‘Dressing the part:’ Ellen Terry (1847-1928) – towards a methodology for analysing historic theatre costume

  • Veronica Tetley Isaac

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The material culture of historic theatre costume offers a vital resource for the fields of dress and theatre history that has yet to be fully recognised. This thesis unites approaches from both disciplines to create a specific methodology for the study of theatre costume founded upon the examination and assessment of such garments. It argues that theatre costume represents a separate and specific category of clothing and theatrical ephemera. Celebrated actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928), an individual highly attuned to the significance of dress as an expression of identity, is used as a case study to demonstrate the validity of this new methodology. Adopting an object-based and material culture approach, the thesis engages with the visual and physical evidence about performance and design that can be gathered from Terry’s extant theatre costumes. It also highlights crucial information about Terry’s dress and its public reception gleaned from additional sources such as photographs; paintings; letters; reviews, and within Terry’s papers and books. This thesis represents the first full investigation of Terry’s personal and theatrical wardrobe, and is the first study to carry out a close analysis of the actress’s surviving garments. This analysis establishes the factors fundamental to the interpretation and study of theatre costume: the significance of social, artistic and historic context; parallels and contrasts between on and off-stage dress; the collaborative process of design and making; the function of costume as both performance object, and expression of ‘identity’; the issue of multiple and complex ‘biographies’; and the crucial evidence offered from material culture sources, most importantly, surviving costumes. Chapter 1 outlines existing methodologies and the cross disciplinary nature of the thesis; Chapter 2 reviews existing literature and proposes a new methodology; 3 provides the context for Terry's professional career; 4 develops the methodology and analyses extant garments. 5 and 6 relate the methodology to ideas of self-fashioning and biography. The thesis establishes Terry as an exceptional figure in British theatre and society who took an active role in fashioning her public and private image, both during her life, and after her death. The analysis of Terry’s wardrobe confirms the status of theatre costumes as unique garments, which represent a key source for design, dress and theatre historians. This detailed case study demonstrates that the methodology presented can be employed in the study of other figures, theatres and periods, and opens up a new and productive direction for future research.
Date of AwardDec 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton

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