Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
Sebastian

Women In White?

Recommended Posts

As Giselle is about to return to Covent Garden, might this be an appropriate time to ask a related question?

 

The history of 19th century performers and "white acts" is presumably part of the first course every student of dance history takes. May I therefore draw on collective expertise? Listed below are a few works which seem significant, and I wonder if someone might be so kind as to fill in the inevitable gaps, particularly for the "pre-history", i.e. the years leading up to 1825.

 

10 December 1825: First night of Boïeldieu's opéra comique La Dame Blanche (based on a number of works by Walter Scott, but as regards the White Lady, specifically “The Monastery”) In the course of the action a young woman dresses in white to represent herself as a ghost. Adolphe Adam helped Boïeldieu prepare the orchestral parts, Adam of course later going on to write the music for Giselle.

 

6 March 1831: First night of Bellini’s opera "La Somnambula". A female sleepwalker in a white nightdress is mistaken for a phantom.

21 November 1831: First night of Meyerbeer’s opera "Robert le Diable". The so-called "ballet of the nuns" has unfaithful nuns coming out of their graves (dressed in white) to tempt the hero. This scene starred the choreographer's daughter, Marie Taglioni.

1832: Marie Taglioni appears in the title role of "La Sylphide", a ballet telling the story of a fairy - dressed in white - who tempts a man to abandon his sweetheart (the scenario was written by the tenor star of “Robert le Diable”). This sylph and her “ethereal sisters” are all dressed in white, and so Act 2 of “La Sylphide” may be thought of as the first "ballet blanc", the white act.

1835: "Lucia di Lammermoor" (Donizetti) and "I Puritani" (Bellini) are first performed, both starring women who get into a state while wearing white wedding dresses.

1836: La Sylphide is restaged to new music by the Danish ballet master Bournonville

1842 onwards: White acts in Giselle, Swan Lake and so on.

 

Incidentally, as to Giselle itself, I wrote about the history of the Wilis in earlier postings, e.g.

 

http://www.balletcoforum.com/topic/14339-english-national-ballet-mary-skeapings-giselle-london-coliseum-2017/?do=findComment&comment=197609

 

http://www.balletcoforum.com/topic/14339-english-national-ballet-mary-skeapings-giselle-london-coliseum-2017/?do=findComment&comment=200100

 

  • Like 5

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Not sure whether this is relevant to the discussion but in her book Apollo's Angels Jennifer Homans mentions that during the French Revolution many women wore a simple white tunic, symbolising the nation cleansed of corruption and greed, and representing purity and virtue. She goes on to say that in the popular festivals that took place celebrating the Revolution, white-clad women, sometimes wearing tricolor sashes, moved gracefully, not marring their beauty with speech. In the Festival of Reason a woman played the lead role, supported by girls in white. Thus, the origin of what became the corps de ballet; before the Revolution the corps generally comprised men and women dancing as couples.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Sebastian said:

 

1835: "Lucia di Lammermoor" (Donizetti) and "I Puritani" (Bellini) are first performed, both starring women who get into a state while wearing white wedding dresses.

 

 

Is a white wedding dress specified in either libretto, or in the Bride of Lammermoor, or whatever the source was for I Puritani?  We're forever being told that Queen Victoria popularised the white wedding dress at her own wedding, but that wasn't until 1840.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 1/17/2018 at 09:08, Sebastian said:

10 December 1825: First night of Boïeldieu's opéra comique La Dame Blanche (based on a number of works by Walter Scott, but as regards the White Lady, specifically “The Monastery”) In the course of the action a young woman dresses in white to represent herself as a ghost. Adolphe Adam helped Boïeldieu prepare the orchestral parts, Adam of course later going on to write the music for Giselle.

 

6 March 1831: First night of Bellini’s opera "La Somnambula". A female sleepwalker in a white nightdress is mistaken for a phantom.

21 November 1831: First night of Meyerbeer’s opera "Robert le Diable". The so-called "ballet of the nuns" has unfaithful nuns coming out of their graves (dressed in white) to tempt the hero. This scene starred the choreographer's daughter, Marie Taglioni.

