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  • Costuming the AudienceGentility, Consumption, and the Lady's Theatre Hat in Gilded Age America
  • Leah Lowe (bio)

Throughout America's Gilded Age (approximately 1870–1900), the fashionable woman's hat, "this large umbrageous, befeathered or befangled fixture,"1 was recognized as a commonplace nuisance in the theatres of the country's urban centers. These tall and often ornate hats blocked the view of the stage for those seated behind them and posed vexing problems for theatre managers, theatre critics, and etiquette experts as well as for spectators. In 1897, for instance, a performance of The Girl From Paris at New York's Herald Square Theatre was disrupted when a young lady's hat, "a most wonderful creation of the milliner's art, broad of brim, tall of crown, and with what looked like the entire plucking of an ostrich farm surrounding it," obscured the sight of the stage for two men seated behind her. After hearing them make "most discourteous and insulting remarks," Miss Dorothy Upshur "got mad and made up her mind to keep it on in spite of them." Her male companion, a Mr. C. A. Ledyard, was drawn into the conflict and a "wordy warfare" ensued. Ultimately Miss Upshur was forced to leave the theatre with Mr. Ledyard in tow to keep him from "mixing up with the two men who seemed to be quite as willing as he was for a rumpus." While Miss Upshur was embarrassed and vowed never again to wear a tall hat to the theatre, the account of the incident in the New York Times reports that the two men "had the sympathy of the audience, for there was a very perceptible ripple of applause when the lady and her escort left the theatre."2

Making its appearance at a time in which an ethic of middle-class respectability was being supplanted by a "culture of consumerism,"3 the lady's theatre hat, I argue, situated its wearer in the midst of a dynamic [End Page 88] and transformative social context. Like a costume designed for the stage, the theatre hat was "read" by others for clues concerning its wearer's class status and character. It signified equivocally, suggesting gaucheness and lack of consideration on one hand, and stylishness and sophistication on the other, thus revealing a central tension that confronted middle-class women of the era. Like scholar Richard Butsch, who tracks the increasing feminization of American theatre audiences through the course of the nineteenth century, I am interested in the relationship between "two cultural formations, respectability and consumption, that seemed to be opposites."4 While Butsch tracks the shifting relationship between these aspects of culture over a hundred years, I am interested in how this societal change was represented to and by those navigating it as it was occurring. Examining the cultural context surrounding the theatre hat and the public dialogue it sparked in newspapers, magazines, and conduct manuals provides a close-up view of a fluid culture in which conflicting and contradictory social pressures competed for dominance.


Chief among the cultural forces at play in the theatre hat debates were those of respectability or gentility, behavioral codes that took hold among the white middle and upper classes in early and mid-nineteenth-century America. As "the forces of immigration, industrialization, corporatization, urbanization, mechanization, and a revolution in transportation" transformed the country during the Gilded Age, the population of cities swelled rapidly.5 Cultural historians such as John Kasson and Karen Halttunen have argued that as class stratification intensified within the shifting society, middle- and upper-class citizens internalized complex rules of etiquette that distinguished them from the less fortunate.6 The ethos of respectability posited that mastery of etiquette, the specific behavioral rules that governed all manner of social interactions from weddings and funerals to chance encounters between strangers on city streets, enabled these privileged citizens to demonstrate their class status and be recognized by their peers in a cultural context in which many traditional signs of class identification had been obliterated by rapid social change.

Idealized codes of respectable behavior were formalized and propagated through inexpensive conduct manuals and advice literature throughout the nineteenth...


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