Dita Von Teese wears her status as “America’s most famous stripper” with pride. But to vintage hounds, the 39-year-old burlesque superstar is not just a pretty lady who takes off her clothes, but the epitome of true Old Hollywood glamour. Credited with pioneering the neo-burlesque revival in the early 1990s, she incorporates nostalgia into every aspect of her life. She dresses head-to-toe vintage style, drives classic cars, and fills her home up with antiques, in “mainly a mix of Art Deco meets Hollywood Regency with a dash of Victorian style.”
When I was little, I used to go sneaking into my mother’s lingerie drawer. I recall sneaking into my grandmother’s, too!
As you might expect, she has a substantial collection of pin-up and burlesque memorabilia. But she also has a thing for sipping tea from Victorian tea sets, and for polishing silver, particularly Art Deco teapots and Love Disarmed flatware. Despite all the hullabaloo a few years back, Von Teese admitted to us she’s lost interest in Victorian eggcups. However, she’s got other obsessions: Cruising eBay and flea markets over the years, she’s amassed around 50 head vases, and a collection of chalkware figurines like ballerinas and harlequins. She’s accumulated so many vintage hats, they have to have their own room—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Now, Von Teese’s love of all things vintage has inspired the bottle for her namesake fragrance, launched last year, as well as her line of stockings. They’ve also influenced her collections of lingerie and dresses sold in Australia, which will soon be available in the United States and the United Kingdom. And for the finishing touch, Von Teese will be releasing her third book, a retro beauty guide that goes perfectly with her line of cosmetics. The performer, author, and businesswoman took the time to do an email interview with us from Paris and explain more about her eccentric collecting tendencies.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think of yourself as a collector?
Von Teese: Yes, I suppose I do. But my collection is across the board. It’s more a love for being surrounded by beautiful things than actually having a collection, which makes me think about someone who keeps things in glass cases and won’t use them for fear of damaging them. I use my things! I can’t really say exactly when I started noticing my tendencies, because really, I started buying old things when I was a teenager because I couldn’t afford the beautiful “new” things. Over the years, I’ve become much more savvy about values of things. Now I know what to invest in and what to just buy at a bargain—to use and enjoy and not cry over it being broken.
Collectors Weekly: What are the most unusual items in your collection?
Von Teese: I have a corset that Betty Grable wore in a film called “The Farmer Takes a Wife,” and I also have a shawl that Dorothy Lamour knitted. It has her little “Knitted with Love by Dorothy Lamour” label, and I have a photo of her in her chair on set knitting the actual shawl. I keep both of these garments in glass cases that can be opened so I can wear them or show them to people anytime. I also have lots of rare vintage books about burlesque and about beauty. I have a collection of vintage flared riding pants—I guess that’s kind of odd.
My hat collection is massive, too. I have several hundred, and a whole room in my house devoted to them. I collect vintage taxidermy: I have two big heart-shaped domes filled with birds, I have a bear rug, a monkey, and a full ostrich. I also have a collection of rare feathers I got from a famous place in France that supplied feathers to Josephine Baker, Mistinguett, and all the showgirls in Paris for 300 years.
Collectors Weekly: How did your lingerie collection begin?
Von Teese: I worked in a lingerie store when I was 15. Much in the same way that stripping made me discover burlesque, while I worked there, I always wanted to know more about the history of lingerie and how what women wore changed from decade to decade. But I’ve had a fascination with lingerie since I was very little. I used to go sneaking into my mother’s lingerie drawer, or any ladies’ lingerie drawer for that matter! I recall sneaking into my aunt’s and grandmother’s, too.
I think my first vintage piece was a peach satin circle stitched bra, or it could have been a pair of authentic fully fashioned stockings. I have a major obsession with the correct stockings; I even have a line of them, which are made on the exact machines that made them in the 1940s. I can’t bear Lycra or faux modern seams in a stocking! If there’s anything I have a real fetish for that borders on the insane, it’s about fully fashioned stockings and all the details of them.
Collectors Weekly: What about your collection of pin-up and burlesque memorabilia?
I’m driving a 1953 Cadillac Fleetwood, and I call it ‘Steel Xanax.’
