The strippers of Shoreditch
Last night, I met a nice girl called Lara for drink in The Pride of Spitalfields with her good friend Sarah, a photographer. Superficially, if you were introduced to the fresh-faced Lara Clifton and she flashed her dark eyes and her lovely gap-toothed smile that gives her an appealing aura of gaucheness, you might assume she was once a member of the Brownies or the Pony Club. You would certainly recognise her as a well-brought-up girl. You would never in a million years guess that she enjoyed a successful career as a stripper. You would not believe that it is her in the picture above. But Lara has far more sophistication, intelligence and moral courage than meets the eye upon first introduction.
“My flatmate started doing it,” says Lara, explaining how she began, “And I was shocked until I realised that it was less exploitative and better paid than the office temping I was doing. It was a more honest form of commerce and a lot of the girls enjoyed doing it. It was not sleazy or seedy.” I was very startled to hear this because I perceived stripping as a degrading activity that humiliates women, but this is not Lara’s view. Commenting on the notion of the dominant male gaze, Lara proposes a different perspective, “The punters are like little boys in a sweet shop, it’s a gentle gaze, it’s passive, very respectful. Everyone knows what’s going on. Nothing is hidden.” And Lara speaks warmly of the relationships between the girls too, “There is this genuine camaraderie. You quickly get to know people if you are naked together.” In Lara’s description, it sounds like they enjoyed a high old time, “The girls used to jump from table to table, it was like a crazy circus. They were the best group of people ever.”
Lara is quick to qualify her comments, emphasising that she can only speak for her own experience. And I must applaud her audacity in making such a brave career move because, even if Lara took to stripping like the proverbial duck to water, I have no doubt it took strong nerves to step out naked in public and laudable self-confidence to be open about what she did when there are plenty who would not hesitate to censure. Lara explained the routine to me whereby three women would perform in sequence during an evening, giving three shows each over three hours and passing the jug around before every strip. In Lara’s eyes, entirely preferable to the many more hours temping in an office to earn a comparable sum. I was intrigued by Lara’s interpretation of the power relationship between stripper and punter and it was my understanding that a strip ended at the moment of full nudity, but I learnt this not the case in Lara’s world. She ran around the pub naked, performing not on a stage but commanding the whole space, though, significantly, Lara always kept her high heels on, as the symbol of her dominant status within the performance arena over which she held control.
One day, Lara put a note on the changing room wall requesting written contributions from her fellow strippers and quickly found she had enough material for a book. Before long, Lara met photographers Sarah Ainslie and Julie Cook, who visited the pubs and the dressing rooms recording every aspect of the culture in hundreds of arrestingly candid and delicate pictures. “It was a gift,” admitted Sarah,“I drifted in and out for months, so I built a relationship with the girls.” “We forgot she was there,” says Lara, which is quite remarkable considering that in most pubs a single toilet served as makeshift changing room for all the dancers.
Three years in the making, the result is “Baby Oil & Ice – Striptease in East London”, a large format full-colour hardback limited edition book of nearly two hundred pages edited by Lara, that blends writing and photographic imagery together to create a broad and authoritative picture of the particular hidden world of East End striptease. “I wanted to capture something that was dying,” says Lara fondly, but she has achieved far more. Her remarkable book is an exuberant celebration, created by women, of the life, poetry and contradictions of this entirely absurd practice of a woman cavorting naked in clunky high heels for the pleasure of a mesmerised (and paradoxically emasculated) bunch of fully-dressed men. Previous books about stripping were written by journalists and academics with their own moral agendas, but Lara’s book is important because it is the first written by performers -allowing the voices of real live strippers, who are usually silent, to speak in their own unedited words.
Until very recently, there were several pubs in Shoreditch that hosted stripping and formed a circuit for the performers, Ye Olde Axe, The Royal Oak, The Spreadeagle, Browns, The Crown & Shuttle and The Norfolk Village. Now this has ceased and some are closed entirely, although Lara says The White Horse still has strippers. Lara gave up when table dancing came in, because it took away the quality of performance from girls who could no long do their acts with their own music, and “I was rubbish at getting money out of people,” admits Lara wryly and somewhat unconvincingly.
Although Lara no longer strips, she feels connected to that world today through all the friendships formed in her days as a stripper and she offered to take me along one night and introduce me to her pals who are still performing. So, on behalf of my curious readers, I think I will take her up on her offer because this is a subject that merits further investigation.
You can buy a copy of ”Baby Oil & Ice” direct from Lara Clifton for £25 and she will sign it for you personally. Definitely a collectors’ item. Simply email email@example.com
The three pictures of strippers are by Sarah Ainslie and the shot of the interior of Ye Olde Axe is by Julie Cook.