‘How a Wife Should Undress’: Dubious Advice From 1930s Strippers

Professor Connie Fonzlau at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York demonstrates "the worst possible method of disrobing," 1937.
Peter Stackpole—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Professor Connie Fonzlau at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York demonstrates "the worst possible method of disrobing," 1937.
Culture
'30s

We’ve all met them: those self-satisfied individuals who assert, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the world was a better, simpler, more civilized place “back then.” Exactly when “back then” might have been is, of course, always a little unclear. Ten years ago? Fifty? A nice, round century, perhaps? You know, before that pesky 19th Amendment was ratified?

Thankfully, some pretty hard evidence exists that not everything was better, simpler or more civilized for everyone back in the day. As a matter of fact, to take just one example of how things were hardly better or more civilized for a solid half of the adult population in America as recently as, say, 75 years ago, let’s take a quick look at a feature from a 1937 issue of LIFE magazine. Now, we’re hardly prudes, and we always get a good laugh out of something as over-the-top as this series of pictures illustrating how a wife should (and should not!) undress for her husband. But even we find it rather awful to consider a school devised to teach women—specifically, wives—how to disrobe, especially in light of the implication (see below) that wives with a faulty “disrobing methodology” are largely responsible for America’s outrageously high divorce rate.

After all, isn’t it reasonable to assume that a key reason behind the ballooning divorce rate, then and now, might very well be the American male’s cluelessness about how to proceed after the disrobing is complete?

[See the gallery: "Gypsy Rose Lee: LIFE With a Burlesque Legend"]

'How a Wife Should Undress,' LIFE Magazine, Feb. 15 1937

Peter Stackpole—LIFE Magazine

LIFE Magazine, Feb. 15, 1937.

Still, with full acknowledgement that being playful in the bedroom is a time-honored way to avoid marital strife and strengthen spousal bonds, LIFE.com considers the philosophy behind the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing and, like the LIFE magazine editors before us, we conclude that the entire phenomenon is an elaborate and—from a marketing standpoint—quite brilliant joke.

As LIFE informed its readers in its Feb. 17, 1937, issue:

Frankly as a social measure Allen Gilbert, who puts on shows for such topnotch burlesque houses as Manhattan’s Apollo and Philadelphia’s Schubert, is starting a School of Undressing in Manhattan this month. There wives, anxious to improve their marital manners, will learn the correct way to take off their clothes. Mr. Gilbert feels that many a marriage ends in divorce court because the wife grows sloppy and careless in the bedroom. “I am dedicating my school to the sanctity of the American home,” he says. The Gilbert faculty is recruited from the ranks of burlesque performers from all over. Already 48 wives who suspect there is something wrong with their disrobing methodology have signed up for the $30 Gilbert course of six lessons. From these they will learn how to make going to bed appear a thing of charm and pleasure rather than a routine chore.

Mr. Gilbert plans to put on a revue next spring entitled Sex Rears Its Ugly Head. It may be that this current lapse into pedagogy is partially motivated by the knowledge that advance publicity for the producer is not a bad thing.

Joke or no joke, one thing is as true today as it was three-quarters of a century ago: whether one wants to make a buck publishing magazines, staging burlesque shows or fostering adult education, sex sells.

— LIFE Staff

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