Interview with Michele Majer

Michele Majer, curator of Staging Fashion, 1880 – 1920: Jane Hading, Lily Elsie, Billy Burke, is assistant professor at the Bard Graduate Center, specializing in the history of clothing and textiles from the eighteenth through the twentieth century. She is also a research associate at the Cora Ginsburg Gallery in New York, dealing in antique clothing and textiles. She has contributed articles, reviews, and essays to many publications, including The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire; Romance and Chivalry: History and Literature Reflected in Nineteenth-Century French Painting; Wright’s Ferry Mansion; Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion; The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin; Studies in the Decorative Arts; and Design and Culture, as well as the annual Cora Ginsburg catalogue. Her recent article, “La Mode à la girafe: Fashion, Culture, and Politics in Bourbon Restoration France” explores the ways in which French society responded to the arrival of the first giraffe in France in 1827 as a reflection of contemporary attitudes toward novelty and consumerism, gender, natural history, and politics.

What is the Staging Fashion exhibition?

Through printed ephemera, clothing, and accessories, Staging Fashion, 1880–1920: Jane Hading, Lily Elsie, Billie Burke explores the phenomenon of actresses as internationally known fashion leaders at the turn of the twentieth century and highlights the mundane artifacts that constituted the primary means by which the general public—  especially women—  experienced the visibility and influence of these three particular performers in their everyday lives. Formerly ostracized as women of dubious morals, actresses were presented— and presented themselves— as respectable role models for women across the social spectrum. Postcards that circulated by the millions, thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, and print advertisements celebrated them as exemplars of fashion, youthful beauty, elegance, and modern femininity. These mass-produced forms of communication, instrumental in the creation of a public image and persona, both contributed to and reflected the rise of celebrity culture. During this period, the “staging” of fashion occurred not only within the physical space of the theater itself, but it extended well beyond, thanks to these new forms of mass media, in ways that had not been possible a few decades earlier, presaging our present-day fascination with celebrities.

Why these three featured actresses?

The choice of our three actresses was somewhat— though by no means entirely— arbitrary and depended in part on the availability of material. They serve as case studies and we could have easily selected three other performers from among many equally well-known French, British, and American actresses to illustrate the exhibition’s ideas and themes. Jane Hading (1859–1940), a relatively unknown actress today, was a major figure on the French stage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  She undertook several tours during her career and was very popular in Britain and the United States. In 1910 an American publication declared the British actress Lily Elsie (1886–1962) “the most photographed woman in the world.” She appeared in a number of critically and commercially successful operettas and musical comedies at fashionable theaters in the West End of London.  Although her acting career was briefer than those of Jane Hading and Billie Burke and she never performed outside Britain, her popularity was enormous and extensive. In 1907 her breakthrough role as Sonia in The Merry Widow, costumed by the couturiere Lucile, made her an immediate sensation and launched the subsequent craze in Europe and the United States for the oversized “Merry Widow" hat.  Billie Burke (1884–1970) enjoyed a promising stage career in London before she came to New York in 1907 at the behest of the powerful manager-producer Charles Frohman. She quickly became a Broadway favorite and was well known for her expensive costumes and was frequently featured in high-end fashion magazines. 

How does the exhibition fit with the mission of the BGC?

 The bulk of the objects displayed in the exhibition represent the material culture of a rapidly expanding celebrity phenomenon at the turn of the century.  Together the postcards, magazines, and advertisements tell an important and fascinating story of a growing obsession with female performers and their ever-widening renown and influence.  Although each of these different types of printed ephemera are rich in what they convey, my favorites are the postcards that—  unlike some of the higher-priced magazines, for example— almost anyone could have afforded.  The cards that have a message relating directly to the actress in the photograph have a deeply personal aspect to them and reveal the strong connection that female (and male) fans felt with these celebrities.  The enormous numbers in which they were produced, sold, sent, and have survived for a century are an indication of the intense worldwide interest in these women, the insatiable demand for their images, the practice of collecting these ephemera and sharing them with friends and family members, and the degree to which they were cherished

Who are the other people involved?

The exhibition developed out of a seminar, "Fashion and Theatre, 1780-1920," which I taught in fall 2010.  The twelve students who were enrolled in the class all helped to shape the focus and themes of the show.  After deciding on our three actresses, the students worked in groups of four on one of the actresses and did a substantial amount of preliminary research on their biographies, stage careers, collaborations with well-known couturiers, and their fashion influences.  In the spring of 2011, three students— Maude Bass-Krueger, William DeGregorio, and Rebecca Perry— took the tutorial that was devoted to preparing for the exhibition.  In addition to participating in all meetings with the Exhibitions department, they did additional, extensive research and wrote the thematic entries for the catalogue that present the four major themes of our exploration of the actress as an influential celebrity figure:  fashion, photography, press, and advertising. 

Describe the book.

The book begins with an introduction that examines the larger social and cultural context in which the phenomenon of the actress as celebrity figure developed and, in particular, changing attitudes toward these performers that occurred around 1900.  It also presents brief overviews of the actress in relation to our four main themes:  fashion, photography, press, and advertising. Historians Lenard Berlanstein, Sheila Stowell, and Marlis Schweitzer contributed essays that address different yet complementary aspects of the exhibition.  “The Actresses” section consists of five essays for each actress — a biography and each of the above themes.  For the exhibition, we felt it worked better — due to space considerations and overall design concept — to combine certain themes (biography and fashion, press and advertising) and to include material for all three actresses in cases or discrete areas rather than divide them up as in the book. 

 


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