Among lingerie devotees specifically and appreciators of beauty and style in general, Dita Von Teese needs no introduction. She is an iconoclast and an icon, a modern muse and of another era entirely, a larger-than-life dynamo in a soft-spoken, petite package.
Born Heather Sweet, the self-described “mediocre-looking blonde girl from a farming town in Michigan” fell under the spell of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Cinema and, at a time when the rest of America’s youth was grunging out in flannel and combat boots, set out to remake herself in its raven-haired, red-lipped image. When she discovered that many of the glamorous screen sirens she admired were also dancers, she adopted her stage name and learned the art of the striptease. Since 1992, Dita has been synonymous with burlesque and can be single-handedly credited with its revival. Everything she touches, from her Swarovski crystal-bedecked sets and couture costumes to her lingerie collection and new hosiery line—reflects her impeccable eye for detail.
This past month, hours before the final sold-out New York performance of her latest show, “The Art of the Teese,” Dita visited Bare Necessities to tell us firsthand about her collection—both iconic styles (like Madame X) and new additions (like her Instagram fan-selected shade of emerald green)—and how she turned herself into a Power Figure. Read on for our exclusive interview.
Q: How did you find your true calling from such a young age?
A: I became enthralled with the stars of the 1940s and 50s as a little girl because my mother loved to watch old movies. I think I realized early on that this type of beauty was created, so I liked the idea of learning the art of glamour for my own life. I never felt I could relate to modern standards of beauty, so I looked to Hollywood’s Golden Age. In my teens, I started playing with retro-inspired makeup and hairdos and dressing in vintage style, partly because I couldn’t afford nice, new clothes like many of my friends.
I became interested in reviving burlesque in 1991 when I was recreating vintage-style pin-up photos, and, in my research, I found that many of the models back then were burlesque dancers who used the pictures to promote their acts. I had the idea to do the same kind of thing. At the time, in addition to my job in lingerie in a department store, I was working in the Los Angeles nightclub scene as a go-go dancer, and I also started occasionally working in a strip club, where I decided to put my own nostalgic spin on it—no one was doing that at the time. Between 1991 and 1994, I became known amongst fetishists, Bettie Page fans, retro enthusiasts and fans of Playboy because I was posing for their monthly special editions. I began touring and performing at clubs all over the world doing my burlesque shows. Over the years, my acts became more lavish. I started off with a pair of small pink ostrich feather fans and a handful of Swarovski crystals I’d saved up for; now, the shows have evolved into major spectacles that sometimes require years to complete. Some of the shows feature over 350,000 hand-placed crystals; every millimeter of my newest martini glass is covered in Swarovski crystal.
Q: What about burlesque resonates with you so deeply?
A: I was drawn to retro glamour early on because I didn’t feel very special. I couldn’t fit into the mainstream image of modern American beauty, so I liked the idea of emulating the looks of classic Hollywood icons and vintage pin-ups. It was very clear to me that these images were created. And when I started looking at those vintage magazines, I saw the parallel between pin-up and striptease. I enjoy creating my shows, presenting them, reminding people of a time when striptease was a real form of entertainment that had mainstream stars, like Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr. I always wanted to change people’s minds about what it is to be a stripper and bring back the art of the tease.
Q: Where did you find the courage to do something so different and so risqué?
A: Well, I found my confidence through glamour. When I started, I wasn’t trying to become famous for pin-up and burlesque, I was just doing it because I liked it. It didn’t feel like a big risk because it was my hobby; it wasn’t high-stakes. I guess it might be different if I thought I was setting out to make it my career, but I always had other things I did for a living. My entire life, I’ve always been reasonable, I’ve always figured my 15 minutes could be up at any time. I’m still that way—always saving, always making sure I have several plan Bs in place.
Q: What about lingerie appeals to you so much, and what sets your line apart?
A: I remember being fascinated with my mother’s lingerie drawer from a young age. To me, lingerie has always been a symbol of womanhood, which I looked forward to. When I was little, my mother loved watching Technicolor musicals, and I became enamored with the glamour of the women in those films. There were lots of backstage showgirl scenes, and the glimpses of lingerie from those eras made a huge impression on me that has never gone away. When I was a teenager, my first job was working in a lingerie store, and I worked in lingerie for about 10 years. I think those years influence the way I design my collection. I take special care to offer a variety of sizes and shapes that respect a woman’s varying preferences. I want the collection to be both glamorous and functional for moments of beauty and luxury in everyday life.
Q: Your fan base is devoted to you beyond any we’ve seen. To what do you attribute their loyalty?
A: I think they see I have a message to share, one that resonates with many. I don’t think I’m the only girl who ever felt less than while being bombarded with images of supermodels. My message is about the power of glamour to transform, and demonstrating alternative suggestions of what sensuality is apart from bikini-clad, natural beauty.
Q: What does “empowerment” mean to you?
A: For me, it means living life on my own terms and not having to settle. I had a very unlikely path, but my fan base quickly shifted from male to female, and it felt empowering to have this creative outlet that also inspires people.
Q: You’ve been described as a “modern feminist,” which we love. How do you reconcile life as a 21st-century woman with the pin-up girl culture of a less liberated era?
A: Feminism is extremely complex and evolving. I believe in gender equality and respect for each other’s individual ideas of what feminism is and how it fits into their lives and choices.
Q: What does a typical day look like?
A: It’s different every day. I’ve been in pre-production for my tour, so I start with a workout, spend hours answering email, take a few meetings…it’s been 14-hour workdays. Zero glamour, actually. But tomorrow is another day!
Q: Do you ever have a “day off” in sweats and no makeup?
A: A makeup-free day working at home wearing black Capri pants and a black sweater—that’s my casual. I like finding ways to be comfortable yet chic with simplicity.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
A: Don’t think your twenties are the height of a woman’s beauty and sensuality; there is much more to cultivate as time goes by.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DITA
Favorite place in the world to perform: San Francisco.
Favorite bra: Sheer Witchery.
Role model: Gypsy Rose Lee, for being clever enough to have a career as a striptease star her whole life. She managed to see that her talent wasn’t merely about the beauty of youth.
Best piece of style advice: Find a style “code” that works well for you, and only shop within that.
Best way to unwind: Sex.
Greatest extravagance: My costumes.
Personal mantra: Living well is the best revenge.
Best vice: Swearing.
Fear you’re trying to overcome: Riding horses.
Comfort food: Scrambled eggs.
Perfect day must contain: Aleister, my cat.
Biggest mistake: There are at least two people I wish I had never met and never trusted….
Proudest moment: The day I opened my lingerie drawer and ALL of it was from my own collection. I have always loved lingerie shopping, but I’m proud to say that I love my own brand more than other fancier, more expensive brands.
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