updated 27 Jan 2011, 16:08
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Thu, Jan 27, 2011
Urban, The Straits Times
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Strip teese
by Hong Xinyi

These days, you cannot ogle a Hollywood red carpet without seeing a sea of young starlets aping vintage glamour with matte red lipstick and crimped hair.

And they owe a lot to burlesque star Dita Von Teese, who started the vintage revival way back in the early 1990s when fashionistas were more into the grubby grunge look.

'I have been doing this before it was cool, when the only audience I had were fetishists and strip-club patrons and I had nothing to gain,' she told Urban in Tokyo's Ritz Carlton hotel last week.

The 36-year-old was doing press interviews as the brand ambassador of French orange liqueur brand Cointreau.

Dressed in a teal Moschino dress, the extremely pale and meticulously made-up Von Teese was every inch the stylish vixen worshipped by top international designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier.

It is somewhat ironic that she has become a bona fide fashion icon, considering how her full-time job involves devising artful ways to take her clothes off onstage.

She commands a five-figure sum for a typical 10-minute burlesque performance, which takes around three years to create and often involves over-the-top props like a carousel pony and a giant martini glass.

Besides Cointreau, she has also worked with major brands like M.A.C and Wonderbra. Not only has she graced the covers of lad mags like Playboy, she is also the darling of high fashion titles like Vogue.

A highly scrutinised marriage in 2005 to shock rocker Marilyn Manson and subsequent divorce a year later helped to raise her profile even more.

But she vividly remembers a time when her ardour for retro glamour was considered extremely weird.

'Dressing this way wasn't considered funky or cute when I started doing it,' she says. 'People just thought I was wearing funny clothes.'


Before she became Dita Von Teese in the 1990s (Dita is a homage to 1930s German actress Dita Parlo and Von Teese came straight out of the phonebook), she was simply a freckly blonde called Heather Renee Sweet, the plainest of three daughters born to a manicurist and a machinist in a small Michigan town.

'I didn't know this name was going to stick with me for such a long time. When I first started performing at age 18, it was just a hobby,' she remembers.

'I thought I was going to get married and have kids. But you can't mess with destiny.'

Her intense love affair with old-school glamour owes much to her mother's love of classic movies. As a child, she would dress up in her grandmother's wedding dress and dream of being a ballerina, cleaning the dance studio bathroom in exchange for lessons.

By the time she was a teenager, dressing in second-hand vintage clothes and elaborate lingerie like garter belts and corsets had become a habit.

'My boyfriend at the time was very normal, he was on the water polo team,' she recalls.

'We were very much in love, but he thought I was a little strange. Sometimes he would ask, 'Do you really have to wear that?'

'I had one best girlfriend, we dressed the same way.'

There is a tiny pause, then a wry smile. 'We were kind of the outsiders in school.'

After graduating from high school, she studied fashion history at a local college and worked as a make-up artist, hoping to become a stylist for period movies.

But destiny soon intervened. Intrigued and inspired by pictures of vintage pin-up models like Bettie Page, she started modelling for adult pin-up photos and doing striptease shows.

'I never wanted to be an actress,' she says of her dive into the seamy side of showbiz. 'I wanted to be a showgirl.'

It was a bumpy start. While the other girls at the Los Angeles strip club where she worked were tanned bikini babes, she showed up in corsets and elbow-length opera gloves, dancing to incongruous electronica music.

'At first, the customers were kind of confused,' she recalls, grinning. 'They thought I was wearing a lot of clothes for a stripper.'

Her parents, she says a touch defiantly, 'didn't really know what I was doing and didn't take me seriously. And anyway, I was 18 and paying my own way for everything. If anyone said anything about my job, my response was, 'Are you going to pay for my car?' I've always kind of been like that.'

This stubborn streak, she believes, is the secret of her success.

'Lots of people told me I should move on to something else, dye my hair blonde and get a tan, because they thought that looked sexy. But I became famous in that strip club because there was no one who looked like me.'


These days, of course, she is more used to being feted for her unique style.

'Slowly, people have become less afraid of me. It has taken a while for them to understand that burlesque is an American tradition,' she says.

