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The Semiology of Stripper Style

(Spanish burlesque star Evita Mansfield; Credit: Flickr/Ivan Gonzalez)

By Michelle Lhooq

It’s nearly midnight on a Friday in Times Square, New York, and I’m huddled outside one of the city’s most infamous gentlemen’s clubs.

My friend Iris Greene is a dancer there, and since the club tends to stop single girls from barging in on their own (they’re wary of prostitutes  poaching their clientele), she’s preemptively told the bouncers that I’m applying for a job. After I introduce myself, the two burly men, who look like they’ve stalked straight off a Boogie Nights set, 70s moustaches and all, radio the manager to come pick me up for my “audition.” I have no idea how I’m getting out of this one.

As it usually does around this time of night, the mood in Times Square has started to shift from early evening exuberance to something more seedy, if not downright sinister. The theater types exiting their Broadway shows have long cleared the streets, the jet-lagged tourists have stumbled back to their hotels, and the crowds thronging outside the club seem looser, baudier and definitely drunker.

“I would take your coat off if I were you. You’ll never get a job here with so many clothes on,” one of the bouncers tells me, his eyes greedily unpeeling the layers of fabric sheathing my skin. My pulse quickens. In the awkwardness of the moment, I become keenly aware of how greatly clothing — or the lack thereof — defines the power dynamics of a strip club.

Simply put, those in control have the great privilege of keeping their clothes on. The clothed then exchange that other symbol of power, money, to exert their will — and what they want, desperately, fleetingly, is for the beautiful creatures around them to take their clothes off. To relinquish my coat then would also mean losing some of my agency; I pull it closer around me.

After a few minutes, one of the bouncers finally escorts me to the bar, where I’m told to wait for the manager. “I hope you have experience,” he mutters, casting another disdainful look at my incontrovertibly unsexy clothes cocoon. I’m surrounded by girls wearing far, far less.

All strip clubs have some kind of dress code. Most of the clubs in New York, especially in Times Square, are upscale establishments that require their girls to wear “gowns” — a euphemism for skin-tight tube dresses that wrap around their bodies and end slightly below their buttcheeks.

Seedier joints are called “bikini” clubs, which means exactly what you’d think: girls are only required to wear patches of cloth just around their naughty bits. What those patches of cloth look like — the color, the pattern, the cut, its aesthetic appeal — is rarely considered to be of much importance. After all, the thinking goes, she’s just going to be peel it all off anyway.

More than a fashion statement or an avenue for self-expression, stripper wear is fundamentally utilitarian. As my friend Iris puts it, “When the goal is to make as much money as possible, you need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I wish I could give men more credit for having more interesting fantasies, but they really don’t seem to. The blonder, more tanned, toned and droney you look, the more money you’ll make.”

When it comes to general standards enforced by the club’s management, the rules are pretty simple: “Whatever it is you have on, it better look slutty, sparkly and easy to take off.” Thus, the vast majority of gowns have straps that tie around the neck — easily unraveled with a simple tug, allowing the stripper’s breasts to spill out effortlessly. Form follows function.

Back at the bar, the manager storms out of a back room, visibly coked out. Before I even have a chance to stutter my half-baked excuses as to why I’m not, in fact, ready to take my clothes off, he makes a neck-cutting motion with his fingers. “I’m not taking any more auditions tonight,” he barks, coke flecks flying from his flared nostrils. He swivels back to his den. Thoroughly relieved by this deux ex machina, I slide off my barstool and head to the pulsing main room where the topless girls are dancing.

Taking a seat between two French tourists, I gaze up at the shimmying bodies from my seat in the area right by the stage — the delicately-named Pervert’s Row.

Patrons at strip clubs are nothing if not fidgety, attention-deficient gazers; each girl gets just 15 minutes on the pole before a fresh body is trotted out. Therefore, every part of the routine is primed to maximize the profits reaped from her short performance. That, after all, is exactly what stripping is at its essence: a deliberate, choreographed act. Too much is at stake to leave up to chance — or creative expression.

Later in the night, Iris slips out of a $2000-a-night private room, looking resplendent with her blonde curls, red lips, and plunging white dress. “I’m so sorry I can’t hang out with you, I’m with an amazingly generous client who just wants to massage my toes!” she cooes. Her resemblance to Marilyn Monroe is hardly accidental.

“I once bought this stunning white dress that all of my colleagues loved, but it didn’t show enough boob. I had to shelve it,” Iris later tells me. “Now I make sure whatever I wear shows lots of boob and lots of leg, [and] I opt for a cleaner look. I try to keep it as simple as possible. That way I can mold my personality into whatever kind of fun a client is looking for. Versatility is key.”

Iris’ stripper costume is not an expression of her individuality, but a business plan calculated to maximize profits. And even though Iris and her coworkers flaunt different dresses, thongs, and sky-high stilettos in dozens of cuts and colors, their outfits are all merely different iterations on a shared them —  all exaggerated expressions of traditional feminine sexuality.

For even though strippers are constantly transgressing social norms of sexuality and moral behavior in their line of work, their attire seldom challenges the boundaries of gender and the so-called “feminine ideal.” Ultimately, this adherence to classic modes of female sex appeal is central to their performative role within the walls of the strip club — a space that, as the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin put it, can be described as “carnivalesque.”

Strippers and porn stars, says Marcel Danesi, a professor of semiotics at the University of Toronto, are examples of “modern-day carnival mockers who take it upon themselves to deride, confuse, and parody authority figures and sacred symbols, bringing everything down to an earthy, crude level of theatrical performance.”

By pitting the sacred (say, the sanctity of human body) against the profane (the bald-faced lasciviousness of a strip club), Danesi argues that the “carnival” form aims to “critique traditional mores and idealized social rituals, bringing out the raw, unmediated links between domains of behavior that are normally kept very separate.”

Thus, by satirizing sex, gender and sexuality, strippers — in their hyperfeminine costumes highlighting boobs and bum — may act as court jester: revealing and challenging these entrenched norms from behind a mask.

“Through costumes and masks, these transgressive individuals take on a new identity, and, as a consequence, renew themselves spiritually in the process,” Danesi says.

This transformation, however, is only temporary. When the carnival is over, the catharsis is complete — and sexual norms (and bras, jeans and sweaters) quickly snap back into place.


MICHELLE LHOOQ is a writer and stripper shoe-enthusiast living in New York City.

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