The Broadway stage and New York's fashion industry have always been on intimate terms, if only because the theatre and garment districts exist side by side in midtown Manhattan. The heyday of this relationship took place in the first half of this century, when the likes of Chanel, Valentina, and Mainbocher regularly gave Broadway shows that touch of chic. That golden era is recalled in Fashion on Stage: Couture for the Broadway Theatre, 1910-1955, a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.
Co-curated by Phyllis Magidson, curator of costumes and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York, and Barbara Stratyner, curator of exhibitions at the New York Public Library, Fashion on Stage combines 25 original garments with photographs and various ephemera to provide a lively look at the long-running, mutually beneficial relationship between the worlds of stage and couture.
Although photos, programs, sheet music, magazine layouts, sketches, and other items (including two snippets of dancer Irene Castle's hair!) are on view, the heart of the exhibition is, of course, the costumes, most of which have been stunningly well-preserved. A pair of afternoon dresses by Lucile, Ltd. for Billie Burke, star of Jerry (1914) and The "Mind the Paint" Girl (1914) are typical examples of the ultra-feminine prewar styles. In contrast, Mario Fortuny's "timeless" style, based on medieval fabrics and shapes, is featured in a tabbard of soft apricot silk velvet worn by Ethel Barrymore in a 1922 revival of Romeo and Juliet. The popularity of drawing-room comedies provided designers with many opportunities; on display here is a Chanel evening gown of ivory net paved in minute silver sequins, as worn by Ina Claire in the (1931) film The Royal Family of Broadway. Other designers represented in the exhibition include Lanvin, Molyneux, Hattie Carnegie, Valentina, Mainbocher, and Charles James. Also explored are the contributions of such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller & Co., providers of garments for modern-dress productions.
Fashion on Stage is open now through February 27, 2000 at the Museum of the City of New York, located at 1220 Fifth Avenue. For more information, call (212) 534-1673.