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Theatre costume

Theatre costume

  • Materials and Techniques:

    cotton jersey, cotton tape

  • Credit Line:

    Acquired with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

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.

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.

Materials and Techniques

cotton jersey, cotton tape


Length: 126 cm Tights, length, Width: 40 cm Tights, width, Weight: 0.15 kg Packed weight of tights

Object history note

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.

Descriptive line

Cotton jersey tights of light reddish-brown with light drab above gusset, probably worn with fancy dress. Oliver Messel Collection.


Cotton jersey; Cotton tape


Machine knitting; Machine stitching


Entertainment & Leisure


Theatre and Performance Collection

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