Meet the degrading, immoral and completely unstoppable Mrs Lydia Thomson: a fearsome and talented performer who took burlesque to New York.
Burlesque wasn’t always a synonym for striptease – although it has always been risqué.
In the nineteenth century, the performances were a mixture of satire, comedy, music and dance. In a world where women were immobilised beneath many pounds of cloth and ribs of whalebone, the cross-dressing burlesque dancer could have an audience enthralled with a flash of the calf, a shake of the hip and a smile beneath her blush cheeks.
Few dancers were more successful than Ms Lydia Thomson. Not content with being the finest dancer on the London stage, she took her troupe – the British Blondes – to the United States of America. With her husband as manager, the troupe quickly flourished, playing to packed houses every night of the week. A whirlwind six month tour was extended to an incredible six years.
However, not everyone appreciated the spectacle. Ms Thomson was damned from pulpits across New York; America had never before seen a burlesque show and the county’s preachers denounced the British Blondes as ‘degrading and immoral’. The effect was joyously predictable: tickets sold twice as quickly.
She enthralled her audiences with a finely considered balance of topical jokes, song and dance – accompanied, of course, by a scandalising flash of her shapely legs. Lydia was also immensely proud of the skilfulness of her girls. When the editor of the Chicago Times cast doubt on the virtue of her and her dancers, she horsewhipped him in the street.
She returned to London and not long after, her husband died. This would be a terrible setback for even the stoutest of heart, but it did nothing to dampen her firebrand optimism. Lydia continued to dance across the stages of the capital, starring in comic operas and vaudeville reviews. Few embodied so emphatically the spirit of the age: a pioneer of independence and invention.