The material culture of historic theatre costume offers a vital resource for the fields of
dress and theatre history that has yet to be fully recognised. This thesis unites approaches
from both disciplines to create a specific methodology for the study of theatre costume
founded upon the examination and assessment of such garments. It argues that theatre
costume represents a separate and specific category of clothing and theatrical ephemera.
Celebrated actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928), an individual highly attuned to the
significance of dress as an expression of identity, is used as a case study to demonstrate
the validity of this new methodology. Adopting an object-based and material culture
approach, the thesis engages with the visual and physical evidence about performance
and design that can be gathered from Terry’s extant theatre costumes. It also highlights
crucial information about Terry’s dress and its public reception gleaned from additional
sources such as photographs; paintings; letters; reviews, and within Terry’s papers and
books. This thesis represents the first full investigation of Terry’s personal and theatrical
wardrobe, and is the first study to carry out a close analysis of the actress’s surviving
This analysis establishes the factors fundamental to the interpretation and study of theatre
costume: the significance of social, artistic and historic context; parallels and contrasts
between on and off-stage dress; the collaborative process of design and making; the
function of costume as both performance object, and expression of ‘identity’; the issue of
multiple and complex ‘biographies’; and the crucial evidence offered from material
culture sources, most importantly, surviving costumes.
Chapter 1 outlines existing methodologies and the cross disciplinary nature of the thesis;
Chapter 2 reviews existing literature and proposes a new methodology; 3 provides the
context for Terry's professional career; 4 develops the methodology and analyses extant
garments. 5 and 6 relate the methodology to ideas of self-fashioning and biography.
The thesis establishes Terry as an exceptional figure in British theatre and society who
took an active role in fashioning her public and private image, both during her life, and
after her death. The analysis of Terry’s wardrobe confirms the status of theatre costumes
as unique garments, which represent a key source for design, dress and theatre historians.
This detailed case study demonstrates that the methodology presented can be employed
in the study of other figures, theatres and periods, and opens up a new and productive
direction for future research.
|Date of Award||Dec 2016|
‘Dressing the part:’ Ellen Terry (1847-1928) – towards a methodology for analysing historic theatre costume
Isaac, V. T. (Author). Dec 2016
Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis