hollywood Boulevard, strip clubs became a $100 billion industry.
Since first love, when Adam had sex with Eve, most of those who have embraced nudity—from the fourteenth century Adamites to the Utopian nudists of the present day—have done so in an attempt to renounce their concupiscence and live in Edenic innocence. Those who understand these things know that the baring, not the bareness, is the thing that raises the clownish scepter of each vain and fleeting king. The matter of disrobing is to be treated with all due artfulness and obscene subtlety, should she wish to render herself more desirable in the eyes of her sweetheart.