The small, luxuriously appointed theatres where reserved seats ranged in price from one to three dollars had become the home of a relatively exclusive amusement. Every city had its fashionable playhouses. Writing of New York, Henry Collins Brown speaks of the friendly social atmosphere of Wallack’s, Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, the Madison Square (“most exquisite theatre in all the world”), and the Union Square. In Chicago there were McVicker’s and Hooley’s; Boston offered the Museum and the old Boston Theatre.
These houses appealed to the carriage trade. Here, in a new elegance of surroundings-the pit had become the parquet with sloping floor; upholstered plush seats were furnished throughout; steam heat (the Lyceum also had “medicated air, charged with ozone”) had replaced the foyer stove; and the new electric lights were being installed -the world of fashion could enjoy the play in a quiet and comfortable atmosphere far removed from the democratic hurlyburly of mid-century.
The productions at these theatres generally centered about some starred actor or actress, although a few able stock companies still survived, and they often achieved long-sustained runs comparable to those of today’s popular plays. With the great expansion of popular entertainment for the masses, it had become not only possible but also necessary for managers of the better theatres to pay more attention to the cultural standards of their comparatively limited and sophisticated audience. There were revivals of Shakespeare and other classic writers; wellstaged productions of serious contemporary drama, both American and foreign; and comedies and light operas which bore little resemblance to the blood-and-thunder melodrama and questionable burlesque that ruled at the people’s theatres.
Contemporary critics often failed to realize that the divorcing of popular entertainment from the legitimate stage rivaled development of the star system as the outstanding feature of theatrical history in the second half of the century. Forgetting the slapstick and circus stunts with which it had been so heavily cluttered, they looked back nostalgically to the theatre of an earlier day and remembered only Shakespeare. They could not understand how a public which had once seemed to enjoy the drama so much had shifted its allegiance to vaudeville and burlesque.
Deciding it had degenerated into “vulgarians,” they damned the producers for their “practical, shopkeeping cultivation of this popular appetite.” They often seemed totally unaware that vaudeville’s assumption of the task of entertaining the million, which the theatre itself had once borne, was actually affording the legitimate stage far greater opportunity for the development of the drama than it had ever had before in the democratic society of America.
In time they looked back upon this period, as dramatic critics are so wont to do, with entirely different eyes. In retrospect the actors and actresses who supported the legitimate stage, even the plays produced at the more fashionable playhouses, took on Olympian stature. The years between 1870 and 1890 were said in many critical memoirs to stand out as the theatre’s golden age. The last decade of the century fell under something of a cloud. The rise of a theatrical trust, dominated by a group of managers who appeared to be deserting the ways of Wallack and Daly, threatened to impose a monopolistic control which considered only the box-office. But even in those days there could be no real question that dramatic standards were far higher than in mid-century.
The “flapper” of the 1920s has long been considered the symbol for women’s emancipation in the 20th century. In feet the freedom of manners and morals that she represented had begun to erode the old, stiff codes and conventions well before World War 1. By the Iate 19th century middle-class and respectable working-class women were to be seen unchaperoned in city streets.
One reason was that many more young women were now employed in offices, shops and department stores, while these department stores themselves – temples of 19th-century commercewere places in which leisured women might wander alone or with their friends. Their refreshment rooms and eloakrooms, and sometimes even reading rooms and libraries, were social havens that even unaccompanied women could frequent without damaging their reputations.
One result of the growth of cities was the advance of fashion as a popular pursuit. Anonymity in the crowd was one new result of urbanization, and fashionable elothes provided an opportunity for people to express themselves in their daily business. The enormously increased demand for smart apparel at a reasonable cost found a solution in the mass production of fashionable garments.
The mass production of elothes had begun with the making of uniforms in the early 19th century, but this had been extended well before 1900 as the independence and consumerism of city life fostered the growing appetite for fashionability. The faetory process was first extended, in the 1830s and 1840s, to urban daywear for men – young elerks and shop assistants in London and other large cities whose pretensions to style were made possible by readymade outfits.
It was between 1890 and 1910, however, that the mass production of fashionable clothing really took off. Blouses or shirtwaists and petticoats began to be made in bulk. Department stores sold ready-made women’s suits, dresses and coats, which could be altered slightly for each customer, echoing the moves towards standardization and produet variation pioneered in other areas of mass-market manufacture, such as furniture.
The great cities of the industrial world gradually took on a different air. Although the gu1f between rich and poor remained, and although a whole underelass of the very poor stili barely had elothes enough to keep them warm, women and men from the lower and upper middle elasses now dominated city pavements, and among the vast urban masses elothes became as much an index of persona1ity and of purpose as of simple social status.
Dress in the city street was a performance, a subtle indicator of calling or leisure activities, hinting at sexual proclivities as much as at rank, and symboIizing countless allegiances. For men as well as women, to dress in fasruon was to make a statement about yourseli and your aspirations.
At the beginning of the 20th century women’s clothing was changing more rapidly than men’s. The growth in popularity of women’ s sports partieularly tennis and bicycling – meant that women were no longer quite so rigidly confined within the tight, voluminous garments that they had been wearing since the 1820s. Initially women laced themselves tightly even when running about the sportsfield; the bicyele at last made bloomers, or breeches, acceptable for women – if still rather “fast”, or daring. A fashion for exercise, dance and calisthenics indicated the evolution of a new attitude toward the body.
Women’s exploits at hockey and cricket, on the bicycle and at the wheel of that most glamorous of fasruon accessories, the motor car, inaugurated a new ideal of beauty that was soan to become dominant: the youthful, hssom, boyish woman. By the second decade of the 20th century her hair might well be bobbed (cut short), while long, loose elathes had replaced the hourglass figure.
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