Dita Von Teese: A Closer Look at the Burlesque Icon
Dita Von Teese: A Closer Look at the Burlesque Icon
When you think of Dita Von Teese, what comes to mind? From the famous image of her in a giant martini glass, her stunning silhouette clothed scantily in sparkles, to her impeccable 1940’s styling, Dita Von Teese represents a famed era of femininity and old Hollywood glamor. However, she’s also a fashion icon, and she’s reached a mythic level of fame in the burlesque industry.
You may know who Dita Von Teese is, but you may not know where she came from or why she’s one of the most famous burlesque dancers today. Here, we’ll take a closer look at this incredible woman as a dancer, and fashion icon, as well as at the burlesque scene she represents.
Dita Von Teese’s History
Dita Von Teese, born Heather Renee Sweet, comes from Rochester, Michigan, located in southeastern Oakland County. Her mother was an avid fan of old Hollywood films and starlets like Betty Grable and Marlene Dietrich. As a result, Dita’s mother would buy clothes for her three daughters to dress up in, and Dita would take on the form of the actresses she so adored.
Dita began ballet training when she was younger, and began to dance en pointe. By the time she was 15, she knew that this was the best she would ever be at ballet. Her ballet training ended when her family relocated due to her father’s job and landed in Orange County, California.
Around this same time, Dita began working in a lingerie shop as a shoe salesgirl. 1 She had discovered images of women in her father’s Playboy magazines wearing elaborate, lacy lingerie. When her mother took her to buy her first bra, in plain white cotton, she was disappointed. She’d been hoping for something more like the images she’d seen.
When she turned 18, her number one goal was to be photographed while recreating the looks of classic pinups. She set up a session with a photographer who had shot photos of her sister for Penthouse. In them, she wore just a black-and-pink corset, wanting to refrain from being overly glamorous. The resulting pictures were given to her boyfriend at the time. This first foray into pinup modeling just made her hungry for more.
The Start of Von Teese.
When Dita got a little older, her boyfriend promoted parties and raves and would often hire Von Teese as a go-go dancer. At 18, she had her signature beauty mark tattooed permanently. At 19, she stripped for the first time, but customers at the bikini bar told her that she had too many clothes on. Dita, still going by Heather Sweet at the time, was astounded at how unimaginative her fellow dancers were. She chose to combine fetish and vintage stylings in her pieces.
As an homage to Dita Parlo, a silent film actress, Heather chose Dita as her first name for her stage performances. As she was required to have a surname, Dita went to the phonebook. Von Treese stood out to her, but when Playboy printed it instead as Von Teese, she kept it and became Dita Von Teese.
How Dita Von Teese Became a Burlesque Dancer.
American Burlesque has a long tradition, beginning in the late 19th Century. 2 American Burlesque developed from Victorian Burlesque and minstrel-style shows. Today, it looks most like vaudeville shows from the early 1900s. 3 Its recent resurgence is a new historical movement in itself, and women are flocking to the medium to find a place of acceptance and an outlet for empowerment. Burlesque dancing is more than just a striptease performance. It is instead a choreographed theatrical routine. The movements are practiced and planned as part of a full show, often comedic in nature.
So, how did Dita become a burlesque dancer? In the early 90s, Von Teese was a fetish model, also sitting for some bondage modeling shoots. When she landed on the cover of Playboy, she decided to create a burlesque show. Because so many of the pinups she was trying to emulate, including Bettie Page and Gypsy Rose Lee, had also been burlesque dancers, this felt like an obvious step. So few women were performing burlesque at the time that she felt as though she had no competition.
Dita had a difficult time sourcing inspiration from old classic American Burlesque performances, especially since the internet was not readily available at the time. What she knew for sure was that she wanted to perform the fan dance, a classic dance that really teases the audience. Dita had to call Dixie Evans, a prominent classic burlesque dancer, and receive coaching over the phone. 4
Armed only with her new feather fans, the advice from Dixie Evans, and images of fan dances she’d seen in books, Dita created her own routine. She would perform at strip clubs and fetish parties with a limited set until she started to grow her vision.
Every bit of money she made was put back into building more elaborate costumes and sets. Dita’s real breakthrough came when she appeared on the cover of Playboy and was showcased in a 10-page pictorial, featuring the burlesque dances she performed on stage. After her Playboy debut, Dita eventually began producing her own shows.
Dita Von Teese and Her Burlesque
Dita Von Teese’s shows focus on elaborate sets and intricate costumes. She prides herself on creating the most complex costumes she can imagine. Often, this includes the use of elaborately designed props. For example, Dita Von Teese’s feather fans for her fan dance were the world’s largest feather fans and have been on display at the Hollywood Museum of Sex.
