The Gilded Age of Fashion: 1890-1914 — Turn of the Century Fashion on Stage

costume design

The Importance of Being Earnest. Lady Bracknell, Act 3. (costume design)
Soulpepper / Saidye Bronfman Centre, Toronto, 2005.
David Boechler, designer.
Copyright David Boechler, used with permission.

Lady Bracknell is dressed in the style of the British Queen Consort Alexandra. At the time, veils were often attached to hats to protect the hair and complexion when riding around outdoors.

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Irish playwrights Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) were both writing satirical plays at the turn of the century and they both challenged the social customs and morality of the day. In fact, Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession was initially banned because it so openly portrayed the life of a brothel owner. Wilde’s high society comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, poked fun at the institution of courtship and marriage and the importance of class and money in its brokerage. At the height of his popularity as a playwright, Wilde was facing censure for his own unconventional lifestyle.

The fashions of the Gilded Age are familiar to us because they have been recreated by costume designers on stage and in film. The Canadian costumes designed for Pygmalion and My Fair Lady recreate the fashions of the period in which the play was written, namely the 1910s. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Canadian designer David Boechler has explained that Lady Bracknell’s dress was based on the style of the British Queen Consort Alexandra, one of the fashion icons of the Gilded Age.

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costume design

Higgins, Act 1-3 & Act 2-2. Pygmalion. (costume design)
Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 1977.
Cameron Porteous, designer.
Copyright Cameron Porteous, used with permission.

Henry Higgins wears a green tweed suit with a short jacket, the leisure wear of the day.

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costume design

My Fair Lady. The Ball. (costume design)
Stratford Festival, Stratford, 2002.
Debra Hanson, designer.
Copyright Debra Hanson, used with permission.

Note the very narrow waist, low neckline, short sleeves and bell-shaped skirt typical of evening gowns from the Gilded Age.

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