Featured Artifact: Gypsy Rose Lee’s Pincushion

Gypsy Rose Lee Pincushion

Gypsy Rose Lee was practically born into show business, touring the vaudeville circuits with her sister, Jane Havoc, from before she was old enough to go to school. Their successes were fleeting and hardships enduring, and it behooved the young vaudevillian to learn to sew. Throughout her stage career, both in vaudeville and, later, burlesque, Gypsy sewed her own clothes and costumes, and this pincushion — a cheap, slightly kitschy dime-store model picked up who-knows-where —  must have seen plenty of backstages over the course of her career.

Gypsy Rose Lee's pincushionThe pincushion is bristling with straight pins. Gypsy didn’t trust zippers, and didn’t trust buttons or eye-hooks either. Often, her dresses were sewed with one side seam open, and Gypsy would pin herself into the dress before going on-stage. As she paraded across the stage, she’d slowly draw out pin after pin, often dropping them into the bell of the tuba-player’s instrument or bouncing htem off the drummer’s snare. “Plonk!” She’d turn and draw out another, opening a slightly wider gap along a hip or thigh. “Plonk!” And another, and another. “Plonk! Plonk!” Until, finally, excruciatingly, the last pin was drawn and the dress fell from her body.

Audiences loved it. (The opinions of her musicians, alas, have not been recorded.) And of course, Gypsy became the biggest burlesque star of her generation, perhaps of all generations. Backstage, she’d reclaim her pins, stuffing them into her pincushion as she packed the dress away for next time. You see here a sewing tool, but looked at the right way, it’s really part of a costume, as much as a pair of gloves or a fur stole would be.

Gypsy Rose Lee’s pincushion is on display now, along with other artifacts relating to her life on- and off-stage.

 

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