Theses Doctoral

Reading Costume Design: the rise of the costume designer 1850-1920

Holt, Anne

"Reading Costume Design" identifies and theorizes an important shift in costume practices: in the mid-nineteenth century, it was common for actors to wear their own clothing onstage or to choose a garment from a theatre's generic stock, without coordination with other costumes or attention to the particular demands of a role. By the early twentieth century, however, costume was firmly established as an expressive artistic tool in building a character and shaping the complete theatrical experience, overseen by a professional designer who routinely received credit in the program. By focusing on this specific moment, my dissertation reclaims theatrical costume as an object of theoretical inquiry (a text), while maintaining its place as an object of material culture, fully embedded in a particular historical context. I use the figure of the professional costume designer - and her rising prominence across the performing arts after 1880 - as a lens to focus on the changing relationship between the stage, fashion, and visual culture.
"Reading Costume Design" argues that this historical shift reveals an important change in the status of costumes: from craft to art. At the beginning of my period, costumes impressed audiences as bravura displays of wealth, spectacle, or craftsmanship; by 1920, theatre practitioners and audience members viewed costume as an expressive art form, and its designer as an artist. As art objects, costumes acquired additional semiotic value, conveying new kinds of information to spectators. Designers created costumes for audiences to "look through" - reading costumes not only for their surface beauty or accuracy but also for commentary or reflection upon the text or overall performance. As a form of expression in their own right, costumes interacted in more collaborative or critical ways with the literary and musical texts.
I contend that in this fertile period, four kinds of artists made key contributions to this expanded expressive model of costume design: performers, directors, couturiers, and painters. I use the term "proto-designer" to denote these artists, who helped to shape the profession of costume design from adjacent fields. Each of my four chapters studies one type of proto-designer, focusing on two or three significant examples. Major figures discussed include Georg II of Saxe-Meinengan, Richard Wagner, Marietta Piccolomini, Ellen Terry, Lucy Duff-Gordon (Lucile), Paul Poiret, Edward Gordon Craig, Leon Bakst, and Pablo Picasso.
"Reading Costume Design" shows how theatrical Modernism established norms of costume design that are still with us today, analyzing the consolidation of costume choices into the hands of one individual (the designer) as part of Modernism's investment in the single artistic consciousness. This project highlights the importance of costume design as an object of study, able to move across different genres within the performing arts (theatre, dance, opera) and to offer fresh perspectives on fields such as theatre history, media and celebrity studies, art history, gender studies, aesthetics, and material culture.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Aronson, Arnold P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014