Staging Fashion, 1880–1920: Jane Hading, Lily Elsie, Billie Burke
January 18, 2012 - April 8, 2012
Curated by Assistant Professor Michele Majer and students
"The creation of a glamorous image; a type of physical beauty that conformed to elite notions of class and race"
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, actresses became key figures in the international cult of celebrity that flourished in the context of a nascent mass media and mass consumerism. Formerly ostracized as women of dubious morals, actresses were presented—and presented themselves—as role models for women across the social spectrum. Cheaply manufactured postcards that circulated by the millions and thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, as well as print advertisements, featured actresses as exemplars of fashion, youthful beauty, elegance, and respectable femininity. Staging Fashion examines the relationship between actresses, fashion, and celebrity culture through the study of these ephemera, which both created and were a manifestation of this phenomenon.
This exhibition focused on Jane Hading (1859–1941), Lily Elsie (1886–1962), and Billie Burke (1884 –1970) as case studies through which one may investigate the actress as trendsetter and examine the objects that were instrumental in the creation of her public image and persona. As with many other stage women at the time, the fame and appeal of these actresses were by no means based solely—or even primarily—on their thespian talents. Rather they exemplify the significant factors that contributed to widespread success: a leading couturier (or couturiers) who dressed actresses in gowns that were integral to the creation of a glamorous image; a type of physical beauty that conformed to elite notions of class and race; a distinctive “personality” that was often conveyed by stage roles and further enhanced in photographic images and in the media; and frequent appearances on postcards and in fashion and theater magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals. Each of these three women illustrates the phenomenon of the actress as a marketable commodity who promoted and depended on the widespread distribution of her own image to create and maintain her celebrity, which in turn was used to market an array of products that exploited her appearance and encouraged a connection between the actress and the consumer.
Michele Majer, editor
Although Jane Hading (1859–1940), Lily Elsie (1886–1962), and Billie Burke (1884–1970) gained fame as stage actresses, their popular appeal also rested on their ability to cultivate a glamorous appearance. Their careers illustrate the early transformation of actresses into marketable commodities whose celebrity status depended on the consumption of their images. This celebrity, in turn, was used to market an array of beauty and fashion goods to women striving to emulate them.
The three women featured in Staging Fashion exemplify the factors that ensured success for 20th-century actresses. Each of these women was dressed by a leading couturier (or several couturiers), both onstage and offstage. In major cities such as New York, Paris, and London, actresses depended on exquisite, custom-made gowns both to secure principal roles and to maintain popularity. Their physical beauty, which was consistent with elite notions of class and race, was depicted on postcards and in popular fashion and theatre magazines and newspapers. Finally, these actresses developed distinct "personalities," which were conveyed by their stage roles and in numerous photos and articles.
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