Lincoln Center is all abuzz as it ramps up for another Fashion Week. Fashion luminaries, hovering press reps, and harried show staff walk briskly across the Plaza towards the next scheduled event. The sense of anticipation is accompanied by the throbbing bass from the show tent, where models strut their stuff. For the in-crowd, the new look of tomorrow eclipses the desire to reflect on what has come before. But the scholars just next door in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts relish the past. While Lincoln Center has always been considered the locus of cultural history as-it-happens, it also harbors cultural artifacts of yesteryear stored nearby in the archives of LPA.
As it happens, the Billy Rose Theatre Division at LPA is the unlikely home for a forgotten period of fashion history. British scholar Caroline Evans recently found a cache of 1915 photographs depicting what turns out to be one of the earliest fashion runway events, and the unlikely venue was a Vaudeville house on Broadway.
But first a little back-story: Fashion Week can be traced back to the 1940s, but the idea of the “runway” concept in the U.S. has much earlier origins...
It is the summer of 1914, and Edna Woolman Chase, the brand new editor-in-chief at Vogue’s New York offices, is nervous about the fall fashion outlook. The outbreak of World War I has threatened the infusion of European fashion into the American market, so Chase had to act. To the question: “Where is fashion without the French?” The magazine boldly answered in its columns: “If there are more Paris fashions, Vogue will show them. If there are none, New York will set the mode”.
In this spirit, Chase decided to showcase American, and more specifically, New York-based fashion designers. In August 1914, she staged a fashion fête whose proceeds would benefit war orphans, and invited all of the local elite designers of the day to participate.
In 1915, Vaudeville pioneer May Tully took this idea further and staged a fashion show at the Palace Theatre. The show was such a success that it was repeated the next year to full houses. It toured the west coast soon after and was then eventually forgotten. The NY stage photographer White Studios photographed the show, but for whatever reason, the earliest images of the original production were never printed for publication. The photos, which survive only in the form of keysheets, came to the Library as part of the White Studio Collection, which document Broadway shows from 1910s to the 1920s. The collection is comprised of prints, keysheets, and an occasional negative.
One day while in the LPA’s Special Collections Room, British fashion scholar Caroline Evans pointed out one of these keysheets to us, entitled “Fashion Show,” and aided us in its identification. No derivative prints exist, and in one of history’s unfortunate ironies, the original negatives of this wartime runway were donated to the World War I effort to produce gas mask plates for troops.
Nevertheless, what has survived is a remarkable visual document of the fashion mode of the day. The images on the keysheets feature in sufficient detail the suits, gowns, and evening wear of the day, but also the styles for house servants, polo players, and even magical nymphs — all of which Library users can enjoy for posterity.
For more on the history of Broadway’s influence on fashion, we recommend the new book When Broadway Was the Runway, by Marlis Schweitzer, a history of how the Broadway stage influenced fashion and consumer culture.