When Broadway Was the Runway

Through historical analysis and dozens of early photographs and illustrations, Marlis Schweitzer aims a spotlight on the cultural and economic convergence of the theater and fashion industries in the United States.

When Broadway Was the Runway
Theater, Fashion, and American Culture

Marlis Schweitzer

2009 | 320 pages | Cloth $39.95 | Paper $24.95
American History | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Octopus and the Matinee Girl
Chapter 2. The "Department Store Theater" and the Gendering of Consumption
Chapter 3. "The Cult of Clothes" and the Performance of Class
Chapter 4. Fashioning the Modern Woman
Chapter 5. The Theatrical Fashion Show on Broadway and Sixth Avenue


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


On June 13, 1908, thirteen hundred women entered the New Amsterdam Theatre at Broadway and 42nd Street for the 275th performance of The Merry Widow, enticed by the promise of a free Merry Widow hat. Three weeks earlier, the New York Times had announced the arrival "from Paris" of a consignment of one thousand hats, "all of the most ample variety," which would be distributed to all coupon-bearing theatergoers at the conclusion of the special show. Like other promotional stunts in this period, the giveaway was designed by theatre manager Henry Savage to renew interest in The Merry Widow and prolong what was already an impressive run. By June 1908, Savage's American production of the internationally successful operetta by Franz Lehar had made well over one million dollars, launched two road companies, given rise to numerous burlesque versions, and inspired a vast array of tie-in products, ranging from sheet music and cigars to lunches, cocktails, and corsets.

But of all the commodities associated with The Merry Widow, it was The Merry Widow hat that attracted the most attention. Originally designed by the couturier Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) for the 1907 production in London, it was "an immense black crinoline hat, banded round the crown with silver and two huge pink roses nestling under the brim." Within days of the London opening, the fashionable commodity crossed from the footlights to the showroom to the stage, sparking a transnational craze that, according to Lucile, "lasted longer than most fashion crazes" and carried the designer's name "all over Europe and the States." By the spring of 1908, as milliners throughout Europe and North America struggled to meet consumer demand and outperform one another, the hat had ballooned to enormous proportions, reaching spans of three feet or more.

Given the hype surrounding the production and the tie-ins it had inspired, Savage's promise of a Merry Widow hat to all women who attended the 275th performance of The Merry Widow was a brilliant marketing tactic, guaranteed to achieve maximum publicity. Yet while Savage had thought carefully about how to distribute the hats to ensure that his patrons remained for the duration of the performance, correctly assuming that there would be little incentive for them to remain once the hats were gone, he failed to anticipate the lengths to which they would go to secure their gifts. As expected, the New Amsterdam Theatre was filled to capacity on the afternoon of June 13 with hundreds of women eager to collect their Merry Widows. Rather than quietly sitting through the performance until the appointed time, however, these fidgety spectators refused to remain seated. After the first act, an excited crowd gathered in the ladies' cloakroom, looking expectantly at the stack of hatboxes arranged on two tables. One woman asked to try her hat on, explaining, "If it doesn't look good on me I don't want to carry it home," but was politely told by the cloakroom attendants that she would have to wait until after the performance. As the end of the second act neared, more and more women trickled out of the auditorium to request their souvenirs in advance, claiming that other obligations prevented them from staying until the end of the performance. By the time the house manager intervened, insisting that no more hats would be given out until the curtain had fallen, hundreds of women had already left their seats. While most returned to the theater at his urging, a stalwart group insisted on waiting outside the cloakroom, determined to be the first to get the hats.

The giveaway finally commenced just before the final curtain and ran smoothly for several minutes while spectators filed out of the house, at which point chaos ensued. Desperate to get their Merry Widows, the normally respectable middle-class audience ignored calls to get into line, overwhelmed the female attendants, pushed aside one of the tables, and began helping themselves to the boxes, blocking those who had already picked up their hats from getting out of the room. "In an instant the confusion was at its height," the Times reported somewhat gleefully. "One woman, jammed tight against the one table that still stood in place, tackled the woman next to her with a vim that would have done credit to the world's champion female wrestler." The most adventurous and nimble women managed to climb over the furniture to escape, but others had their gowns and hats trampled as they struggled to get out. After half an hour of pushing, shoving, name-calling, and other, very unladylike behavior, the house manager announced to those who remained that the hats were all gone. Although he promised to give out rain checks, one hundred angry women left the theater empty-handed, with "only the débris and the memory of the struggle" to show for their efforts.