Her most famous acts include The Opium Den, The Champagne Glass, The Martini Glass, and The Black Swan. Aside from her feather fans, memorable props include a giant clamshell and a carousel horse. Each of these acts involves complex costuming and extreme glamor.
In 2006, Von Teese was the first guest star at the famous Crazy Horse Parisian Cabaret. Also in 2006, she was in an episode of America’s Next Top Model, teaching the models about sensuality through the art of burlesque dance and poses.
She has toured worldwide with her 4 full-length shows: “Strip, Strip, Hooray!”, “The Art of the Teese”, “Dita Von Teese and the Copper Coupe”, and the 2019 show “Glamonatrix” (which was delayed because of Covid-19 and continues throughout 2022). In October of 2021, she released her first streamed performance, a step to appeal to a wider audience and adapt to changes due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
Dita’s Fashion Icon Status
Dita Von Teese is a natural blond. She’d always felt plain, as the middle of three sisters. But when she went from blond to her signature raven hair and red lips, people began to notice her. She felt entirely different too.
With all the 1940s-style influence of her early childhood, Dita Von Teese has stuck with the old Hollywood style whenever she appears in public. She dyes her own hair and doesn’t use a stylist. The one time she did, the stylist tried to pair her 1940s heels with jeans, which was the end of her relationship with that stylist and others.
Von Teese’s favorite designers include Vivienne Westwood, Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs, and John Paul Gaultier. She’s appeared on the catwalk for shows such as the 2005 Autumn/Winter Ready-to-Wear show for Giambattista Valli, the 2006 John Paul Gaultier haute couture show, and the 2014 John Paul Gaultier haute couture show. On January 22nd, 2020, Dita Von Teese walked the runway in John Paul Gautier’s last couture show.
Not only has she appeared in Vogue, Elle, and Vanity Fair, but she’s also appeared in most international fashion magazines. Dita Von Teese exemplifies not only a significant form of femininity, but also fearlessness.
Dita Von Teese Products and Brands
Dita Von Teese has gone on to launch successful lingerie lines, a clothing line, and a fragrance line. Her first lingerie line launched in 2008, when she paired with Wonderbra. It was important to her that the line was something that could be comfortably worn under other clothing, noting “underwear isn’t just something that you put on for a lover; you wear it for you.” 5
Her clothing and underwear line, Von Follies, was launched in 2012. In 2011 she launched her first fragrance, named Dita Von Teese, and said that it was “mood-setting for glamor.” Her second, named Rouge, launched in spring 2012. Her third launched in Fall 2013, and was named Erotique.
Where Dita Von Teese Is Today
Today, Dita Von Teese is living in her Tudor revival home in the Hollywood Hills. She is still performing, and like Gypsy Rose Lee, she wants to continue to perform late in life. In October of 2021, she aired her first live-streamed burlesque show to great success. In 2021, she released her third book, titled Fashioning the Femme Totale, and a 2022 film titled Don’t Worry Darling is in post-production.
The Legacy of Dita Von Teese
Although Dita Von Teese came from a humble upbringing, she’s gone on to influence not only burlesque, but also the fashion industry. Burlesque is more than stripping; it allows women to present themselves in a way of their choosing, and in a way that is fearless for them. 6 Burlesque isn’t just a show for the male gaze but is instead a show based on empowerment and pushes the boundaries of the concepts of gender and sexuality.
Dita Von Teese embodies this fringe art form as the Queen of Burlesque and is an icon and influence for fans everywhere with her signature look and her charming glamor. Not only does Dita Von Teese put the “tease back in striptease,” but she does so with her own ingenuity and conceptualization.
Curious what type of burlesque style you might take on? Try our burlesque personality quiz and see what architype you relate to most!
- West, N. (2007). Art of the Teese. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/main.jhtml?xml=%2Ffashion%2F2006%2F03%2F06%2Fefdita04.xml
- Regehr, K. (2012). The rise of recreational burlesque: Bumping and grinding towards empowerment. Sexuality & Culture 16, 134–157. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-011-9113-2
- Rizzuto, R. (2021). Why some dancers are finding an outlet in burlesque. Dance Magazine. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.dancemagazine.com/burlesque-dancing/
- The Cut (2016). Dita Von Teese on her breakthrough moment. New York Magazine. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://nymag.com/news/features/beginnings/dita-von-teese/
- Barnett, L. (2008).. Dita Von Teese launches first Wonderbra collection | British Vogue. British Vogue. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/dita-von-teese-for-wonderbra
- Sally, L. (2021). Neo-burlesque: Striptease as transformation. Rutgers University Press. Retrieved May 5, 2022 from https://books.google.com/books?id=nSg_EAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ViewAPI#v=onepage&q&f=false