When the Tropicana closed Folies Bergere in 2009 it had on its hands nearly five decades worth of can-can dresses, jewel-encrusted thongs, feathered headpieces, tuxedos and more.
Now after a year of talks with the Tropicana, the Nevada State Museum has acquired the collection. Its staff is carefully sifting through and researching the inventory, still amazed by the cache.
"It is an incredible amount of stuff," says museum director Dennis McBride. "This is something I've been waiting for [for] the museum—a signature collection, something no one else has."
Following other Parisian-themed topless revues, including those imported from France, Folies opened in 1959 in the Tropicana’s Tiffany Theatre and ended its run just shy of its 50th anniversary.
Its early costumes had been shipped over from Paris, says Karan Feder, guest curator of costumes and textiles, who is sorting the outfits and piecing together a timeline using photographs and other memorabilia. "It's a great story about the evolution of stage costumes,” she says. "We can talk about certain designers, certain eras, costume progression.”
The wardrobe was trucked over to the museum earlier this year. Matching outfits (made to be worn thousands of times by multiple dancers) had been wheeled directly from the wardrobe room, still hanging on the original racks as if frozen in time. Feder sees the sorting, research and inventory as a five-year project by the collections staff and volunteers. It will be a while before an exhibit will be mounted.
It’s a significant chunk of Las Vegas memorabilia from a bygone era. Revues defined Las Vegas entertainment in the 1960s, forever linking the iconic showgirl with Las Vegas. Folies was one of the final holdouts, outlasted only in this era by the still-running Jubilee!
As with other costumes of bygone eras, many of the pieces represent lost and dying art forms—bead work, feather work and even metalwork. Feder holds up a skullcap covered in small mirrors and rhinestone chains. She compares a lycra top from the 2000s to a late '80s dress made of upholstery-weight velvet, hand-embellished with sequins that match the peacock worn on a dancer’s headpiece. Pumpkin orange bell-bottoms come with ostrich feature trim. Often, costume parts were reused for newer costumes.
“What makes these unique is that we have entire numbers,” Feder says. “In general these pieces don't really survive. They tend to disappear. I feel like we saved it. It's here.”