The chaos surrounding The Merry Widow giveaway—or "The Battle of the Hats" as the Times dubbed it—was typical of the kind of bargain counter crushes one might expect in a department store, where working- and middle-class women frequently battled over marked-down goods. Such a scene was highly unusual in a commercial Broadway theater, however, especially in a first-class playhouse like the New Amsterdam Theatre, which catered to an elite audience and expected its patrons to behave in a courteous and respectful manner. In thus bringing the department store into the theater, Henry Savage had aligned female theatrical spectatorship with fashion consumption, advocating a very different way of looking at and relating to theatrical spectacle.

In this, Savage was hardly alone. Beginning in the 1890s and continuing through the first two decades of the twentieth century, theater managers aggressively pursued the imagination and presence of female theatergoers by transforming the stage into a glorious site of consumer spectacle. Acutely aware that their financial solvency hinged on their ability to attract and retain the interest of socially advantaged women, these predominantly male impresarios presented actresses, the dresses they wore, and the objects they used onstage as fantastic commodities, readily available in photographs and magazines, in nearby department stores or, in the case of The Merry Widow giveaway, in the theater lobby just beyond the auditorium. By the 1910s, Broadway theaters had become fully commercialized urban spaces, comparable to any amusement park, department store, or, indeed, the Great White Way itself. Advertisements were everywhere: in the programs, on the curtains, on the scenery, and in the embodied performances of trade-character showgirls. This fusion of theatrical spectatorship and consumption represented a crucial step in the formation of a mass market for consumer goods and the rise of the cult of celebrity, two intertwined cultural projects designed to fuel the American economy and overwrite anxieties about the exploitation of labor and the loss of individuality. Utilizing the rhetoric of democracy and the shining faces of manufactured stars, Savage and his colleagues advocated a consumerist mode of looking, moving, and being in the city, training female consumers to see themselves as patrons of leisure rather than players in a capitalist game.

A number of interrelated economic, social, and cultural developments made collaborations between Broadway theaters, department stores, mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, fashion designers, and consumer goods manufacturers both desirable and necessary. These included New York's prominence as the nation's social, economic, and cultural hub; the emergence of large corporations with enough capital to launch national and international advertising campaigns; increased recognition of the power and influence of female consumers; growing consumer interest in fashion thanks to the large-scale promotional efforts of couturiers in London and Paris; and consumer desire for interesting, attractive, and inspiring role models who could demonstrate how to succeed in the swiftly changing modern world.

Throughout the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, New York forged its identity as the imaginary if not geographic heart of the United States, the epitome of all things American, and the point of origin for a remarkable range of new products, ideas, and people. Every year, millions of dollars in goods from around the world arrived in New York Harbor, the nation's largest seaport, at which point they were loaded onto trains and distributed throughout the country. Immigrants also moved swiftly in and out of New York, transforming the demographic makeup as well as the sites and sounds of the city; of the twenty-three million Europeans who entered the United States between 1880 and 1919, 75 percent landed in New York. Many of these newcomers remained in the city, where they found employment in clothing factories, stockyards, and other booming industries and became avid consumers of popular entertainment and other forms of mass culture.

By the early twentieth century, New York had become the de facto center of capitalist enterprise in the United States, home to sixty-nine of the nation's one hundred largest corporations. Although the percentage of trade goods moving in and out of the city decreased to just below 50 percent in 1900 from a previous rate of 57 percent, due in part to the migration of heavy industry to less densely populated areas, the city maintained what the historian William R. Taylor describes as a "stranglehold" on credit and banking as well as such "market-sensitive" and mutually dependent industries as fashion and publishing, surpassing Boston and Philadelphia to become the center for trade in "intangible" commodities. By 1904, New York's garment factories produced 65 percent of all ready-made clothes in the United States, accounting for a similar percentage of the total value of women's clothing. The centralized publishing industry helped to promote these and a wide array of other commodities, informing readers throughout the United States of the latest styles and innovations.