 

Bellinini's 'Somnambula' is patterned after the ballet of this name at the Royal Academy of Music in Paris, so it should not be even on your list. It is commonly accepted that "white ballet" starts with the "ballet of the nuns" scene in "Robert le Diable".

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In all of these early 'white' ballets the dancers are ghosts or spirits who are usually depicted as white in stories. Another thing that occurs to me is the question of stage lighting, it would have been gas or even candles in thosed days. Dancers in white would be more visible and the whole production atmospheric. Even today lighting technicians warn that black and dark costumes can be diffcult to light.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 17 January 2018 at 18:47, Lizbie1 said:

 

Is a white wedding dress specified in either libretto, or in the Bride of Lammermoor, or whatever the source was for I Puritani?  We're forever being told that Queen Victoria popularised the white wedding dress at her own wedding, but that wasn't until 1840.

 

We do in fact know what Lucy was wearing in the Bride of Lammermoor in 1819, see this extract from the novel:

 

image.jpeg

 

 

Edited by Sebastian
  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

And we (probably) know what Fanny Persiani, the first Lucia, wore in 1835 - 1839, see Chalon's famous watercolour of Persiani in the role (from the V&A):

 

2009CR4011_2500.jpg

 

So I can't help thinking, we can guess where Queen Victoria may have got the idea for her dress!

 

 

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Just as an aside on the bridal dress question, an authoritative recent book from the V&A ('The Wedding Dress', Edwin Ehrman, 2011) summarises as follows:

 

"From the final decade of the the eighteenth century through to 1840...a white dress gradually became the garment of choice for a well-to-do young woman marrying for the first time...The fashion for wearing white and silver wedding dresses, which was popular in aristocratic circles in the eighteenth century, did not disappear immediately, but became less popular and by the 1830s white and silver had ceded to white...From 1790 to 1810 white was the dominant colour for women's fashions for informal day and evening wear, and bridal clothes followed suit."

 

However my original posting was about stage costume and so maybe there is somewhere with knowledge of theatrical customs who can add a little. I was particularly taken by Pas De Quatre's observation:

 

On 20/01/2018 at 07:15, Pas de Quatre said:

Another thing that occurs to me is the question of stage lighting, it would have been gas or even candles in those days. Dancers in white would be more visible and the whole production atmospheric. 

 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sebastian, your question is interesting and you could find lots of answers in a good book about the history of ballet.  In the late 1790s and early 1800s there was a famous dancer Maria Medina Vigano who wore flesh coloured tights and two or three transparent crepe skirts.  From illustrations of the time, the effect was of Greek draperies.  I don't know if these drapes were white or just pastel shades.  Then there were the dresses of the Regency period for normal ladies wear - Empire line.  Made of fine muslin, often in pale colours, with no petticoats or hoops. simply gathered at a high waist.  As the century progressed, wider skirts became fashionable and so the Romantic tutu evolved. 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
45 minutes ago, Pas de Quatre said:

In the late 1790s and early 1800s there was a famous dancer Maria Medina Vigano who wore flesh coloured tights and two or three transparent crepe skirts.  From illustrations of the time, the effect was of Greek draperies.  I don't know if these drapes were white or just pastel shades.  Then there were the dresses of the Regency period for normal ladies wear - Empire line.  Made of fine muslin, often in pale colours, with no petticoats or hoops. simply gathered at a high waist.  As the century progressed, wider skirts became fashionable and so the Romantic tutu evolved. 

 

Pas de Quatre, you might like this quote from the co-author of Giselle, Theophile Gautier, in his "Histoire de l'Art Dramatique" of 1859 (cited in Cyril Beaumont's classic "The Ballet Called Giselle", one of the sources I drew on for my original post, above; for my admiring comments on Beaumont's scholarship see the links on the Wilis):

 

"After La Sylphide...(t)he new style led to a great abuse of white gauze, tulle, and tarlatan, the shades dissolved into mist by means of transparent dresses. White was the only colour used."

