DITA VON TEESE: FEMME TOTALE
Dita Von Teese is aware of the power of glamour. From the moment she encountered old Hollywood movies as a child, she recognised that a simple swipe of lipstick was something that could give a woman a story.
“I’m a dishwater blonde from a farming town in Michigan,” she explains down the phone from Los Angeles one sunny morning. “So I made up my own story. I created my own myth.”
That power is something that has resonated with people around the world, and has gone far beyond the red-hot trend embraced by the fashion world for a spell in the mid 2000s.
And that’s the compelling thing about Von Teese. While her act and her aesthetic did become ludicrously trendy – she walked in high-profile runway shows, had a headline-grabbing marriage and appeared in multiple fashion campaigns – her goal has never been to chase fame, fashion or accolades. Her goal has simply been to do what she loves: to channel the spirit of a different time, one where women wore gloves, victory rolls and proper underwear.
“My mother was a big fan of old movies from the 1940s and 1950s and she also was a collector of antiques. So I was constantly surrounded by these other things growing up. I didn’t even understand that they were old-fashioned,” she explains, laughing fondly at the memory. Watching those movies when I was really young, I thought, ‘That’s what grown-up ladies look like and that’s what I’m going to dress like one day too.
If classic Hollywood movies were her gateway drug, Von Teese would soon move onto the stronger stuff – lipstick, lingerie and all the material trappings of glamour. It had a powerful effect, she recalls, taking her from Heather Sweet, Michigan girl-next-door working in the local lingerie store, to posing on glossy covers in the 1990s.
It has always given me confidence. When I worked for minimum wage in the lingerie store, I’d buy my 99 cent red lipstick – a little swipe of lipstick took me a long way.
Sweet adopted the name Dita Von Teese and soon Hollywood and bigger things beckoned. She developed her famous cabaret act, reviving the burlesque fantasies of the 1930s and 1940s, including that iconic martini glass that has seen her work travel around the world. Suddenly the idea of a return of vintage pin-up glamour – dressed up in waspies and pasties, fully-fashioned stockings and platform peep-toes – seemed timely and fresh. And beyond how she presents herself, Von Teese’s act itself seemed to resonate with people in a powerful way.
In modern times, natural beauty seems to be held in such high regard. I could never relate to supermodel beauties, the famous lingerie and swimsuit models, so I looked to the glamour girls of the past as role models of sensuality and beauty.
It’s thanks in part to Von Teese, of course, that burlesque has enjoyed such a revival in the past 15 years. And that revival has involved changes of its own, too, like in the composition of Von Teese’s own audiences. “In the early 1990s, working as a glamour and fetish model, I had a big male audience. Back then I was ‘the modern day pin-up’. Now, when I look out into the audience, it’s about 85% women, and the men there are usually their partners.”DITA EYEWEAR FOR DITA VON TEESE
Those new demographics are part of what kept her from quitting performance. "After I wrote my book your Beauty Mark, I had even younger fans, discovering burlesque and pinup for the first time. I realized that it's always been important for me to witness beauty and sensuality in women during all phases of life, and that younger women look to me for the same." And obviously we have a big LGBTQ community that comes to the shows, and people feel free to come out dressed in full drag, in fetish gear, head to toe in vintage. It’s really as much about the audience as it is about the show. It’s given me a new, refreshed feeling to what I do.”
Several years ago, Von Teese came close to hanging up the nipple tassles for good. “I’ve had moments in my career where I’ve thought, ‘Oh, I should stop, I should quit, I’m 45 now - what if I don’t look as good doing this as I did when I was 30?’” she recalls. The world of striptease can be unforgiving, and living under Hollywood’s microscope is not the easiest thing for a woman determined to do her own thing.
Throughout my adult life, when people see me with no makeup on they say, ‘Why do you wear all that makeup? You look so much younger with no makeup on.'
That always really bothered me, because number one: Why are we so obsessed with looking younger, and number two: Why are we telling each other what is beautiful?
The sudden and intense popularity of burlesque could’ve rumbled the integrity of some performers. Fashion weeks, celebrity galas, paparazzi – it can be a lot to take on. Not for Von Teese, who saw no reason not to adhere to her own authenticity. “I’m still wearing the same clothes I’ve been wearing for 15 years. It’s just something that I believe in. I’m not thinking, ‘What’s the new trend?’”
Yet she has found herself on the receiving end of such behaviour. “I’ve certainly watched people observe what I do and try to capitalise on it. I didn't have any modern stars to model my career from, and I always aim to take burlesque to a place it's never been before, to make my own mark”
Von Teese has stuck to her guns, looking for ways to ‘modernise vintage’, as she describes, and to update it for today. This has led to a Dita Von Teese lingerie line and now, a new Dita Von Teese frame for DITA – a vintage-style cat-eye frame with gently-updated proportions to cement it in modernity. It’s vintage glamour, she explains, but not as we might know it. “I think it can be very slick and modern and cool, and above all elegant. These are not your grandmother’s glasses!”DITA EYEWEAR FOR DITA VON TEESE
As we speak on the phone it’s early morning in LA, and the performer has had an uncharacteristically late night, she says. “This morning I’m not feeling as glamorous as I’d like to, but I do have a very nice robe on,” she says with a chuckle. “That’s where the nice lingerie comes in. When you don’t feel glamorous, you just throw on a silk robe and it suddenly makes you feel a little bit better.”
It’s clear that glamour is something intensely personal for Von Teese. It’s something transformative, that can make you confident and ready for what life might bring. And yet it’s gone much further than she might ever have imagined, growing up in rural Michigan, watching those old movies at home in the 1970s. “I never would have dreamed all of this,” she muses.
I never could have expected that burlesque would have this resurgence, would become this new type of feminist movement that is so unexpected. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t anticipate it. I just did what I loved for all these years.
For those who also love what she loves, the thrills will keep coming. There’s her ongoing European tour, and an annual New Year’s Eve gala in the historic Orpheum theatre in Los Angeles. Those who enjoy Dita Von Teese will keep coming back as long as she’s willing to get dressed up, and then get undressed, on stage. Perhaps it’s her unwillingness to compromise, to stray from her anointed path, that represents real authenticity in the eyes of her audience.
And by now it’s as if Heather and Dita have merged entirely. “I’ve never really felt like I’ve had a separate character,” she says. “Part of what made the Dita Von Teese character interesting to watch, I’ve been told, was that you saw Heather Sweet from Michigan at the same time. That I didn’t try to put on a character, I kept my personality. I just dyed my hair and wore red lipstick, I wore the right clothes that made me walk a different way, stand a different way.”
This was something Von Teese only really considered after she was on stage, being observed by thousands of people. “It was the writer Paulo Coelho who broke it down for me. He came to see several of my shows, and he pointed out to me once what it was that made me compelling to watch on stage. He said it was this blend of confidence with a little dash of humility and a sense of humour. It was just about being myself on stage, and not trying to put on a character.” Perhaps, beyond all the lipstick and the lingerie, it takes a spotlight for the real Dita Von Teese to emerge.
TEXT: Ana Kinsella
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