When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture

When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture

When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture

When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture


Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009

When Broadway Was the Runway explores the central and largely unacknowledged role of commercial Broadway theater in the birth of modern American fashion and consumer culture. Long before Hollywood's red carpet spectacles, Broadway theater introduced American women to the latest styles. At the beginning of the twentieth century, theater impresarios captured the imagination of their largely female patrons by transforming the stage into a glorious site of consumer spectacle.

Theater historian Marlis Schweitzer examines how these impresarios presented the dresses actresses wore onstage, as well as the jewelry and hairstyles they chose, as commodities that were available for purchase in nearby department stores and salons. The Merry Widow Hat, designed for the hit operetta of the same name, sparked an international craze, and the dancer Irene Castle became a fashion celebrity when she anticipated the flapper look of the 1920s by nearly a decade. Not only were the latest styles onstage, but advertisements appeared throughout theaters, in programs, and on the curtains, while magazines such as Vogue vied for the rights to publish theatrical costume sketches and Harper's Bazar enticed readers with photo spreads of actresses in couture. This combination of spectatorship and consumption was a crucial step in the formation of a mass market for consumer goods and the rise of the cult of celebrity.

Through historical analysis and dozens of early photographs and illustrations, Schweitzer aims a spotlight at the cultural and economic convergence of the theater and fashion industries in the United States.


On June 13, 1908, thirteen hundred women entered the New Amsterdam Theatre at Broadway and 42nd Street for the 275th performance of The Merry Widow, enticed by the promise of a free Merry Widow hat. Three weeks earlier, the New York Times had announced the arrival “from Paris” of a consignment of one thousand hats, “all of the most ample variety,” which would be distributed to all coupon-bearing theatergoers at the conclusion of the special show. Like other promotional stunts in this period, the giveaway was designed by theatre manager Henry Savage to renew interest in The Merry Widow and prolong what was already an impressive run. By June 1908, Savage’s American production of the internationally successful operetta by Franz Lehar had made well over one million dollars, launched two road companies, given rise to numerous burlesque versions, and inspired a vast array of tie-in products, ranging from sheet music and cigars to lunches, cocktails, and corsets.

But of all the commodities associated with The Merry Widow, it was the Merry Widow hat that attracted the most attention. Originally designed by the couturier Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) for the 1907 production in London, it was “an immense black crinoline hat, banded round the crown with silver and two huge pink roses nestling under the brim.” Within days of the London opening, the fashionable commodity crossed from the footlights to the showroom to the stage, sparking a transnational craze that, according to Lucile, “lasted longer than most fashion crazes” and carried the designer’s name “all over Europe and the States.” By the spring of 1908, as milliners throughout Europe and North America struggled to meet consumer demand and outperform one another, the hat had ballooned to enormous proportions, reaching spans of three feet or more.

Given the hype surrounding the production and the tie-ins it had inspired, Savage’s promise of a Merry Widow hat to all women who attended the 275th performance of The Merry Widow was a brilliant marketing tactic, guaranteed to achieve maximum publicity. Yet while Savage had thought carefully about how to distribute the hats to ensure that his patrons remained for the duration of the performance, correctly assuming that there would be . . .

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