Costume Behaving Badly: Poverty, Disease and Disgust in Early-Twentieth-Century American Vaudeville
Scholarship has established how one of the key attractions of the early-twentieth-century Broadway stages and US vaudeville circuits was seeing beautiful actresses performing in the latest, most expensive, lavish fashions and how these performers understood that their luxurious costumes supported the narrative of the show and the performer’s personal brand (Schweitzer 2009, Brayshaw 2014 and 2019, Barbieri 2019). This was, in part, because the costumes performed via the body and extended to the space of the stage and to the social, cultural and economic landscapes they inhabited. These additional performance layers that the costumes brought to shows impacted the audience’s perceptions of the stories being played out on the stage. But in some cases, however, Broadway and vaudeville costumes were unruly, behaving in unintended ways and telling audiences stories that differed from the show’s intended narrative. This paper, therefore, draws on notions of agency in costume and on Barbieri’s (2017) ideas of costumes that fail in order to analyse early-twentieth-century accounts of costumes behaving badly. It also draws on Andrew’s (2008) theories of textile semantics and Barbieri’s (2017) ideas of kinetic empathy within costume to consider how the costumes behaved in additional unintended ways, which included eliciting responses of disgust among the era’s theatre critics linked to prevalent social anxieties around poverty and disease.
Dr. Emily Brayshaw is an early career researcher who also works in Sydney as a costume designer. Her areas of research include Broadway Revue and Parisian Music Hall costuming 1890 to 1930, the intersection of fashion, dress and costume within the performance costumes of classical musicians, the aesthetics of the Bauhaus, knitting in performance costume, and fashion, dress, costume and trauma during World War I.
Vaudeville comedy giants, Joe Weber, left, watches as Lew Fields hands a butler his overcoat in a publicity still used to promote the Keystone comedy, The Best of Enemies (1915). Photo credit: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Heartsook Studio, Weber and Fields and a butler in a scene still, Image ID: 104620. Viewed online at https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM104620.