When someone does word-association with a city like Las Vegas, there’s probably a brief list that comes to mind: drinking, gambling, partying, The Strip, and beautiful women. These days, it’s club hostesses, dancers, and cocktail waitresses that fill the latter role up and down the Strip. Before that, in the days of the Rat Pack and Elvis, you could find the most beautiful women of all on the stages of Folie’s Bergere and Jubilee!
Showgirls and Las Vegas go together like peanut butter and jelly. The showgirl first came to Las Vegas in the form of chorus girls at the El Rancho Vegas in the 1940s and instantly became a draw. The chorus girls of those days were reminiscent of the dance hall girls in burlesques of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Theatrical burlesques, besides entertaining and titillating their audiences, highlighted and celebrated the feminine form, through the jewels, furs, and feathers that dancers wrapped themselves in during their performances. In Vegas, they started as opening acts and eventually became an audience attraction all on their own. By the 1970s, the showgirl became the cherry on top of Vegas’ earliest marketing campaigns, promising visitors when they came to Vegas “the most beautiful girls in the world.”
Donn Arden was often the man behind those women. The choreographer and show director got his start in Vegas at the Tropicana, before moving on to stage the Lido de Paris at the Stardust, which ran from 1958 to 1981. The Lido de Paris was the first Vegas show to feature topless dancers, and Donn Arden continued that tradition when he went on to stage one of the longest-running stage shows in Las Vegas history, Jubilee!
In a city that adheres to the motto “out with the old, in with the new” Jubilee! was something of a unicorn. It still holds the title of the longest-running show on the Las Vegas Strip, showing nightly inside Bally’s for nearly thirty-five years. Jubilee! celebrated the glitz and glam of a time long since passed, with long-legged dancers and muscle-bound men and set pieces that looked like they came from Hollywood musicals.
And even though those dancers spent most of the show topless, they still needed costumes. Enter in Bob Mackie, a fashion designer with a flair for extravagance that fit right in a city like Las Vegas. From the sparkling “birthday” dress he drew for Marilyn Monroe, to Cher’s black Mohawk creation of the 80s or his collection of iconic Barbies, Mackie’s aesthetic was unmistakable. As Mackie himself once said, “A woman who wears my clothes is not afraid to be noticed.”
Mackie got his start in costume design as an apprentice of Edith Head, a costumer who won eight Academy Awards for her work on films such as All About Eve and Roman Holiday. Eventually, Mackie found his way to Las Vegas, designing pieces for Mitzi Gaynor’s stage show at the Riviera in 1966.
Mackie’s entire philosophy around costume design was to draw the eyes to the performer, no matter what stage they were on, or the size of the dancer. Mackie wanted to draw every eye inside a theater to the performers, but he also wanted to make sure his dancers could move — as much as one can wearing thirty-pound headdresses and rhinestone-encrusted bikinis.
When it came to the costumes of Jubilee! Mackie stayed true to his vision. He kept the Folies’ tradition of designing and making the costumes in Paris, and for the most part, kept a similar aesthetic. During the Folies’ run, the show routinely updated costumes (and sets) to avoid paying duties on them and being made in Paris meant that they were being made by those who were also designing and constructing the stage shows. This lead to the obvious French aesthetic, especially in Folie’s Bergere’s cancan costumes and 17th-century poufs, some topped with a covering of feathers and small ships.
Folies Bergere’s secret to longevity was constant reinvention, but Jubilee! managed to survive without making too many foundational changes. With the closing of the show, Mackie’s costumes, along with those of Folie’s, are now preserved at the Nevada State Museum, where they are on permanent display. Visitors can see these elaborate works of art and learn the history behind their creation and about what life on stage was like for “the most beautiful girls in the world”. The showgirl may be a thing of the past these days, but their significance can’t be overlooked.