Looking back, I can scarcely realise that it was possible, but we managed somehow; and the effort of making the same dress do duty in different plays as an afternoon, morning, or evening gown, with the addition of lace or a few flowers, was experience of the finest kind. It taught me, I know, to make the best of very little, and also to make the best of myself under difficult conditions.
"My dear," said Miss Terry - my theatrical fairy godmother - "that woman was a genius. She built up a reputation on white muslin and black velvet. She would cut the neck out for the first act, and add a pink rose; put the neck back again for the last act, and drape some lace round her shoulders. Oh, she was a genius indeed! If you ever have to play a repertoire of big parts on a small salary, pin your faith to white muslin and black velvet, and you can't go far wrong!"
Those words stuck in my memory, and I have proved by experience that white muslin, black velvet, and a little ingenuity go a very long way. When I was playing a different part every night with Miss Sarah Thome's company, on a salary that "walkers-on" in London would despise to-day, I learned the value of real flowers in dressing Colour is always a help: it rivets attention, and puts the dress in shadow. I used to take long walks, and pick poppies, bluebells, cowslips, and marguerites, all to be used that evening.
Miss Vanbrugh as Claire Forster in a strong dramatic situation, every point of which is subtly emphasised by the consummately designed dressing of this great actress
A Wonderful Hat
Once I wanted a new hat, oh, so badly, for rather a good part, but pennies were scarce. By good luck I saw a big rush hat marked 1 1/2 d., and hastened to make it my own. I twisted it about to suit me, and pinned a trail of real hops against the brim. Well, I was young and happy, and nothing mattered much, and I suppose the poor little hat suited me.
The compliment pleased me beyond words, and when I thought of my miserable 1 1/2d. I could not help laughing - a laugh that was not far from tears.
Now that I am lucky enough to choose my stage dresses with the aid of the brilliant head of a great house, it is my desire to find costumes which fit my parts, rather than those which are mere fashion plates. Fashions may be desirable, but they are not always becoming. It is better to take a novel notion and adapt it than to wear a slavish copy of a mode that is probably impossible outside a fashion book. Some characters are hard to dress. One, for example, troubled me very much - Claire Forster in "The Woman in the Case," round whom the play centred. Great value lay in the woman's appearance; and it seemed to me that her first entrance, late in the second act, must strike an unmistakable note. I chose a black dress, daring in its very simplicity, which, when worn by an ordinary society woman, would have been striking, but nothing else. On Claire Forster, with her flaming hair, flamboyant hat, narrow, high-heeled shoes with huge gilt buckles, gold bag, and general air of garish diablerie, it became just such a dress as I had imagined, typical of the woman and her life; and I always feel, without undue conceit, I hope, that this part was my greatest success in stage dressing.
After the play had been running a week or so I received an imploring letter from the famous firm who had made the model gown, saying that I was doing the dress a great deal of harm. It was a popular style, but ladies had ceased to order it because they did not want to look like Claire Forster, and would I please choose another style? It amused me, for the ladies in question could not have realised that it was the tout ensemble that made the dress bizarre - not the dress itself.
When we produced "The Walls of Jericho," I was anxious to get specially suitable frocks for Lady Alethea; and hunted round for a type to copy. One evening, when I was nearly desperate, a friend came to see me in my dressing-room. As she walked in, stately, gracious, and perfectly "turned out," I knew she was the type I had been seeking. Lady Alethea was modelled on her, though I don't think she ever guessed it.
Over this part I nearly made a very great mistake in stage dressing. In the last act I was anxious to strike a new note, and show, by the woman's dress, that the smart society butterfly, though still caring for clothes, was not quite such a fashion plate as she had been.
One day in a showroom I saw a perfectly charming model, a white broderie anglaise skirt, with a brown taffeta coat, quite chic, but not at all outre. "That," I said to myself, "shall be my last-act frock."
When the dress rehearsal came I put it on with joy, and played the act, feeling really pleased with myself. After the curtain came down, Mr. Bourchier and Mr. Sutro, the author, flew at me together, exclaiming, "Where did you get that awful dress? It looks as though you had got on a petticoat, and forgotten your skirt! It's hideous!" "Or, perhaps," said my husband, as an afterthought, "the skirt's not ready, and is coming to-morrow!"
I was furious. How tiresome men are! I thought. What do they know about clothes? It was not till one of my sisters came round, and repeated, with additions, everything my masculine critics had said, that I realised I had made a bad mistake. The dress did look hideous, from a distance; and, of course, I did not wear it.
Afterwards, I rejoiced that I had friends to tell me, though at the time I hated parting with my beloved frock.
It is so easy to make mistakes over stage clothes, for effects that look nice viewed near are often very ugly from a distance, for on the stage line and colouring make the best effects; and I consider the stage is a better vehicle for demonstrating fashions than any picture paper, because the public are able to see fashions on living women, who walk, sit, and stand, showing the frocks in conjunction with different types of face and figure to the best possible advantage. Great dressmakers obtain very many orders from successful stage frocks, for women cannot resist the temptation of acquiring a precise copy of some fascinating footlight favourite's gown from the original maker.
Dress is greatly a matter of intuition. Some women never look anything but dowdy, though dressed by a master hand. Others cannot look anything but nice, in the poorest, cheapest frocks. It is nothing but individuality, which creeps through every dress, and makes or mars it. If you would have a reputation for smart dressing study line and suitability. And remember that fashions, charming though they may be, are only made to be adapted by the clever dresser to her individual needs.