Professional actors and actresses have long fascinated their audiences, but until the twentieth century, they were often associated with licentious sexual behavior, making them problematic role models. Perhaps the first true stage professionals, in the modern sense, were the men and women who made up the repertory companies of the Italian commedia dell’arte in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The stock characters they impersonated, such as Harlequin, Columbine, and Pierrot, left their mark on fashion. Shirts for women in the twentieth century have sported an extravagantly ruffled collar like that of Pierrot, while the diamond-patterned fabric of Harlequin’s costume is now part of the fashion lexicon.
In England, theaters were established in London during the Elizabethan Age, but the first thing the Puritans did upon taking control of the city of London in 1620 was to close them. After the Royalist defeat in the English Civil War, Charles II, the future king of England, had to flee to Paris. He remained in exile there for a decade at the court of Louis XIV, where he saw actresses, whose costumes reflected current trends in fashion, on stage both at court and in the fashionable playhouses. When he returned to London in 1660, theater
flourished; his most famous mistress was the actress Nell Gwyn. It was during his reign that the “first night” of a new play became both a social event and a dress parade, as it has remained ever since.
In the eighteenth century, the English actress Mrs.Sheridan (1754–1792), wife of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Other actresses sat for fashionable portraitists, and their dress and hairstyles were widely copied. Caroline Abington, who married into the aristocracy, was perhaps the first fashion consultant; she was driven around London to advise her wealthy, titled friends on sartorial matters, particularly if a ball or marriage was imminent. Many French actresses also had an influence on fashion. Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), in particular, was famed for her stylish clothes. She toured the world and was the first actress to be dressed for the screens of the new cinema by a couturier. In 1913, when her play Elizabeth I was filmed, she asked Paul Poiret to create her wardrobe, setting a trend that other couturiers would follow, from Coco Chanel and Hubert de Givenchy to the more recent long-term collaboration on- and off-screen between Yves St. Laurent and Catherine Deneuve.
The actor, writer, and director Noel Coward (1899–1973) made a polka-dotted silk Sulka dressinggown part of every well-dressed man’s wardrobe. His favored actress, Gertrude Lawrence, wore a backless dress on stage in Private Lives in 1930 and the style instantly became fashionable. Jean Harlow set trends in hair and makeup—the “silver screen” succeeded where the stage had always failed: it made the wearing of makeup not only respectable but a fashionable necessity. In the early twenty-first century, the stage has less
impact than film in fashion terms. The fashionable theatrical couples of the 1930s and 1940s—the Oliviers and the Lunts, for example—were eclipsed by the cinematic duos of the second half of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century. However, the stage door still has its appeal: its glittering first nights, its gala evenings, and its award ceremonies—all of which, like the Academy Awards, demand “occasion dressing,” and act as yet another showcase for designers and stylists canny enough to offer up their services.
- Bruzzi, Stella. Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. London: Routledge, 1997.
- Hartnoll, Phyllis. The Theatre: A Concise History. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1985.
- Laver, James. Costume in the Theatre. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.
- Pointon, Marcia. Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.
- Ribeiro, Aileen. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France, 1750 to 1820. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press,1995.
Pamela Church Gibson