Another book I'm reviewing because I'm getting rid of it. Published in 2006, already it’s speaking from a different world, where burlesque wasn’t so uAnother book I'm reviewing because I'm getting rid of it. Published in 2006, already it’s speaking from a different world, where burlesque wasn’t so ubquitous, before 50 Shades of Grey and the explosion of broadband porn – and it shows in the text. Although text isn’t really the point of the book.
Dita von Teese is essentially an aesthete, a highly feminised dandy. She is proud and upfront about artifice, of her vintage fashion collection, and seeks to create magic and to be a living work of art, like her heroes from the past Marchesa Luisa Casati, Liberace, and golden age Hollywood bombshells. A fetish for attention and approval certainly seems to be there, but she is also, regardless, a conoisseur and creator, who rather that following fashion, turned it towards her own tastes.
This is mostly a picture book. 90% fashion & style pics, 10% hot. YMMV, but it's closer to what you might see in Vogue than Penthouse. The costumes are often the focus, but there's also sometimes a frisson of very nearly revealing something. Because most extant photos of Dita are covered up to some extent, and she's seen often in the media, clothed, she has succeeded in creating a relative sense of rarity value to those pictures which are fully revealing, unlike most porn stars. [I already think I may have overstepped the mark for detail. a) as soon as I read a couple of other reviews on this page, my fear of creeping out girls, which I've had for much of my life, returned; and b) writing about this it might be construed as some kind of indirect flirting with men I don’t intend to flirt with.]
The Burlesque section: - A short history of burlesque in America, mostly about the Billy Minsky club and Bettie Page - An elementary guide to burlesque performance and associated fashion and makeup looks. In that oddly useless way of much celebrity-fronted advice, it combines insufficiently specific information that anyone with a vague interest would already know, with tips that are unrealistic for most people - albeit the latter end up as paragraphs of unintentional autobiography. The fashion and beauty advice isn’t likely to be of much interest to people who’ve found their own style, or who just want to copy one element, as it doesn't go into enough detail about creating a particular look. - A bit of autobiograpahy. Dita was fascinated by with vintage glamour from an early age, starting with watching films of the 30s, 40s and 50s with her mother. She originally wanted to work on historical costumes for film or theatre. -The book doesn't really go into the politics of burlesque – on one hand, kind of refreshing, because the conflicting feminist arguments have been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere. She knows she doesn't fit some feminist outlooks and makes a sort of pun that for her, feminism is about being as feminine as possible. Amusingly, she interprets Lysistrata as ultimately about tease and seduction. Questionable, but a nice change from the usual stuff heard online. (Is there any now any discussion or reasonably serious news site that is sex-positive in a non-naïve way, whilst not making sex its primary subject?) Von Teese has no problem with being called a stripper, but despite her own background, doesn't discuss the class issues that appear to lie behind the 'burlesque good, stripping bad' attitude that's frequently heard now. It's not that sort of book. It's closer to consumer magazines and little pink paperbacks that give advice on how to be stylish and alluring.
It's also a very straight book. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been noticed so easily. Dita mentions occasional gay men as friends designers or icons, but mostly she's interested in vintage hyper-femininity her sensual enjoyment of style, and heterosexual male responses to it. (Presumably she doesn't interact much all the men who, contrary to what the media leads one to believe, don't care about fancy underwear and high-end sex gear - and make this stuff seem like it's only for an audience in the female consumer's own head.)
She never analyses herself beyond her inspirations and favourites; that fits the aesthete / pure style portrayal, but the book would be more interesting if she discussed why she thought she is the way she is, beyond early interest in films and magazines. (I also had a very early interest in corsets, via Tudor costumes; my primary school drawings always showed people with triangular torsos; so I think there can simply be an aesthetic attraction to a striking shape, and if you have a small waist anyway, perhaps more so as it sounds more possible. (Not always possible …soon after leaving home, I realised I got fewer stomach aches if I didn’t wear belts, so regular corset-wearing was never really on the agenda even if I did eventually buy a few). But my association of corsets was with a very different kind of power: Elizabeth I and similar figures (who correlated having with a mother who had a successful career ,and the 80s and Mrs Thatcher) v. Dita's 30s-50s showgirls and pinups. )
The first half of the Fetish section at times talks more sense, although it has its limitations. (The second half is more style tips.) Von Teese thinks that domination is inseparable from cruelty, for example - however in visual performance, that probably is difficult to untangle. I like her idea that Freud was projecting his own feelings on to everyone else; somehow I hadn't heard it put quite that way, and so reasonably, before. There isn’t a great deal of serious argument about censorship, although von Teese gives the impression that she doesn’t apply the snobbish distinction of erotica v. porn. Whilst she doesn’t talk about her past forays into porn, she doesn’t disown them. (The text is packaged as a nice girly chat and – like comments I want to make about certain pictures - it’s evident that that would be too alienating in the context.)