Von Teese: Well, I started stripping when I was 20, but I was already dressing in vintage and collecting pictures of pin-ups, but not the rare things I’m able to collect now. I did get a great collection of letters, photos, and souvenirs that Sally Rand had been sending to a couple. One of the items is a great 1939 World’s Fair souvenir that is a little box that has the World’s Fair logo and says “Winter underwear for men, size 6” … and inside is an extremely anatomically correct crocheted “pouch.” I love all those ’30s and ’40s era men’s magazines with the pin-up art on the cover, like Wink, Eyeful, and Titter. I have a couple of Peter Driben originals, along with the magazine he painted the artwork for. He did very large oil paintings for these covers; they’re quite something, and it’s amazing to me that I am lucky enough to own such important art of that era. I also have paintings by Zoë Mozert and Jean Gabriel Domergue.
Collectors Weekly: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the history of burlesque?
Von Teese: I get asked a lot to explain that burlesque is different from stripping. But the term “burlesque” as we know it today comes from a type of risqué variety show in America that one would go to see in the 1930s and ’40s. Performing striptease—”stripping”— is the word to describe what the burlesque performers did onstage. Nowadays we use the word “burlesque” to describe this retro-styled striptease that is seeing a big revival. Without the strip, it’s not burlesque, that’s for certain, and the greatest burlesque star that ever lived, Gypsy Rose Lee, called herself a stripper. You aren’t going to hear me tell you that there is a difference between burlesque and stripping. I think it’s awfully pretentious to go on and on about how burlesque isn’t really stripping. Burlesque-style striptease is where the modern pole-dancing-type strip originated from. Essentially, we’re all related.
Initially, I worked in strip clubs, as did most of us that were at the forefront of the burlesque revival in the early 1990s, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I respect strippers of all forms. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t wandered into a strip club and wanted to know more about striptease history. I’ve always been able to admire what makes a dancer an individual, whether it’s really raunchy or tame. In my opinion, elegance has nothing to do with “how much” is shown and far more to do with the way one presents herself. I’ve seen beautiful, highly erotic, nearly pornographic shows that are more elegant than some burlesque acts. You can’t equate the degree of nudity or suggestion, it’s all about the overall way it’s done.
Collectors Weekly: What other personal items do you have from famous burlesque stars?
Von Teese: Aside from that stack of letters, photos, and itineraries from Sally Rand, I have an important original Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of Gypsy Rose Lee. I also have stacks of catalogs from Lili St. Cyr’s lingerie business. It means a lot to me because each item stands for these women that came before me and made it possible for me to do what I do now, and for the entire neo-burlesque movement. I’ve learned a lot from them about how to maintain a career that goes beyond the days of looking good in a G-string. These women weren’t stupid, they all had life-long careers, and they inspire me a lot. Only a few of them managed to branch out into other businesses that pertained to striptease and glamour, but they didn’t rely on their bodies and looks to stay at the top.
Collectors Weekly: How do you feel about the current trend toward casual fashion?
Von Teese: I feel a little bit sad that the glamour in everyday life, for most people, is gone. I’m in Paris right now, and I can honestly tell you that the mythical glamorous Parisienne doesn’t exist; what you find is a lot of young pretty girls in jean shorts paired with black tights and messy hair. This is the “look” here for young girls! But there are still those of us that dress up, whether it’s retro or not. Glamour doesn’t depend on nostalgia. But I often dream about what it might have been like to look out upon the streets of Paris in the 1890s. Glamour is important to me mainly because it makes me feel good, it makes me feel like I have something in common with my idols of the past, and I find it to be an entertaining form of theater.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you like to buy your vintage clothing?
Von Teese: Having traveled all over the world, I can tell you that I think that the U.S. still has the best vintage shopping, especially if you like wearable things at good prices. I was just shopping for vintage in Paris yesterday, and I found a few nice things, but they all need work on them and I paid dearly for them. My best vintage find ever was in San Francisco. It’s an authentic Christian Dior 1954 New Look-era haute-couture three-piece suit, with all the red serial numbers and labels with the season embroidered on it. There’s a huge difference between Dior Paris haute couture and just a Christian Dior label. I wouldn’t have been able to score something like that in Europe for less than the cost of a new Mercedes! I think that America has so much good vintage still because we were very prosperous in the ’30s and ’40s, and so the amount of beautiful clothes is still vast here.
