Written By: Ben Cosgrove

We’ve all met them: men and women who insist on claiming, 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 left a little unclear. 

The fact is, not everything was better, simpler or more civilized for everyone back in the day. 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, 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.

At this point, we should state that LIFE.com believes that the entire phenomenon of the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing 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, hoax or no hoax, one thing is as true today as it was way back then: sex sells.

How A Wife Should Undress

Professor Connie Fonzlau at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York demonstrated “the worst possible method of disrobing,” 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

Professor Connie Fonzlau at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York demonstrated “the worst possible method of disrobing,” 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

School of Undressing professor Connie Fonzlau demonstrated the “unpardonable sin” of “working on two sides at once,” 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

Burlesque star June St. Clair and Professor Connie Fonzlau demonstrated the right and wrong ways to disrobe.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

Burlesque star June St. Clair and Professor Connie Fonzlau demonstrated the right and wrong ways to disrobe at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York, 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

Burlesque star June St. Clair demonstrated “how wives should undress in front of their husbands” during a class at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York, 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

Burlesque star June St. Clair demonstrated “how wives should undress in front of their husbands” during a class at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York, 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

Burlesque star June St. Clair demonstrated “how wives should undress in front of their husbands” during a class at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York, 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

Burlesque star June St. Clair demonstrated “how wives should undress in front of their husbands” during a class at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York, 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

Burlesque star June St. Clair demonstrated “how wives should undress in front of their husbands” during a class at the Allen Gilbert School of Undressing in New York, 1937.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

How A Wife Should Undress

How A Wife Should Undress

How A Wife Should Undress

How A Wife Should Undress

LIFE Magazine, Feb. 15, 1937

How A Wife Should Undress

How A Wife Should Undress

LIFE Magazine, Feb. 15, 1937

More Like This

lifestyle

Cards: From Stars to Soldiers, a Pastime for All

lifestyle

The American Way of Lunch

lifestyle

Celebrate the 1970s

Santa Claus lifestyle

The Enduring Appeal of Santa

Pies lifestyle

American Pies

Drum Major at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1951. lifestyle

Welcome to LIFE.com