Theatre Costume

Theatre Costume thumbnail 1
Not currently on display at the V&A


Fancy dress and costume balls were a feature of social life in the 20th century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s and even into the 1950s, while many families would have played charades or sometimes put on plays. The dressing up box and raiding of the family attics would have provided most of the costumes. Any self-respecting 'dressing up' box would have had plenty of standard costume parts and accessories, especially tights, which would be needed for many period or fantasy costumes.

In the days before stretch fabrics like lycra, men's tights were made out of natural fibres, especially wool jersey or cotton. Neither had much stretch and tights would often bag and sag and, especially at the knees, giving rise to a look called 'cabhorse knees'; after washing wool tights were inclined to shrink and the crotch end up somewhere around the mid-thighs, which was neither comfortable nor elegant. Unlike many of today's clinging fabrics, they were sturdy and gave a greater impression of solidity. Silk was sometimes used, which gave a flattering sheen to the outline of the legs.

Oliver Messel (1904-1978) was Britain's leading theatre designer from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s, working in every aspect of entertainment - ballet, drama, film, musical, opera and revue - as well as in interior decoration and textile design. His lavish, painterly and romantic designs informed by period styles, were perfectly in tune with his times and earned him an international reputation. By 1960, however, Messel's style had become unfashionable, having no sympathy with the new 'kitchen sink' school of theatre. He increasingly concentrated on his non-theatrical painting and designing and eventually retired to the Caribbean, where he began a new career designing and building highly idiosyncratic luxury villas.


object details
Category
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
cotton jersey, cotton tape
Brief Description
Cotton jersey tights of light reddish-brown with light drab above gusset, probably worn with fancy dress. Oliver Messel Collection.
Physical Description
High waisted tights in light reddish brown cotton jersey, the band above the gusset of light drab. Slotted into the waistband is a length of cotton tape.
Dimensions
  • Tights, length length: 126cm
  • Tights, width width: 40cm
  • Packed weight of tights weight: 0.15kg
Credit line
Acquired with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A
Object history
Tights probably from Oliver Messel's dressing up box.

Lord Snowdon, Oliver Messel's nephew, inherited Messel's theatre designs and other designs and artefacts. The designs were briefly stored in a disused chapel in Kensington Palace before being housed at the V&A from 1981 on indefinite loan. The V&A Theatre Museum purchased the Oliver Messel collection from Lord Snowdon in 2005.
Summary
Fancy dress and costume balls were a feature of social life in the 20th century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s and even into the 1950s, while many families would have played charades or sometimes put on plays. The dressing up box and raiding of the family attics would have provided most of the costumes. Any self-respecting 'dressing up' box would have had plenty of standard costume parts and accessories, especially tights, which would be needed for many period or fantasy costumes.



In the days before stretch fabrics like lycra, men's tights were made out of natural fibres, especially wool jersey or cotton. Neither had much stretch and tights would often bag and sag and, especially at the knees, giving rise to a look called 'cabhorse knees'; after washing wool tights were inclined to shrink and the crotch end up somewhere around the mid-thighs, which was neither comfortable nor elegant. Unlike many of today's clinging fabrics, they were sturdy and gave a greater impression of solidity. Silk was sometimes used, which gave a flattering sheen to the outline of the legs.



Oliver Messel (1904-1978) was Britain's leading theatre designer from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s, working in every aspect of entertainment - ballet, drama, film, musical, opera and revue - as well as in interior decoration and textile design. His lavish, painterly and romantic designs informed by period styles, were perfectly in tune with his times and earned him an international reputation. By 1960, however, Messel's style had become unfashionable, having no sympathy with the new 'kitchen sink' school of theatre. He increasingly concentrated on his non-theatrical painting and designing and eventually retired to the Caribbean, where he began a new career designing and building highly idiosyncratic luxury villas.
Other Number
ROT 9008 - TM Rotation Number
Collection
Accession Number
S.580-2006

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record createdMarch 12, 2007
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