Dressing the Part: Ellen Terry (1847-1928)

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was one of the most popular and celebrated English actresses of her generation. She achieved this status in spite of a professional career and personal life, which directly challenged conventional Victorian morality and social codes: encompassing three marriages, two illegitimate children, and at least two long term love affairs.

Terry has been repeatedly characterised as an actress who was ‘more concerned with her dresses than with Shakespeare’s lines’ (Holroyd, 2008), and as a woman content to sacrifice her own stage ambitions to support the career of her long-term stage partner, Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905).

This paper outlines how my sartorial biography of Terry - shaped around, and narrated through her dress - challenges such portrayals. It will argue that Terry was highly attuned to the ‘meanings’ carried by clothing, and consistently used her garments to both reaffirm, and challenge, her public and private identity.

Each chapter takes a specific garment from Terry’s personal or theatrical wardrobe as its starting point. Selected because they encapsulate a key moment in her life or career, the close analysis and contextualisation of these garments will highlight the intimate insights they offer into the life of their wearer whilst also addressing the artistic, cultural and social context which shaped their creation.

As this paper will demonstrate, centring the narrative around Terry’s clothing offers a new – and intimate – perspective on her life: One that focuses on the embodied experience of wearing these garments, their tactile qualities, and the memories and ‘magic’ they carry in their fibres.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 20 Apr 2023
EventStitches That Speak: Biography Through Objects Symposium - De Montfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom
Duration: 20 Apr 202320 Apr 2023


ConferenceStitches That Speak
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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