A renowned figure in the industry of fashion design has made her way into the heart of Ottawa last month. You won’t see her work in fall catalogues, and you can’t buy her designs off the shelves of Walmart — for Christina Manuge, it’s all about detail. She creates her ensemble in pieces, so that her clothes continue to look stunning even as they… come off.
That is because Christina Manuge works with an art form that has undergone a recent resurgence: burlesque.
“It’s more than just a strip tease,” says Manuge, who moved to Ottawa from Toronto in August. For her, the best burlesque involves “a narrative. There could be comedy, maybe even a little bit of tongue-and-cheek.” Sometimes, burlesque is about delivering a grandiose fantasy. Other times, it’s about making a comment about society. Despite the differences, all burlesque shows have a few similarities: a performer, a dance, and an artistically stunning costume that gets stripped down as the show continues. “It pulls you in on more than just a sexual level,” says Manuge. “In a strip club, they’re just trying to sexy, whereas in burlesque it’s more about telling a story and being a tease about it.”
Manuge’s success in her field is undeniable. In 2008, she established her burlesque costume design business, Manuge et Toi — a fitting pun on “ménage à trois.” Since, she has become the number one burlesque costume designer in all of Canada, ranked third in the world by “21st Century Burlesque Magazine’s Top 50.” Her start was considerably humbler than the accolades she boasts today. In school, Manuge was not satisfied with her schooling in fashion design. “I started studying special effects and make-up,” says Manuge, “looking for something that I had interest in but wasn’t pursuing.” The inklings of her burlesque design career began when one of her friends suggested her designs to the famed Coco Framboise.
“She inspired me immediately,” says Manuge. “I was just so enthralled. I had so many ideas for what to do and I pumped out a couple of costumes for her in a matter of weeks.” Her first burlesque costume for Coco Framboise is also one of her favourites: a peacock costume with hundreds of individual feathers assembled into a single design. The reveal of the costumes to Coco was so encouraging that she decided to take on the role full time. “I sold my make-up kit,” says Manuge. “I dropped the special effects and went right into it, and I haven’t stopped since.”
One of Manuge’s biggest struggles has been providing fair pricing for her clients, in fear of overcharging them. “It took me a while to get my head around that mindset: that this is what I’m worth and this is what I’m charging.” Newer artists entering the burlesque scene often offer their services for cheap and miss out on the meticulous design work required to make burlesque clothing. “It hurts the industry,” says Manuge. “Although we live in a consumerist society where everything needs to be cheap and fast, artists need to see the value of their work and make their clients understand that value.”
Manuge hopes to have the same positive influence on the burlesque community in Ottawa as she did in Toronto. Through high-quality art and design, she wants return people’s attention to the kind of art that deserves attention — designs that took effort and craftsmanship as opposed to cheaper replicas. After all, the origins of the burlesque are exaggeration, indulgence, and fantasy. It’s hard to create that fantasy with clothes bought at Walmart.