A Passion For Fashion

By Beth Schwartzapfel

Published October 20, 2006, issue of October 20, 2006.
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The day Liz Goldwyn discovered two burlesque costumes at a New York flea market, a sequined light bulb went off above her head. Though still an undergraduate at the time, Goldwyn, granddaughter of legendary movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, knew a thing or two about dresses; she had helped establish the fashion department at the auction house Sotheby’s. The costumes, she told the Forward, “were incredible; the handiwork was as intricate as on the couture dresses I was studying and working with at Sotheby’s.” And so began a fascination with burlesque that has culminated in Goldwyn’s new book, “Pretty Things.”

First, however, came Goldwyn’s senior thesis, a series of self-portraits for which she dressed in burlesque costumes with period wigs and makeup. (She was a photography major at New York’s School of Visual Arts.) Upon realizing that many of the burlesque queens of the 1930s and ’40s were still alive, she decided to start interviewing them. From these interviews, the documentary “Pretty Things” was born. The film, which Goldwyn wrote and directed, debuted on HBO in 2005. The book is a closer look at what Goldwyn calls the “last generation of American burlesque queens.”

Burlesque, Goldwyn is quick to point out, comes from the Latin burlare, to laugh or make fun, and early burlesque was less striptease than political satire. One of the characters she profiles is the burlesque queen Zorita, who in 1941 protested the politics of a club owner — a “Nazi bastard,” in her words — by mooning the audience with swastikas painted on her derrière. More generally, Goldwyn said, when New York teemed with such immigrants as her grandfather, whose limited English stood in the way of enjoying what Broadway had to offer, burlesque had broader appeal. Its mix of artistry and irreverence — to say nothing of its sequins — shines on in “Pretty Things.”






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