It seems women have always had a little something for restraint. It’s no coincidence that women around the globe have taken to 50 Shades of Grey.
It seems, according to burlesque artist and musician Bertie Page, that we girls have always hankered for a bit of bondage. In fact, it’s the story she tells in Serpentine about the history of the corset.
Bertie, can you tell me a little about your performance history? You are clearly a girl with many talents. When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother nurtured my creative side, coaching me in poetry recitation, and I grew to be an eisteddfod champ. I was always a singer and I tried my hand at violin and tuba but instruments weren’t entirely natural to me; I knew that I was going to have to find an unconventional road. I graduated from QUT in 2007 with a Bachelor of Creative Industries – Drama. That was also the year that I became aware of the resurgence of burlesque in Brisbane.
What drew you to the world of burlesque – why do you think it’s empowering for women rather than more objectification? I think that women find burlesque empowering in the overall sense but, like any art form, it can do the opposite. Like burlesque, I personally use the rock and roll as a tool of empowerment while others use it as a tool of hatred and misogyny; it’s up to the artist to determine a genre’s purpose. Burlesque splinters off into many subgroups; the most mainstream is the form that centres around a very glamorous, retro striptease, like the work of Dita Von Teese. I find myself in a different area that focuses on comedy, history and politics. The artists of this style transform bars, theatres and nightclubs into cultural forums delivering adventurous work with wit and the excitement of the unexpected. I think people find burlesque to be empowering because they can express themselves regardless of age, gender and body shape, elements that can be very restricting in traditional forms such as ballet.
Do you try to push things to the edge? If so, how? I don’t think that I design performances specifically to shock people but I do like to take them to new places. I like to present new perspectives on subjects that have been closed books, gathering dust in the collective subconscious. Some people are very shocked and offended by my brand of feminism, but sometimes that’s what it takes to open people up. I love the fight to free the minds of others.
Tell me about Serpentine – and the corset. Why have you chosen to tell that story? Is it bondage 50 Shades of Grey for women of the Victorian era? Oh dear, 50 shades… Yes corsetry could provide a platform for Victorian women to experiment with bondage in a socially sanctioned way. They were permitted to accentuate their secondary, sexual assets, although a waist that was too small would see a woman branded as immoral. Improvements in technology during the Industrial Revolution meant that women of the lower classes could achieve the same silhouette as their rich counterparts, somewhat closing the fashion gap and enraging the upper classes. The corset was one way in which women could gain a certain power in a pre-feminist world.
Why do you think the corset has retained such sexual overtones? Why is restraint and confinement so erotic or sensual? Restrictive accessories have always been an essential part of kink. It’s all about power play: one party is restrained and weak, giving power over to the more dominant one. The corset restricts the most malleable parts of the body to dramatic effect, giving a sense of discipline and restraint. It can be a symbol of restrained submission but I can also signal the control that the wearer has over their own body, giving them an aura of domination. The meanings of corsetry are many; it can be employed to represent all kinds of kink as well as sober prudishness.
What are some of western culture’s most painful and bizarre customs? I think some of our strangest trends are still with us today, absorbed into our everyday wardrobes. The stiletto is an agonising piece of engineering with its roots in the court of the Sun King Louis XIV of France. He insisted that his courtiers wear this impractical new fashion in order to symbolise their lofty position in society. The shoe only reached its greatest heights in the 20th century, when designers were able to engineer steel supported heels. High heels create an extreme position of the foot that has strong sexual associations yet the painful little instruments find themselves in our everyday wardrobes.
How do you tell the story? Is it rock opera? Monologue? Dance? Cabaret? Serpentine employs a variety of styles along its path to waist reduction. Intriguing tales are woven with a unique combination of spoken word, dance, rock, opera and even a little bit of Smokey Robinson…
You seem to have blended academia with burlesque. Why did you choose to take this journey? One of the most effective ways to reach people is through humour, and that is what lies at the heart of burlesque. Great thinking and comedy have been bedfellows throughout history. Think of Oscar Wilde; his comedy captured the hearts of his audiences while it exposed the deficits of the human condition. My friend Barry Humphries uses the same techniques, and he is a national treasure.
Are you advocating we all go back to corsets? Society’s expectation that women must wear corsetry went out in the 1960s when women said goodbye to their elasticised step-ins and girdles. I myself am glad that corsetry is now a choice and not something that women must do in order to be considered decently dressed. There are people out there who are ‘tight lacers’ who wear corsets almost 24/7 in order to reduce their waistlines over their lifetime. This means wearing heavy corsets to bed and a very specific diet of many small meals in a day. There are some health risks associated with tight lacing but many people do it in a safe, slow and responsible way. I’m not a full-time tight lacer but I fully support those who choose that path.
Who is in the show? Who is your band? The band for Serpentine is my very own rock band Bertie Page Clinic, John Meyer, Leon Van Lieshout and Tim Price on guitar, bass and drums. We also have classical musician Lachlan Kidd, who will be joining us with cello, and the theatre’s beautiful grand piano.
What should we expect for the Byron show? Come with no expectations and an open mind. We will feed your curiosity and nourish your soul with inspiring music!
Saturday, 8pm at the Byron Community Centre.