And she takes that tradition very seriously. Don't let the sexpot demeanour fool you: Deep down, she is a bit of a nerd.

Her 2006 book on the history of burlesque is exhaustively researched and references Greek playwright Aristophanes, American novelist Henry James and the German opera Salome, among others.

She can tell the difference between a 1940s-style manicure and a 1950s one and once went out swingdancing every night in pursuit of a completely authentic retro lifestyle.

'I am quite an obsessive person,' she says without any hesitation. 'Definitely.'

And the art of burlesque, according to her, demands nothing less.

'I love burlesque because it is an act of creating fantasy. Burlesque stars are self-created and self-made. I have always liked people who have had to work harder for their success.

'Like Madonna - she is not the best singer or dancer, but she has big ambitions and she wants to do something special,' she says.

'That's what I am really good at, too,' she adds. 'Making people think I am glamorous.'

How good she is becomes clear the next evening, when she puts on a show for a crowd of Cointreau executives, Japanese socialites and fashion press.

As she coyly and gracefully strips off an elaborate costume handstitched with 400,000 Swarovski crystals, the crowd goes wild.

'If you had asked me when I was 21 if I would still be doing this at 36, I wouldn't have thought so,' she says.

'For the near future, I think I will still be performing. As for marriage and kids, I don't know. I got divorced three years ago and I am kind of enjoying this new life, a second chance.'

Get her style


For those who want to steal Dita Von Teese's vivid vintage style, three uber-hip neighbourhoods in Tokyo offer the perfect opportunity to indulge in some retro retail therapy.

Unlike tourist-filled hotspots like Harajuku, the laidback and adjacent areas of Daikanyama, Ebisu and Nakameguro are more relaxing to shop in and offer more eclectic wares.

Quirky shops and cafes fill narrow side streets here and wandering off main avenues will yield great rewards for the persistent shopper. Here's a quick rundown of these neighbourhoods' greatest hits.


1-14-11, 103 Aobadai, Meguro-ku

One of the landmarks in the artist-filled bohemian enclave of Nakameguro, this bookshop stocks mainly Japanese translations of English titles by 1960s icons like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

But there are lots of glossy coffeetable books on photography and fashion here as well, and vintage aficionados will love the pristine editions of Playboy issues from the 1960s.

This magazine is one source of inspiration for Von Teese's style: She used to sneak peaks at her father's stash of Playboy magazines and her 1999 appearance in the magazine marked the first time her parents took her chosen profession seriously.


1-5-10, Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku

This vintage boutique has the feel of a museum - the clothes are arranged on the walls in very elaborate displays and customers are not allowed to touch them.

The costume jewellery section, thankfully, is not so strict. And the baubles here are lovely, ranging from unique porcelain necklaces to rhinestone brooches.


1-16-12, Aobadai, Meguro-ku

Stock up on paraphernalia like vintage laundry bags, shoe brushes and even bottle openers at this basement shop.

And even if you aren't into vintage shoes, the rows and rows of dainty retro footwear make for interesting browsing.


1-35-2, Ebisu Nishi, Shibuya-ku

No self-respecting vintage-loving dame would be caught dead without the perfect finishing touch to any retro-fabulous outfit - perfume.

And at this Tokyo branch of niche New York-based scent shop Le Labo, you get your selected perfume mixed for you on the spot.


2-21-15, Ebisu Nishi, Shibuya-ku

This vintage boutique is extremely tiny but wonderfully interesting.

It's cramped with all manner of antiques sourced from Europe, including ballet slippers, corsets and maps.

The old-fashioned patent leather purses with tarnished metal clasps and the pillbox hats with netted veils attached are particularly lovely.


9-7, Daikanyama, Shibuya-ku

It is always nice to find vintage boutiques that do not smell musty and feel dusty - it is harder than you think - and this one definitely presents its wares in a polished and pristine way.

The colourful frocks from various eras are delightful, but it is the accessories, ranging from charming cloche hats to ornate belt buckles, that stand out.

This article was first published in Urban, The Straits Times.

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