NO FULL TEXT AVAILABLE. This thesis contains 3rd party copyright material. ----- In 1917 the Western world was locked in a brutal, mechanised war that blasted away Belle Époque Europe and brought in the Modernist age. Surprisingly, one of the most glamorous, decadent and iconic theatrical figures of the twentieth century was created in Paris amidst this very climate of terror and deprivation: the feathered showgirl. Existing studies about showgirls typically focus on biographical information and/or examine how they promoted social and cultural agendas in different historical eras, including the construction of race, class and gender. In this respect, perhaps, this thesis is no different from other studies. Yet no study has sought to examine the origin of the feathered showgirl who emerged in 1917, the agency of ostrich plumes in creating the iconic costume, the extent to which ethnographic performances and displays contributed to the costume’s design and, finally, how the feathered showgirl, a quintessential figure of modernity, functioned as antithetical to modernity.
This study thus seeks to address these apertures in the literature and offers both an historical and a methodological contribution to knowledge. As a historical study, Costuming the Feathered Showgirl explores how feathered showgirl costumes manifested from a complex blend of economic necessity and nostalgia in World War I Paris to the elaborate feathered fashions and ‘savage’ performances of La Belle Époque. This has revealed an intricate Trans-Atlantic exchange of monetary, material and cultural capital between America and France between 1890 and 1930, influenced by each nation’s experiences of race, colonialism, commercial entertainment and the consumption of ethnographic objects and ostrich plumes. This exchange continued into the 1920s, where it manifested in the appearance of magnificent feathered showgirl costumes on the Broadway stage that exemplified the decadence and extravagance of the Jazz Age.
The key methodological contribution of this dissertation is a demonstration of how a study of performance costume can be effectively written by contemplating the objects, aesthetics, people and commercial, ideological and cultural events that contributed to its design. It retains the importance of people while adding a relevant consideration of the materiality, symbolism and agency of objects, including how they travel and change through time and space. This dissertation, therefore, draws upon several disciplines: fashion and dress history and theory; French and American theatre and cultural history; critical theories around race, modernity, Modernism and aesthetics; ethnographic collection; musicology, art history and studies of material culture and design. Primary source materials include photographs and archives.
Feathered showgirl costumes are beautiful, but are often dismissed as frivolous. Costuming the Feathered Showgirl shows that the consumption of ostrich plumes, ethnographic objects and theatrical costumes are significant parts in an analysis of American and French social, cultural, economic and theatre history. Importantly, this type of analysis also allows us to garner an understanding of how people addressed trauma, alienation and urbanisation in a period of great social upheaval.