Theatre of Fashion

Theatre de la Mode from Maryhill Museum

Opening night at the theatre, with its formal dress, provided a venue where extravagant display was not only appropriate but de rigueur – Metropolitan Museum of Art Blog

The metaphor of fashion as theatre is not new. From the Theatre de la Mode of post-War France that sustained the endangered couture houses, to journal articles and contemporary photography exhibitions, the idea that fashion is linked to performance strikes a chord with the sartorially obsessed. Fashion, film and performance are all vital aspects of the visual culture we inhabit. The history of each of these disciplines informs and inspires current work, and in the ongoing Ouroboros of fashion with its cyclicality of trends we see themes and motifs recurring endlessly, being reinvented for each new generation.

I am primarily interested in the places where fashion and performance overlap. In 2007 I curated an event for the East End Film Festival that intended to fuse these very areas. Billed as “an evening of variety and surprise, told through the wonders of fashion and film, performance and music” and housed within the magnificent surroundings of a lavish Victorian music hall, the event twinned performers with fashion houses to create an additional layer of spectacle. Stars of the alt/drag scene Ryan Styles and Fabulous Russella wore Gareth Pugh and House of Harlot respectively, while multimedia theatre group 1927 wore PPQ and Aganovich. Live performances sat alongside specially commissioned films by Slade graduate Adham Faramawy.

But this event was far from the first time that fashion, film and performance have cohabited the same space. For your delectation, here are some pivotal moments in the history of the Theatre of Fashion.

Louis XIV, the Sun King (1638 – 1715)

Louis XIV by Rigaud, 1701; an engraving of a woman reading an early fashion publication, 1688 (from The Essence of Style); Sun King (from ‘Ballet de la Nuit’), 1653

Louis XIV really was the Godfather of the Theatre of Fashion. His reign saw the birth of the couture industry (the couturieres’ trade guild was formed in 1675), and his patronage saw the establishment of the French ballet (he founded the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661 and the Ecole de Danse in 1713 that created the first professional ballerinas). Arguably the first fashion advertising also took place at this time, with fledgling couturiers dressing the well-known ballerinas of the day to gain greater exposure. Not to mention that the Sun King also had a shoe obsession that would make Imelda Marcos blush. You can read more in this book.

The Victorian Seaside

Exaggerated fashions at the seaside: ‘Mr. Punch’s Designs After Nature’ and ‘The Butterfly was a Lady,’ Punch 1871

Victorians did like to be beside the seaside. Throughout the eighteenth century trips to the coast or spa towns were encouraged  as a means of keeping healthy, but the time and expense meant it was the preserve of the leisured classes alone. By the mid Victorian period, a growth in the number of public holidays along with a rise in wages led to an explosion in the number of holiday makers. A trip to the coast became essential to maintaining a fashionable lifestyle, and promenading had such social significance that you could even say that the pier was the first catwalk.

‘Le Train bleu’ (1924)

Chanel’s costumes for ‘Le Train bleu’ (V&A); ‘Le Train bleu’, with Cubist sets by sculptor Henri Laurens. From The World of Coco Chanel.

When theatre and fashion collide it can lead to some of the greatest collaborations, and ‘Le Train bleu’ is the epitome of this phenomenon. Staged by the Ballets Russes in 1924, it reads like a ‘who’s who’ of Modernism: masterminded by Diaghilev, written by Jean Cocteau, costumed by Chanel with a stage curtain painted by Picasso. The ‘blue train’ was the colloquial term for the train that rushed rich English tourists to the Cote d’Azur for the season, and the ballet gently mocks the superficiality of Riviera culture. Cocteau’s idea was to recreate a series of living picture postcards, so contemporary crazes like sunbathing and snapshots mix with gymnastics and Cubist-inspired sets to provide a perfectly stylized look at 1920s beach life (read more here). Until January 2011 you can see an incredibly opulent exhibition about the  ballet impresario Diaghilev at the V&A, and it’s worth seeing the beautifully shot Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky which also paints a lavish picture of the period.

Letty Lynton (1932)

Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton, 1932

The ‘Letty Lynton effect’: From left, Nancy Beaton (October 1932), ‘shoulder frills in the ascendant’ (1933) and ‘the new evening silhouette’ (1933). All from British Vogue. Copyright Conde Nast

The 1930s was the first decade in which film costume began to seriously impact on womens’ fashions. During the silent era, extravagant directors like Cecil B. DeMille demanded costumes that were so rich and ostentatious they could never be bought in a store, and for less spectacular pictures the actress was expected to supply her own garb. (For more information on costume during the silent era, see the amazing programme at the 2010 Fashion in Film Festival). But as the 30s hit and the Depression set in, Hollywood became more fashion-conscious, with an understanding that commercial tie-ins could help to drive declining ticket sales. The Letty Lynton dress above has become a seminal reference in film and fashion history, sparking a trend for exaggerated shoulders that arguably lasted for the next two decades.