Theatrical touring companies, "direct from New York," also played a pivotal role in the distribution of information, ideas, and fashion throughout the United States. Beginning in the 1890s, theater managers and booking agents in vaudeville and the "legitimate" theater moved to consolidate their business interests, extending many of the same processes of rationalization and standardization that characterized modern manufacturing to streamline touring practices, and establish greater control over the production, distribution, and consumption of theatrical commodities. These changes would not have been possible without the phenomenal growth of the railway industry and the establishment of New York as a major transportation hub. Between 1870 and 1910, the amount of ground covered by railway tracks increased by almost 500 percent from 52,922 to 249,902 miles. Newly constructed stations in small towns previously cut off from the main lines brought large touring companies to existing theaters and encouraged enterprising businessmen to build new ones.

The incorporation of the theater industry mimicked developments elsewhere. Throughout the 1890s, business leaders in industries ranging from sugar and oil to meatpacking and dry goods participated in a flurry of mergers in an effort to rationalize production processes, ensure financial stability, and outperform the competition. The outcome was a radical transformation of the business and economic landscape; by 1904 approximately three hundred corporations controlled over 40 percent of all manufacturing in the United States and influenced business operations in 80 percent of the nation's industries. Gone was the self-made man of local business; in his place stood corporate giants such as the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) and Standard Oil. Throughout this period, anxious observers and surviving independents called upon the government to introduce legislation to prevent the new corporations from becoming monopolizing behemoths. Laws such as the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 offered some resistance to the merger mania, but a certain laxity in defining such key terms as "combination" and "trust," the absence of an effective structure for enforcing the act, and an administration that turned a blind eye to shadier business dealings did little to stem the tide.

Vilified for their "robber baron" tactics, corporations set about creating a positive public image, promising real benefits to American consumers. With the assistance of leading advertising agencies, most notably N. W. Ayer and Sons and the J. Walter Thompson Company, consumer goods manufacturers used funny names, catchy jingles, and cute or interesting trade characters to create a memorable impression on consumers and convince them that their branded products were far superior to unbranded goods or those of their competitors. "[Overcoming] the growing distance between manufacturer and buyer," the historian Susan Strasser explains, corporations such as Nabisco, Procter and Gamble, Campbell's, and Swift and Co. "surround[ed] their products with a magical aura" and "personal[ized] impersonal commodities." Training consumers to associate brands and corporate logos with quality, they laid the foundation for a mass market that extended from coast to coast.

Although advertising campaigns targeted men as well as women, agencies such as the J. Walter Thompson Company soon recognized the influence of the female consumer and created advertisements that spoke directly to female needs, interests, and desires. In 1915, Thompson opened up its Women's Editorial Department, believing that the best way to reach female consumers was with female copywriters. J. Walter Thompson's advertisements appeared in leading women's magazines, including the Ladies' Home Journal, the first magazine to reach a circulation of one million readers, Women's Home Companion, and Good Housekeeping, as well as prominent fashion journals such as Vogue and Harper's Bazar. Although magazine editors had previously hesitated to publish large advertisements, wary of the false claims made by many nineteenth-century manufacturers, they now welcomed the attractive ads produced by professional agencies and the revenue that came along with them, going so far as to court advertisers directly. For example, when Condé Nast gained control of Vogue in 1909, he introduced a number of measures to emphasize the magazine's "high-class" status in a bid to increase circulation and attract major advertisers.

Vogue and its rival Harper's Bazar, which was owned by the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, also profited from and played into growing interest in fashion from London and Paris, vying for the American rights to publish sketches and photographs of the latest couture fashions. Although the words "from Paris" had long held considerable cachet for American consumers, the emergence of a group of designers, led by Paul Poiret, revolutionized international fashion. Influenced by modern art and dance, these couturiers tested the limits of fashion, creating bizarre, even awkward, styles that reshaped the look and movement of the female body. Such changes alone would likely have captured international attention, but Poiret and his competitors, perhaps most notably the British designer Lucile—the inventor of The Merry Widow hat—were also experimenting with new and often radical promotional techniques. Styling themselves as artists while utilizing a range of advertising strategies that included commissioning artists to sketch their designs, sending mannequins to highly publicized events, staging highly theatrical fashion shows, and collaborating with theater directors, these designers achieved international recognition.

