The Lightning Adaptors of Fashion: 1910

billie burke 1916

Actress Billie Burke c. 1916

On Trail of Latest Fashions.

Helene Melville

There are a large number of fashion devotees who, although unable to spend much on their attire or to be in the secret of the “couturiers,” manage to be dressed strictly according to the dictates of fashion almost as soon as those dictates have been promulgated, and before they appear in the shape of special articles and sketches or photograph in newspapers and periodicals.

Needless to say. It is among the Parisiennes that these clever and enterprising fashion hunters, fashion detectors, and fashion ” lightning adaptors,” as some one has called them, are mostly to be found.

Which are their hunting territories? Mainly the leading theaters of Paris (on first nights), the race courses near the French metropolis, and the ” afternoon teas.” “Afternoon teas” is the more vague term for the old fashioned “5 o’clock tea,” which now is partaken of in Paris from any time between 5 and 7 p.m.!

The first night at the Théâtre-Français, the Vaudeville, the Gymnase, and the Variétés are the recognised indicators of fashion. Sensational gowns are worn on those “select” stages by the  leading Parisian actresses. Some of those dresses are suggestions. They are offered to the actress by well known firms anxious to make their new “creations” known to the elite.

It were difficult to conceive keener excitement and anxiety, a readier sense of assimilation than that which permeates the minds of certain feminine spectators at those “premieres.”

They hold the best seats, the seats from which a woman can see the exact nature of a material and whether a gown closes at the back, in front, or on the side, how that “unique drapery” is arranged, and the exact details of the color scheme.

How clever those fair fashion pirates are! How subtle and rapid in their perceptions. They miss nothing and their astounding memory–for, needless to say, they make no use of paper or pencil–retains even the slightest details of the new gowns they admire end envy.

All the time her mind is at work. Her eyes take snapshots of all that is new in fashion and which passes before her. The next morning she sets to work alone or with the assistance of a little dressmaker or milliner, and, behold, the same day or the next she appears triumphantly in the drawing room of her best friend wearing the latest!

Of course she does not remember much of the play; she has hardly grasped the plot or appreciated, the acting. But what matters? A new hat surely is more important than a new play, and “her” success is a more momentous affair than that of writer’s dramatic effort.

The methods of the fashion hunters are used by them on many fields of activity. But the fashionable Paris theaters on first nights are favorites with them. Can one blame them? After all they only seek to enhance their appearance, and if vanity is at the foundation of their craving for “new” elegance and, as it were, copyright “fashionableness” let us remember that they expose themselves to much criticism and run the dreaded risk of not being absolutely fashionable in spite of their efforts, at imitation and assimilation.

Chicago [IL] Tribune 20 February 1910: p. 48

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Actresses of stage and screen reported much pressure over procuring and wearing the latest fashions. They knew very well that they were role models:  the theatrical equivalent of to-day’s cat-walk mannequins, exhibiting the most up-to-date costumes to audiences who, although they could not patronise the great couture houses, still wished to wear the newest styles.

One actress, who designed many of her own costumes, felt that the piracy of theatrical audiences had gone far enough.

COPYRIGHTED DRESSES.

Miss Billie Burke originated the scheme of copyrighting her stage dresses that so many other actresses have since adopted.

“I just had to do it,” says the actress, who comes to the Grand Theatre March 19, in “Jerry,” her latest success in which she wears an unusually large number of fetching gowns.

“I used to be proud of the fact that the dressmakers copied my clothes for their customers, but I found it made it very expensive for me. I had to be getting new frocks all the time to keep ahead of my audiences. So I have seen my lawyers in New York and they tell me It can be done and that after my dresses are copyrighted I can prosecute anyone who copies them.”

Miss Burke, it is well known, is one of the best dressed women on the American stage. She designs most of her costumes herself and so they have a distinctive touch that differentiates them from the prevailing fashions. Dressmakers In New York especially–but in other cities, too– were quick to observe this and whenever Miss Burke appeared in a new play in New York there were always a lot of the fashionable costumers of the city in the audience and it wasn’t long before a lot of Imitation Billie Burkes were to be seen on Fifth Avenue.

The Montgomery [AL] Advertiser 13 March 1915: p. 3

Miss Billie Burke had such a distinctive face, figure, and voice that one could scarcely countenance an Imitation.  In addition to designing her own clothes, she was often dressed by Lucile. Some of Mrs Daffodil’s readers will remember her in a fluffy pink frock as “Glinda, the Good Witch” in the motion picture: The Wizard of Oz. 

Mrs Daffodil has written before on early fashion piracy, and on the trials of motion-picture actresses and their fashionable gowns.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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