‘Masquerading as Portia’: Examining the History, and Highlighting the ‘Agency’, of Ellen Terry’s Red Silk ‘Legal Robes’.
This presentation focuses on a set of dark red silk ‘legal robes’ and a matching cap. Worn by Ellen Terry (1847-1928) as Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the costume now embodies her lost performances; carrying memories of a role that heralded her rise to fame, and which she played for over forty years.
Though this costume recalls Terry’s first performance, it is neither her original costume, nor even the same colour. When first playing Portia in 1875, and reviving the role in 1879, Terry’s costume was black. It was not until 1883, that these crimson robes were created. Yet, whilst the colour of the costume changed, the constituent parts of the ensemble did not. These visual similarities preserved – and foregrounded – the connection with Terry’s original performances – an association which became increasingly important as the actress aged.
Furthermore, Terry was not the only performer to wear this costume: Her costume designer, Alice Comyns-Carr borrowed the robes for a bal masqué in the 1880s, and Terry lent the costume to John Everett Millais for a painting of ‘Portia’ (1886, sitter unknown). The robes also feature in Clare Atwood’s portrait of Vita Sackville West – who wore the costume at a Shakespeare Masque in 1910.
The ‘translation’ of this costume to these new contexts adds an important element to its history. Whether worn by an artist’s model, by a friend at a ball, or by Terry herself, the robes continued to re-enact their original function as a ‘stage costume’ – providing a surrogate for a specific character, (Portia), and a celebrated actress, (Terry).
Through a close examination of this costume and its complex history, this paper establishes how and why such garments become endowed with the ‘agency’ to preserve – and re-member – multiple performances and performers.
Veronica Isaac is a material culture historian who specialises in the history of nineteenth century dress and theatre costume. She is a curatorial consultant and university lecturer, and is currently working at the University of Brighton and New York University London. This paper has emerged from her doctoral research into the dress of the actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928), and her ongoing investigations into nineteenth century theatre costume.
Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951). Ellen Terry (1847-1928) as Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Indian ink and washc.1903. [© Victoria & Albert Museum]
Clare Atwood, Vita Sackville West dressed in Terry’s robes for Portia, Merchant of Venice. ca.1930. [© National Trust Collection, Knole, Kent.]