The problem for many Americans, however, was a time lag between the styles' debuts in London or Paris and their subsequent arrivals in the United States. By the early 1890s, innovations in communication and transportation, including the telephone and the wireless, the transatlantic cable, and impressive new ocean liners had facilitated the rapid exchange of fashion ideas between Paris and New York. Yet while newspapers published written descriptions of new gowns within a day or two of their appearance, consumers had to wait weeks or even months to see published photographs and sketches. Salon openings in the spring and fall also put Americans at a disadvantage. Those who traveled to Europe in the summer returned to the United States with trunks of expensive gowns only to find that they were now a season behind their Paris counterparts. This lag helps to explain why female audiences across the United States were so eager to see the clothes worn by star actresses, who, thanks to the support of theater managers, possessed the resources to get the gowns first.

Mass-circulation newspapers and class-oriented publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper's Bazar recognized the theater's importance as a site of fashion spectacle and created special sections devoted to New York stage fashion. In July 1913, Harper's Bazar increased its previously sporadic coverage of stage gowns, introducing a special monthly feature entitled "Gowns Seen on the Stage" (later "The Stage as the Mirror of Fashion"). Vogue responded in kind, publishing photographs of leading actresses in character and even enlisting their services as fashion models. Former Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase recalled that throughout the 1910s the stage actresses Irene Castle, Mary Nash, Hazel Dawn, and Jeanne Eagels were regular "stand-bys." Unlike many of the anonymous "living models" who posed for fashion photographs, these women possessed a physical confidence and self-awareness that appealed to photographers such as Baron Adolf de Meyer and Ira L. Hill. Perhaps more important, as celebrities, actresses were guaranteed to draw attention not only to the clothes they wore but also to the magazines in which they appeared. In 1913 the newly launched Vanity Fair signed a contract guaranteeing to publish a photograph or illustration of the ballroom dancer Irene Castle every month as a strategy to entice new readers to the magazine.

American manufacturers took similar steps to profit from the actress's emerging status as a trendsetter and role model, soliciting testimonials from famous stars or naming new products after their stage characters. As beautiful yet accessible women, actresses represented the perfect solution for breaking into new markets and encouraging new patterns of consumer behavior. Indeed, the increased emphasis on the actress as personality rather than as character—one of the effects of the emerging "star system"—was a crucial factor in testimonial advertising because it positioned the actress as a cultural performer outside the limits of her stage roles. By bringing theatrical stars to consumers via the pages of fashion and women's magazines, advertisers succeeded in reaching a much broader segment of the theatergoing and nontheatergoing public. One of the most famous and enduring examples of this promotional strategy was the Peter Pan collar created for Maude Adams, who originated the title role in the J. M. Barrie play in 1905. In 1909, when Adams starred in What Every Woman Knows, the Theatre Magazine's fashion columnist assumed that she would continue to set the styles in collars. "She will undoubtedly be [the originator] of the Maggie Wylie collar," the writer noted, "and we may therefore look to a Vogue of dainty lace and lingerie collars of this type to begin the warm weather." Manufacturers and designers also named sleeves, hats, slippers, coats, and various other fashion articles after popular actresses, hoping that the star endorsement would equal big profits.

More than selling a single product, actresses' endorsements of clothing items seem to have been part of a much larger attempt to convince female consumers, particularly middle-class women, of the benefits of manufactured clothing. According to the fashion historian Rob Schorman, predominant turn-of-the-century gender ideologies that emphasized the importance of clothing as an expression of female individuality discouraged women from adopting ready-to-wear fashions long after men had accepted this form of clothing. Rather than purchase a blouse or skirt that hundreds of other women were already wearing, women continued to go to their dressmakers for custom-made clothing, even after 1910 when most items of clothing were available ready-made. Consumers frequently dismissed ready-to-wear clothing for its poor quality and strong association with the immigrant working class, preferring to make their own clothes along the lines of the latest styles rather than wear shoddy, factory-produced garments. Actresses' endorsements thus constituted an important part of a larger business strategy to reshape consumer behavior and encourage new patterns of consumption.

