- When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture
Marlis Schweitzer's excellent study of the intersection of theatre, fashion, and cultural influence in turn-of-the-century America is a compelling read, thanks in part to its subject's many parallels to our contemporary culture. Schweitzer's book shines a light on the ways theatre was not only a site of fashionable expression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but indeed gave birth to our now-familiar culture of consumerism, especially among women.
The book is theatre scholarship, but it integrates a great deal from other areas to articulate the critical intersection of audience desire, art, and commercial consumption. It examines an era when managers re-defined theatre's relationship to its female audience, capitalizing on women's growing access to the fashion market by using the theatre to display items that could then be purchased, turning the stage into a "consumer spectacle" (4). Schweitzer focuses on the way male producers and managers commodified actresses via the fashions they wore, commercializing the theatre space for female audiences and creating "modern consumers" (10) through the integration of product and performance. Readers will likely find here echoes of contemporary debates over artistic "value" versus commercial "degradation."
Divided into five chapters, the book moves mostly chronologically through five topics. The introduction sets the stage for Schweitzer's discussion of the [End Page 697] meeting point of actresses' fashions, women in the audience, and the culture of consumerism. Noting that while consumerism "stabilize[d] the boundaries of gender, race, and class" (10), she asserts that it also provided a way to dissolve those boundaries, primarily because audiences were ultimately impossible to control as consumers. The first chapter, "The Octopus and the Matinee Girl," examines the Theatrical Syndicate and the young women who attended its theatre in droves, introducing the ongoing tension between culture and commerce. In this chapter, the author also addresses the development of New York as an urban space and its influence on the changing business of theatre.
In the second chapter, "The 'Department Store Theater' and the Gendering of Consumption," Schweitzer employs theories of spectatorship and the female body to examine the Ladies' Mile shopping district, the history of the department store, and the relationship between Broadway theatres and such stores, both of which were concerned with staging "current taste" (51). Even as labor strikes and social protests were developing full force, theatre helped "train" consumers to desire the product, while turning "a blind eye to social inequities" (52). This department store theatre was disapprovingly defined as a commercial haven by theatre critics, because of its overt allegiance to selling goods rather than presenting art.
Chapter 3, "'The Cult of Clothes' and the Performance of Class," speaks to the ways that audiences and reporters of the era were aggressive in consuming stars' personal lives, so much so that actresses were "under constant surveillance" (96). The largely working-class female audience "consumed" female stars—a relationship that aroused class anxiety, because their (sometimes fanatic) emulation of these celebrities at times blurred class boundaries. This focus on fashion and spectatorship banked on defining and shaping the female body in a specific way, and supported consumerism by underscoring the idea that, if they tried hard enough, women could change their bodies to resemble those of noted actresses.
Chapter 4, "Fashioning the Modern Woman," concerns the interest in actresses who were popular, because of "their successful negotiation of modern life" (139). Schweitzer notes that "[a]s women who lived their lives in public and onstage, actresses offered multiple strategies for appearing in public, demonstrating through their ever-changing wardrobes that experimenting with new looks was both fun and liberating" (139-41). Actresses symbolized the move of women into the male-centric public space, where they modeled "modern gowns, modern bodies, and modern ideas" (141), thus politicizing the live theatre space and providing tools to either reinforce or dismantle class boundaries.
The final chapter, "The Theatrical Fashion Show on Broadway and Sixth Avenue...