- When Broadway Was the Runway: Theatre, Fashion, and American Culture
In 1918 Theatre Magazine remarked, "the stage to-day is the best publicity means of putting anything before the public and getting it over; especially a new note that can be visualized—such as fashions and interior decorations" (qtd. in Schweitzer 52). It is these myriad relationships forged among theatres, advertising agencies, fashion designers, department stores, and manufacturers in the early years of the twentieth century that are at the heart of Marlis Schweitzer's When Broadway was the Runway. Schweitzer deftly explores how theatre managers transformed the stage "into a glorious site of consumer spectacle" by using actresses (and their gowns) as "endorsements" that encouraged new patterns of female consumer behaviour (4-8). Following this logic to points outside of the theatre proper, Schweitzer insightfully details the theatricalization of the department store and the fashion show. According to Schweitzer, When Broadway was the Runway "explores the central and largely unacknowledged role of commercial Broadway theatre in the explosion of modern American consumer culture, particularly through its influence over tastes in women's fashion and its function as a staging ground for larger issues related to consumption—debates about the loss of individuality, the corporatization and feminization of cultural institutions, the blurring of class and racial boundaries, and the reordering of gender relations" (10). Schweitzer's work challenges previous histories of American mass consumption (that have focused on commercial institutions such as print journalism and cinema, among others) to consider Broadway theatre. It also exposes the spaces in between theatre, commerce, and design—opening [End Page 99] up new ways to understand theatricality beyond the footlights. This study highlights how theatre operates as a vehicle for, what Stephen Greenblatt has referred to as, the circulation of social energy.
A number of key social, cultural, and economic conditions set the stage for the fertile collaboration between Broadway theatres, department stores, mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, fashion designers, and consumer goods manufacturers. New York was the nation's social, economic, and cultural centre with large, wealthy corporations able to launch national and international advertising campaigns. New York also was home to a centralized publishing industry, a major transportation hub, and a robust clothing manufacturing district. There was also growing consumer interest in fashion alongside an increased recognition of female consumer buying power.
Chapter one ("The Octopus and the Matinee Girl") focuses on the emergence of the powerful influence of the female consumer—the matinée girl. Firstly, the newly-formed Theatrical Syndicate created a national theatre chain that transformed the heterogeneous local audiences into a more cohesive national audience by the turn of the century. The Syndicate's success in some measure was due to its influence over the press allowing it to "establish a chain of papers willing to print any news emanating from the theatre office" (21). Anti-Syndicate attacks shifted from focusing on anti-commercial (read anti-Semitic) arguments to ones focused on the lack of cultivation of the matinée girls. Critics were dismayed by this new audience, believing that these young, independent, consumer-oriented young women degraded the theatre with their demands for entertainment and spectacle. But Schweitzer argues that "complicated triangular relationships" developed among critics, managers, and audiences "as each group struggled to assert its voice and get what it wanted" (14). Ultimately, the feminization of the Broadway audience was a force to be reckoned with.
In the second chapter ("The 'Department Store Theatre' and the Gendering of Consumption") Schweitzer unearths the deep connections between the big department store and the theatre. Broadway and department store managers were essential in the promotion and distribution of new products—especially fashion. They worked hard to "feminize consumption" and "choreograph female movement between their respective establishments" (53). Theatres contracted with department stores to make costumes, thus "re-dressing" or changing costumes in the middle of a run was an effective strategy to encourage female spectators to see a show more than once (a practice that was lucrative for the department store but less expensive for theatre...