Fashion and Theatre, ca. 1780-1920


Spring 2014


5th Floor Classroom


Michele Majer

This course explores the reciprocal relationship between fashion and the theatre in France, Britain and the US from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Before the advent of film around 1900, the theatre played a significant role in social and cultural life; theatres proliferated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, drawing audiences from a wide socio-economic spectrum. Plays—whether set in the present or the past—reflected contemporary social, cultural and political issues and attitudes, and there was a rich exchange between the theatre and wider literary and artistic movements. We consider theatres themselves as an important arena of display where members of the audience, particularly women, went to see and be seen, and costumes worn on the stage by leading actresses—including contemporary fashions and historic and exotic dress—often launched new styles. Although actresses’ morality was suspect during most of this period, they were important trendsetters whose visibility increased dramatically as a result of the growth of the fashion press and of publications devoted to the theatre as well as the introduction of photography. By the turn of the twentieth century, these performers were prominent figures in the emerging cult of celebrity; their images, in both on- and off-stage dress, and their lifestyles were frequently featured in magazines such as Le Théâtre, The Sketch, Vogue, and Vanity Fair and circulated in widely disseminated post cards. We also look at the contribution of well-known artists and couturiers who designed theatrical costumes and fashion itself as a topic in the theatre, particularly the “fashion plays” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time of heightened commercialization of both these areas. Each week, we will focus on a specific play as the starting point of our investigation. 3 credits.