When people talk about dressing as a saloon girl for Halloween, the look they often envision is actually closer to a modern burlesque dancer. If you're vaguely picturing something with a corset, boa, ruffles and rhinestones, you could probably go either way. The main difference is that a saloon girl costume tends to be more conservative than a burlesque costume, but corsets and rhinestones are must-haves for either one.
Saloon girls vs. burlesque performers
Saloon girls and burlesque performers have different histories, which may be useful to understand as you conceptualize your Halloween costume or cosplay look.
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Saloon girls were women who were hired by saloons in the Wild West in the middle through late 1800s. Thousands of men had moved to the West to find work in the American frontier, so they greatly outnumbered women. Saloon owners knew they could get men to flock to their saloons if there were friendly women there who were ready to talk and dance with them. Saloon girls didn't necessarily do anything with patrons beyond dancing and were generally respected in saloons. They dressed modestly by current standards, with skirts hitting at the knee or lower.
Burlesque is a performance style. Burlesque shows first became popular in the U.S. in the mid to late 1800s during the same period when saloon girls were working. Shows would include songs, variety acts and striptease performances by scantily clad dancers. Burlesque has evolved over the years, though it had fallen out of the mainstream before Dita Von Teese re-popularized burlesque in the 1990s. For many years, dancers in burlesque shows tended to dress in a revealing style similar to what you might see on a Las Vegas showgirl, though modern burlesque groups tend to include a wider range of body types and costume options.
Creating a saloon girl costume
A saloon girl costume will leave you fairly covered up, so it's a good choice for a Halloween costume on a cold night. It's a tough outfit to DIY unless you have some sewing skills, though. Typically, a saloon girl costume includes an off-the-shoulder or strapless dress made from a brightly colored or black satin fabric, which is either completely floor-length or cut a little higher in the front than the back. These dresses typically have a corset top, ruffles along the hem and luxe embellishments, like gold tassels and velvet bows.
If you can sew enough to follow an online tutorial, you may be able to make your own saloon girl costume by repurposing a ruffly old prom dress or a corseted gown from a thrift store. You could be a more fun, less authentic version of a saloon girl by wearing a short off-the-shoulder dress over a tutu with a corseted top over the top of the dress.
Finish your costume with sheer, colored tights and heels or low boots. Accessorize your hair with bejeweled combs or a headpiece with colorful feathers. Wear plenty of blush, lipstick and eye makeup to sell the look of a good-time girl hanging around an Old West saloon.
Creating a burlesque costume
Because burlesque has continued to evolve as a performance style, there are some fairly modern examples to model a costume after. Look to Dita Von Teese or Christina Aguilera's character from the 2010 movie Burlesque for inspiration. Their burlesque outfits are often quite skimpy and are composed of pieces you might find in a lingerie store.
Look for things like strapless bodysuits, black satin corsets and beaded or lacy camisoles. Pair these elements with pieces like black satin boy shorts or a tasseled belly dance skirt for more coverage. You can also cover a stretchy mini skirt with pieces of feather boas to make a DIY feathered skirt. If you prefer to be more covered up, avoid lingerie altogether and wear a short sequined dress over fishnets or a flamboyant satin robe. Any glamorous outfit can be a convincing burlesque costume if you add the right finishing touches and strut around the party with confidence.
As for those finishing touches? 1940s pinup-style curls are the classic burlesque hairstyle. (Buy a wig if your own hair won't cooperate.) Follow a makeup tutorial to copy all the elements of a signature burlesque makeup look; think exaggerated eye makeup and bright red lips. Cover yourself in sparkly jewelry and carry a feather boa or fan to use as props. Pull on some fishnets or wear garters and stockings and finish the costume with a pair of heels.
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