History of Showgirls

"La Troupe De Mlle Eglantine" by Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec

“La Troupe De Mlle Eglantine” by artist Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for depicting scenes and posters of the Moulin Rouge.

The history of showgirls has a diverse and colorful history.  In Paris, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, night club entertainers performed the can-can dance. They are considered the original showgirls. Several Paris venues have become famous for their showgirls, including the Moulin Rouge and the original Folies-Bergere Theater, which opened in 1869 and first featured a nude showgirl in 1918. The showgirl was invented in the United States in 1907 by Florenz Ziegfeld. His Ziegfeld Follies revue was a series of acts. These acts were gorgeous production numbers with beautiful women in amazing costumes and elaborate sets. An inspired Busby Berkeley added showgirls into his Hollywood films in the 1930s.  Check out some of Busby Berkeley’s work below,

In the 1950s, the casinos in Vegas began attempting to top each other by making the shows as lavish and memorable as possible. This is where the enormous headdresses and exquisite costuming ideas came from. During this time, the showgirl became the unofficial icon of Las Vegas. Several of the French Revues came to Las Vegas in the 1960s, including “Folies Bergere” and “Lido de Paris”. The Lido was wildly successful and ran for 31 years. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were showgirls in every hotel and casino on the strip. The technology of home televisions would be the beginning of the end for multi-million dollar shows.

Minsky's Girls of 1960, Las Vegas

Photograph of Minsky’s Girls of 1960, Las Vegas. Several dancers pose onstage in various costumes.

Originally, showgirls danced around the headliners as background. It wasn’t until later that the showgirls became the attraction and stars of the show. This began to take shape in the late 1950s with Donn Arden’s “Lido de Paris” at the Stardust, Jack Entratter’s Copa Girls at the Sands, and Harold Minsky’s “Follies” at the Desert Inn. Jack Entratter had the largest entertainment budget. His shows set the bar for the competitors on the strip.

Jack Entratter and the Copa Girls

Photograph of Copa Girls performing in Mambo, Las Vegas, 1955

The Copa Girls were the premier attraction until Minsky introduced the first topless showgirls in Vegas at the Dunes, in 1957. Minsky’s inspiration was modeled on Parisian nightclub shows. The productions and salaries grew with each show. The entertainment budget was justified because free entertainment that lasted all night encouraged the guests to do the same. These successes continued through the 1960s and then began to fall.

The growth stalled in the 1970s and worsened in the 1980s with an economic downturn. Efforts to make Las Vegas more family friendly decreased the prospects for showgirl revues. The rise in popularity of the Cirque du Soleil acrobatic shows have now dominated over the topless revues. Jubilee added a version of their show that was all ages appropriate.

In recent years, only two major revues featuring showgirls were still in operation on the strip; The “Folies Bergere” at the Tropicana and “Jubilee” at Bally’s. On March 28th 2009, the Folies Bergere closed its doors after a final performance. The Tropicana could not produce the show any longer. It ended just before its 50th anniversary. Those involved in its 49 years in Vegas can still enjoy the fact that it was the longest running show in history.

Showgirls go with Vegas like bread goes with butter. Therefore, it is extremely ironic that there are only a few showgirls performing in Vegas today. Numerous articles have been written about the near extinction of these American Icons. You can still take in several shows that include showgirls in portions of the revue. Currently, Jubilee is the last major production featuring showgirls to survive. It has been running for more than 30 years. One excellent example of current incarnations of the showgirl is the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Models in elaborate costumes with larger than life wings are today’s version of the many showgirl revue costumes that graced the stages for decades.

Jubilee! at Bally's

Jubilee! at Bally’s

The word “showgirl” has been adopted by far less glamorous establishments. Many exotic dance clubs use it as part of their business name, and some exotic dancers call themselves showgirls now. This creates confusion about the difference between the classic showgirls and today’s stereotypes of showgirls. Classic showgirls are beautiful, talented, and are extremely skilled dancers. Many of them have strong backgrounds in ballet.

For showgirls, choreographed dance routines and sometimes singing are a part of the job. Showgirls are able to wear high heels and up to 70 pounds of costume, while parading around the stage. Several former showgirls are now working to preserve the costumes and artifacts of what they have cherished so dearly. Annual meetings and art shows are held to bring all showgirls together because the memories are so very important to them. Long after traditional showgirls are gone, the legacy of these cultural icons will live on.

“Whether it is in her new incarnations as model or as pop star, the showgirl ethos still thrives. She has even been revised in her traditional form as a Vegas girl in Paul Verhoeven’s film Showgirls. If nothing else, the film succeeded in reminding audiences what an evocative property the word ‘Showgirl’ is. As I write it is everywhere; describing images such as model Naomi Campbell modeling Versace for British Magazine Arena, and a lingerie shoot for Harper’s Bazaar. Even the highbrow publication The New Yorker got in on the act with a feature on the Las Vegas showgirl, written by Stephen Schiff and with photographs by Annie Liebovitz, The article proclaimed the showgirl as ‘the last romance in Vegas’.

The showgirl remains as potent a cultural icon as ever. She is a moment of divine nostalgia evoking the optimistic pleasures and vibrant distractions of a lost age. Her incredible mystique and its appeal to turn of the century audiences provides valuable insight into nineteenth-century mores. For contemporary audiences the showgirl’s struggle with the expectations imposed on women in her own society, and the perennial questions she raises around femininity, morality and aesthetics, continue to have relevance. Indeed, as a product of the fears and fascinations of the last fin de siècle, it is unsurprising that the showgirl- enigmatic, camp and nightmarishly beautiful- should once again have such an uncanny resonance as we hurtle towards the end of our own millennium.” (Stuart 222-223)

Jet-Black Showgirl - Oklahoma Showgirls Costumes