But as the mob-like behavior of the thirteen hundred women gathered at the New Amsterdam Theatre suggests, controlling and containing female consumers was no easy task. The surging crowds of supposedly respectable women who showed little respect for managerial requests and even less respect for one another bore an eerie resemblance to the radical suffragists who paraded in the streets and the increasingly militant groups of female laborers who demanded better treatment and working conditions. Rather than standing apart from the urban masses, middle-class female consumers seemed to be joining them in alarming numbers. Indeed, as Elizabeth Wilson observes, "The [early twentieth-century] crowd was increasingly invested with female characteristics," depicted as hysterical, unstable, flood-like. "Like women, crowds were liable to rush to extremes of emotion" and like women, crowds needed to be brought under control to prevent the established order of American society from being swallowed up by the feminine swamp.

Theater managers attempted to do just that, collaborating with department stores and other commercial institutions to promote an idealized vision of the modern consuming woman that would stabilize boundaries of gender, race, and class. But the "liveness" of the actress—that is, the interpretive possibilities of live performance as well as the formation of imaginary bonds between stars and their female fans—made it difficult if not impossible to project a single, coherent vision of female modernity or to prevent existing social boundaries from dissolving.

When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture explores the central and largely unacknowledged role of commercial Broadway theater 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. Previous histories of American mass consumption have stressed the importance of commercial institutions, ranging from newspapers and magazines to world's fairs and the cinema, in the formation of a national market for mass-produced goods and the development of a model of modern subjectivity inextricably linked to consumption. Few studies, however, have fully considered the American commercial theater's involvement in this process, beyond noting the transposition of theatrical techniques and staging practices into venues such as the department store.

This book extends previous analyses of theater and commerce in its dual focus on the business decisions that encouraged collaboration between theaters and other consumer institutions, and on the more intimate interactions among theater critics, managers, advertisers, designers, performers, and audiences that influenced the circulation and shaped the meaning of theatrical commodities. This approach illuminates the complicated and often paradoxical processes that produced modern American consumer culture, especially with respect to shifting relationships between producers, distributors, and consumers both within and beyond the theatrical auditorium. Commercial Broadway theater—vaudeville, "legitimate" drama, and musical comedy—did considerably more than display fashion, borrow marketing strategies, and appropriate advertising rhetoric. Through its extensive partnerships with department stores, manufacturers, and mass publications, the theater became a central locus for producing modern consumers, a place where audiences learned how to become discriminating buyers of a wide range of domestic as well as foreign goods and where they imagined themselves as part of a national and increasingly global consumer economy.

What made the theater such an ideal site for exploring these issues was the way it offered a safe, collective environment for audiences and performers to awaken new hopes and desires and to analyze, debate, and enact new ideas and ways of being. This process of imagination and enactment is rarely smooth, coherent, or homogenous; individual spectators interpret stage performances according to their individual desires and interests, often coming away from a performance having seen or experienced something quite different from that seen or experienced by their fellow spectators. Indeed, as much as each performance can be seen as a reenactment of the previous night's performance—as the celebration of the 275th night of The Merry Widow clearly suggests—the actors' moods, their interactions with other performers, the idiosyncrasies of the gathered audience, the specific events of the day, the surrounding environment, and countless other factors color and shape each performance, marking it as a single, irretrievable event. It is this fleeting, ephemeral quality, the experience of living, breathing, sweating, laughing, and crying together in a single room, and the sensation that anything could happen even if it doesn't, that separates theater from other mediated performances. Although it can at times produce consensus and often works to maintain dominant cultural ideologies, the theater nevertheless remains an important site of contestation, a place where audiences can debate and work through cultural change and participate in the formation of a very different world.