I am especially into flea marketing when I’m jet-lagged, and it’s easy for me to wake up at 6 a.m. I love the big flea markets like Long Beach Veteran’s Stadium, my favorite in L.A., but I also hit all the little ones around, too. I usually do get recognized, probably because a lot of people that would be fans of me are going to be fans of vintage things, too.
Collectors Weekly: Do you still like to shop eBay?
Von Teese: Oh yes, I always have, and always will. I love entering my favorite keywords and seeing what comes up, saving searches. It’s such a great way to shop for vintage, I’ve found wonderful, amazing things at great prices. Just last week I bought something that didn’t have such great pictures, but I went for it anyway and when it arrived I was astonished by the details, the fabric. It’s a gorgeous pale blue silk velvet robe, definitely something custom-made and meant for an extravagant woman! It has these huge voluminous sleeves, a train, pleats at the shoulders. It’s really beautiful. I paid $200 for it. I’ve never seen a more extravagant robe, ever. You couldn’t even buy a single meter of that type of velvet for $200. This is what I love about vintage, I love the thrill of the hunt.
Collectors Weekly: What do you love about vintage cars?
Von Teese: Yes, my first car was a 1939 Chrysler New Yorker, which I bought when I was 22, and I only sold it about two years ago. I also had a 1965 Jaguar S-Type, which was a beautiful car, but an absolute nightmare to keep running. I love vintage cars because again, it’s that artful design in every detail inside and out. Cars will never be made like that again, ever. If you have a good honest mechanic, it doesn’t have to be expensive to drive American classic cars. Plus, they retain their value. I know that when I buy a vintage car, I can drive it and sell it whenever I want for what I paid for it, likely even more if I use it for a photo shoot. I also just love driving them, I love the patience and skill it takes, I love the way people like to see them out there on the road. I feel really calm when I’m driving one of my cars; there’s a soothing effect they have on me.
Right now, I’m driving a 1953 Cadillac Fleetwood, which is my favorite, and I call it “Steel Xanax.” I also have a 1939 Packard which is the original “French Blue” has that beautiful crystal flying lady hood ornament. And I have a 1946 Ford Super Deluxe convertible in burgundy, it’s perfect and gorgeous. I am thinking of selling the Packard and the Ford in order to get a ’40s era convertible Packard. I’ve been searching for that car that satisfies the part in me that loves both of these kinds of cars.
Collectors Weekly: Have your collecting tendencies affected you as a businesswoman?
“I think it’s awfully pretentious to go on and on about how burlesque isn’t really stripping.”
Von Teese: Oh yes, definitely. My newest perfume bottle is inspired by an antique bottle I have, and my lingerie line is all inspired by pieces from my vintage lingerie collection. My entire career is all shaped very clearly around my fascination with nostalgia. Because it originally stemmed from not being able to afford new clothes, I try to make everything attainable price-wise, which isn’t easy to do because it’s hard to arrive to something that has all those vintage details at a good price point. That’s my biggest challenge. I’m always pushing more and more, asking why on earth we can’t case the bonings in velvet rather than satin, searching endlessly for lace to use that looks truly vintage and expensive when it’s not.
It’s a constant struggle to try to get the manufacturers to try different things. My dress line, Muse, is also based on my favorite vintage dresses. I have taken all my most treasured items and made them out of better fabrics and shifted things like hemlines. Some people can’t find vintage easily, or don’t know where to look, or don’t want to wear old clothes. I’ve done them in plus-sizes, too, so every woman can wear them. I don’t claim to be a fashion designer, so I wanted to do it this way. And anyway, all the big designers go to vintage stores and archives with their team to photograph and sketch based on vintage. I’m just being more blatant about it and showing exactly which dress the design comes from.
(For more information on Dita Von Teese, her performances, and her products, visit Dita.net. For more pictures inside Dita’s home, check out more images from Douglas Friedman’s set for InStyle magazine at Ananas à Miami. More photos by Chas Ray Krider can be found at MotelFetish.com)