Dita wasn't to know how outdated the following would sound only a few years later: "female submission is the last stereotype to be liberated". (Given the level of control von Teese has over her image and projects, she most certainly makes submission look voluntary not coerced.) A few years ago submssive women bloggers angrily insisted that they weren't regressive or anti-feminist, and they did seem subject to a taboo. And then there was E.L. James and all the online porn and soon representations of submissive women became uiquitous and dominant.
Whilst Dita von Teese's look is similar to queer femme, the attitudes in the text are maybe rather unexamined, to fall into jargon, and if I were responsible for kids I wouldn't want them picking up this exact take on things. But I would support her freedom to be this way, contrary to radical feminists. And I'm particularly conscious of not wanting to perpetuate a bad set of ideas I grew up with, that sex and love are only for the stupid women (not those 'like us') – something I see replicated in Goodreads reviews sometimes, where a strongfemalecharacter [tm] is berated for falling in love.
I hadn't read most of the text in this book before, and I'm less interested now than I would have been eight years ago. The writing is glossy magazine material; a little more depth would have been interesting. I’m now more steadily aware of a confusion that’s always been there somewhere; when I see these pictures, would I rather look like them, or like someone 5’10 in a suit; both impossible? And whilst I retain a few standard aesthete snobberies (no ‘loungewear’, onesies or novelty slippers, trainers only for exercise, no backpacks in town) on a personal level the Dita amount of effort now seems superfluous, and above all, tiring. Her writing is firmly fixed in her own perspective, in which looking like Dita von Teese is a 24/7 job, and no concessions. I suspect that even the most stylish people I’ve ever met don’t have such stringent standards as she does. I, as I am now, am not the audience for this book. A twentysomething who’s starting burlesque dance classes, doesn’t mind a superficial survey of the field, and who goes out a lot to venues where you can dress up in vintage / corsets probably is....more
Primal Skin is a work of fantasy fiction – and sexual fantasy, at that – mixing different time periods and traditions ranging from the Upper to the MiPrimal Skin is a work of fantasy fiction – and sexual fantasy, at that – mixing different time periods and traditions ranging from the Upper to the Middle Paleolithic. It is a bisexual utopia and a world in which gender does not limit ability. There is a great deal of artistic licence... Not quite what you'd expect in the introduction to a Black Lace book - though it's probably not surprising I'd be interested in a book with this premise by an author who appears to have good historical knowledge. Although I did have it for about ten years before reading; back then I'd really liked a story by the author, aka Astrid Fox, in some collection or magazine and got my hands on a few of her other works.
More is known about human/ Neanderthal interbreeding than when this was written, which in a way validates the idea of the hybrid community it's partly set in. (Apparently I have a higher than average amount of Neanderthal genes. The purveyors of laser hair removal were probably grateful for that, anyway...)
This is really a historical novel - mystery, quest and coming-of-age - with quite a lot of sex scenes, rather than "erotica". Often I wondered if the sex had been added or elaborated after earlier attempts to get the story published had failed. (The sex scenes are not bad, though not amazing and not often what I'd call erotic; YMMV.) Given the age of the main characters and the plot - apprentice shamans in their late teens or early twenties, and themes of religious and racial (speciesist?) prejudice - these days it would be "New Adult", but in the late 90s it probably would have seemed to be in some no man's land between teenage and adult books.
It's a fascinatingly strange world though the customs don't always fit together well and some of the thoughts seem too modern. (Skin's feelings about animals that are killed seem too near those of modern vegetarians. Wouldn't a culture in which creatures are sacred and have to be hunted for food see them in some way different from our current near-binaries?) It veers between engrossing and silly and made me think about the process of writing because I could imagine making similar errors in continuity, clumsy viewpoint shifts, not being sure how to conceptualise an ancient attitude to something etc. I was aware of some of the archaeology that contributed detail to the setting; would love to know where other bits came from. There were occasional schoolboy errors (no marsupials in Europe and bats aren't marsupials anyway). It seems odd for there to be no thoughts about pregnancy as part of prehistoric sex (assuming people had worked out the link), and that none of the characters already have children at the age they are, but you probably can't put that sort of detail in Black Lace stories. There was a sort of disconnection between the historically detailed parts of the story, and the sex scenes and some conversations (both the latter sounded more like a group of modern hippyish polyamorous students than people from another time). I couldn't help thinking that the author is probably better suited to short stories, and given her eye for factual detail, probably also non-fiction. Still, quite an interesting light read if you're sympathetic to its premise....more