(Curator & Fashion Historian)
Curator and fashion historian Amy de la Haye articulates, in the quotes below, the differences between theatre and fashion through a costume by Coco Chanel, 1, her research on the House of Worth and Victorian actress Lillie Langtry, 2, and in Cecil Beaton’s costume for My Fair Lady, 3.
1. On encountering the costume for La Perlouse, Le Train Bleu, designed by Coco Chanel, 1924.  “To me this is the magic of old clothes. All old clothes have an imprint of the body but the exciting thing about knitwear is how it adapts to the shape of the body more than other fabrics. It really is entwined with lives lived and performances performed.

It looks much more artisanal than I’d imagined – I’d imagined it was going to be modernistic and quite smooth, machine-knitted jersey, but it actually looks hand knitted. I would never have expected this vibrant, rose pink colour - not what I was expecting at all – especially from looking at the photographs of the period, in black and white. I believed that these costumes would be almost indistinguishable from the sport designs that she created in the 1920s but in fact they are completely distinctive.

The dancer, Lydia Sokolova, remembers putting this costume on and it feeling quite radical. They then wrapped her head up in suede, which set up a whole new vogue for skullcaps, and they gave her a pearl earring. The influence in Paris of the theatre on art and fashion at the time was extraordinary.”
2. “Here we have a dress that Cecil Beaton designed for Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady in 1958. He was critically acclaimed for the costumes, which were nostalgic interpretations of the dresses he remembered from his childhood.   It would be interesting to see if this could be likened more to a fashion garment rather than something designed specifically for performance. It has the label from Berman’s, the theatrical costumier.

Beaton as a fashion photographer was very aware of women’s dress.  He would have been specific about what he wanted and looking at the quality of the beading on the chiffon, certainly this could be likened to couture.   It is striking by its simplicity in terms of silhouette and its cream and silver pallet, quite modernistic, but what made it unequivocally uniquely theatrical are the bright ruby red glass stones.   The really boldly jewelled buckle accented with these bright red glass stones is designed to catch the light in a way that everyday evening dresses would not.

A garment is not just about looking right it's about feeling right.  It is also really important the actress feels that she is dressed appropriately, and the weight of the garment - this is really quite heavy, encrusted in beads and metal tassels - would effect how she stood and felt which would impact upon her performance.

The fringing would move independently, as would the separate hanging panel at the front, which would catch the light. It is completely luxurious and decadent - it is almost a large piece of jewellery.  It's amazing, when you think how heavy this is that it isn't more damaged and that the beading has not pulled away the silk. It would have to be extra sturdy to withstand the work night after night on the stage –a couture briefing, made by theatre makers.”
3. “Charles Worth designed outfits specifically for Lillie Langtry, for both her on-stage roles and her off-stage persona. The V&A’s Archive of Art and Design houses the House of Worth Archive, while the Theatre and Performance Archive places its emphasis on the actor. In the former, there are several albums which contain the records of Worth’s couture garments, photographed while worn by house models or on mannequins.

The latter houses ‘cartes-de-visite’ of this well known and fashionable beauty. In the photographic albums held in the Art and Design Archive the emphasis is on the clothes being presented on static mannequins. Where a ‘house model’ was photographed, she would be positioned in the same way - very precisely in order to show the designs in poses that were preset and sequential, regardless of the garment the model was wearing. These photos of Lillie Langtry are completely different; we see her using a range of expressive poses and performing potential roles within a single garment.” Amy de la Haye concludes that: “Lillie Langtrey was famous for always wearing the latest fashion on stage and was more successful when she wore couture on stage than when she had to wear historical dress.”

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1. Costume for La Perlouse, Le Train Bleu, designed by Coco Chanel, 1924. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Lydia Sokolova and Leon Woizikovsky, 1924, photograph by Bassano.
2. My fair Lady costume, designed by Cecil Beaton in 1958 for Julie Andrews. Images ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
3. Sepia photographs of Lillie Langtry, ca. late 19th - early 20th Century, collected by Guy Tristram Little (d.1953). Images ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London