When we think of showgirls, we imagine the grace and the poise, the long legs and the excessive eyelashes. But we also think of feathers and rhinestones, sequins and velvet and those fantastic costumes that she wears so well.
“The most important part of costume and textiles in this town is our stage costumes, so I’ve really been working on developing our entertainment holdings,” says Karan Feder, guest curator of costumes and textiles at the Nevada State Museum. Last year, the museum acquired the costumes from the Folies Bergère show, which ran for nearly 50 years at the Tropicana. “The entire 8,000 piece collection was just shoved into one backstage room,” she says.
A vast, climate-controlled space on the lower level of the museum now houses the rhinestone G-strings, satin ballgowns, ostrich feather headdresses and metallic leather boots as they go through the preservation process. “The collection is so huge, it’s going to take years to do it,” explains Feder. One thing that’s not being cleaned up are the nametags inside wigs and costumes, which tell us that this piece was worn by Estelle or Claudine or Scott. “We think it’s so important to know who the last person was who wore these, so we’ve decided to retain all of the identifications,” she says, “It’s part of the narrative: It makes it interesting.”
“There’s a big difference between a girl who has a couple-hundred-dollar costume and somebody who wears $25,000 worth of jewels and feathers in one split second on stage.” —Grant Philipo of Las Vegas’ Showgirl Museum.
“The costumes are what you notice first—people walk out and you’re like, ‘Wow! Look at that!’” says Karen Burns, who owns over a thousand costumes from another big casino production, Hello, Hollywood, Hello!, one of which is currently on loan to the museum.
While the costumes took audiences’ breath away, they could be challenging to the wearer. Headdresses and backpieces could weigh as much as 30 or 40 pounds. Showing off a Marie Antoinette costume with a two-foot high wig and a skirt the size of a small car, Feder says, “Jerry Jackson, the designer, said that the choreography behind the scenes was more complicated than what was on stage.”
She points to an asymmetrical, iridescent headdress that “got the girl who wore it fired” for her inability to balance it, according to Feder. The showgirl was rehired, but still had to wear what she called “the freakin’ bird headdress.”
Many of the feather and crystals used to adorn the costumes are no longer available and few people have the skills to execute the designs. “Instead of remaking from scratch for every new show, often they would take old costumes and recycle, add on to them, redecorate and then reintroduce it,” Feder says.
The collection and its adaptations also shows how times change. One headdress features a handmade crown made out of rare crystals, which was later augmented by a lamé skullcap sewn with paillettes. A step down, but not as far as some of the headdresses from the later years, which were simply embossed polyester draped around the cut-off top of a soda bottle with a ponytail attached. Not fancy but, as Feder points out, “these costumes were never meant to be seen from less than 10 feet away.” Still, it’s proof of the kind of budget-cutting that finally doomed the Folies Bergère and similar extravaganzas.
“There’s a big difference between a girl who has a couple-hundred-dollar costume and somebody who wears $25,000 worth of jewels and feathers in one split second on stage,” says Grant Philipo of Las Vegas’ Showgirl Museum.
The Nevada State Museum is planning a major exhibition of the Folies Bergère costumes in early 2017, as well as putting pieces on exhibit at the Mob Museum and the Las Vegas Convention Center. For now, they have very limited space to display a small selection of their enormous costume collection, which includes pieces from many Strip shows—and it’s not the only showgirl regalia that is largely unavailable to the public. In Vegas, the Showgirl Museum is still seeking a new space for their collection of show costumes and, of course, Liberace’s 150-pound fur coats remain in storage. Up in Reno, Karen Burns’ vast collection of costumes is only seen in individual pieces.
“I always loved those costumes,” says former showgirl Lou Anne Chessik, “truly, they’re a work of art.” An art that more of us should see, whether on stage or in a museum.
Photos by Krystal Ramirez.