Biba (1964 – 1975)

Clockwise from top: the infamous Biba baked beans; the Biba floor at Big Biba; the record store at Big Biba was a fully functioning roundabout. All from Welcome to Big Biba by Steven Thomas and Alwyn Turner

Biba occupies a legendary place in the history of fashion, streetwear and retail. In just over a decade, Barbara Hulanicki and Stephen Fitz-Simon succeeded in embedding their shop firmly within the hearts and memories of a generation of consumers. Arguably the inventors of the ‘designer lifestyle’ (branded baked beans, anyone?), the shop has become synonymous with the epitome of cool, subversive fashion in the late 60s. Big Biba, opened in 1973 under the moniker ‘the most beautiful store in the world,’ really was just that. Reviving the 1930s on the bodies of its shoppers at around the same time that Cabaret was reviving it in movie theatres, it epitomised an affordable elegance and a timeless chic with a hefty dose of kitsch thrown in for good measure. Art Deco fantasies were enacted among giant mushrooms, Egyptian-style changing rooms and lashings of leopard print. And if that wasn’t enough there were always the flamingos on the roof. Consistent attempts to revive the brand in recent years have fallen on deaf ears – people inherently know that no one will truly be able to recreate the phenomenon. You can watch more here.

Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010)

Images from

The late, great Alexander McQueen ruled the roost of designers who blur the boundaries between theatre and fashion. From spraying models with paint while on the runway, to  creating snowstorms and filling catwalks with water, his shows were always a conceptual and theatrical treat, often with an underlying sinister edge.  But his ideas worked at all levels of the fashion spectrum, with themes such as low slung ‘bumster’ jeans and ubiquitous skull prints becoming defining trends at the turn of the millennium. This show from A/W 2001 perfectly encapsulates his work. The carnival lights go up to reveal a demented circus taking place, where models resembling Stephen King’s It gyrate around poles and drip with antique lace. He will be sorely missed. You can see more catwalk theatrics from the master of macabre here.

John Galliano A/W 2008

Images from

Continuing the theme of designers for whom theatre and fashion are indistinguishable, no Theatre of Fashion round-up would be complete without John Galliano. It does seem slightly unfair to pinpoint just one season, as fashion as theatre is an ongoing interest for Galliano, but this is one of my personal favourites. Here he takes the early movie star as muse, from the silent era of Poiret-Orientalist inspired fantasies, to the chiffon and dropped waists of the flappers, to his signature bias cutting reminiscent of 30s stars. All wrapped in a colour palette of dusky tones and murky hues that would have Barbara Hulanicki herself reaching for her credit card. The perfect mix of drama and spectacle. Welcome to the Theatre of Fashion.

About Amber Butchart

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian working across cultural heritage, broadcasting and academia. She has contributed to numerous productions for the BBC, Sky Arts and Channel 4, from Making History and Woman’s Hour to Great British Sewing Bee, and she presents a regular ‘In Conversation’ series at the V&A museum covering areas from Shakespeare to David Bowie. Her latest book 'Nautical Chic' is the first ever book to chart the history of high style on the high seas - looking at the influence of maritime dress and history on our wardrobes - and has been featured everywhere from Grazia and Glamour to The Telegraph, The Guardian and CNN. She is an Associate Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, and has given public talks as far afield as Dubai and Ukraine. Shot by Vogue as a girl with great British style, her interest in antique clothing was ignited by working as Head Buyer for vintage clothing company Beyond Retro, and for 5 years she was a regular contributor to leading trend analysis company WGSN. She has also worked with top brands such as GHD, TK Maxx and YSL Beauté, providing her historical expertise on their public campaigns. As the red-haired half of the Radio Academy Award-nominated DJ duo The Broken Hearts, she has graced stages across the globe for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Louis Vuitton, and has co-presented weekly shows for Jazz FM and QRadio. A former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, Amber is regularly asked to speak on fashion and cultural history, and has done so at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, British Museum, Royal Academy, British Library, Wellcome Collection, Design Museum, British Film Institute, and is a regular on the SHOWstudio fashion week panels. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and the Association of Dress Historians.
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3 Responses to Theatre of Fashion

  1. Pingback: In the Spotlight: 1970s | Theatre of Fashion

  2. allsaints, allsaints clothing says:

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