 

Incidentally Beaumont later makes the interesting comment that the other author of Giselle, Vernoy de Saint-Georges, "probably adapted" that ballet's "mad scene" from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Rather than a history of costume as such, it is tracking such cross-fertilizations - by tracing stagings back to their inspirations - which most interests me. But any comments welcomed, as I am eager to learn more!

 

 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

An interesting writer who has tackled related questions is Clair Hughes. Her "Dressed in Fiction" (Berg, 2005) covers the development of dress in some, primarily, novels of the 18th and 19th century. To my particular question Hughes has little to add about origins - indeed she writes "The source of this stereotype has not been traced, as far as I know" - and says little about this particular white image before the 1819 "Bride of Lammermoor". But in her concluding chapter - The Missing Wedding Dresses - she writes (quoting Fiona Robertson's introduction to the 1998 Oxford edition of the Scott novel):

 

Quote

An insane, murderous bride in white, the figure who became..."a byword for emotional liberation" for a generation of writers, composers and painters across Europe.

 

I like that phrase about emotional liberation!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

When Petipa staged “Raymonda” at Mariinsky in 1898, there was a character there — White Lady. In the first scene she was presented just as a statue in upstage centre. As a protectoress of the House of Doris she was supposed to help the heroes on the condition that they are dutiful and active.
Later as an Apparition de la Dame Blanche she leaves her pedestal and leads Raymonda to the park.
Her appearance during the duel between Jean de Brienne and Abderahman brings victory to Jean.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 1/17/2018 at 17:08, Sebastian said:

I wonder if someone might be so kind as to fill in the inevitable gaps, particularly for the "pre-history", i.e. the years leading up to 1825.

 

Not "pre-history" but in 1843 there was another ballet blanc: “La Péri” by Jean Coralli

and Maria Taglioni choreographed "Le Papillon" for Emma Livry in 1860.

Edited by Amelia
shortened the quote
  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The 'white act' in ballet isn't just a thing of the past.  In his ballet La Petite Danseuse de Degas, Patrice Bart set a scene in a laundry.  Very under-rated work in my view, unfortunate it was marred by some inappropriate music.

 

 101543_108026_Petite%20Danseuse_DSC_2976

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 09/02/2018 at 17:11, MAB said:

In his ballet La Petite Danseuse de Degas, Patrice Bart set a scene in a laundry.  Very under-rated work in my view, unfortunate it was marred by some inappropriate music.

 

Not the first and I am sure it will not be the last piece to be marred in this way. I shan't quote the recent RB offenders ...

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Here is a yet earlier example of a "woman in white": Nina is the eponymous heroine of Dalayrac's Paris opera of 1786 and then Milon's ballet adaptation of the same name, first performed, also in Paris, in 1813. Not only does Nina go mad, along similar lines to her many successors, but conveniently we have an illustration of the singer who created the role, Madame Dugazon, in her costume:-

 

Dugazon_dans_Nina.jpg

 

Any advance on 1786, I wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Sebastian
  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In 1779, the playwright Richard Sheridan wrote 'The Critic' , a parody of the conventions of Elizabethan theatre.  It includes a play within the play about the Spanish Armada, featuring a virtuous heroine called Tilburina.  In this play Tilburina goes "stark mad in white satin," and her confidante "stark mad in white linen."  She wears white, according to the play because "when a heroine goes mad, she always goes mad in white satin."   So presumably, women in white were a theatrical cliche from much earlier.

 

Incidentally, the plot of 'Tilburina' would probably make a (short) ballet.  As far as I can remember, she's the daughter of the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower of London and she falls in love with a Spanish nobleman who has been arrested as a spy.  She goes mad when he is executed but I don't remember what happens next - perhaps she becomes a Wili?  Can anyone else remember?

 

Linda

 

 

 

Edited by loveclassics
typo
  • Like 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/02/2018 at 18:36, Scheherezade said:

 

Not the first and I am sure it will not be the last piece to be marred in this way. I shan't quote the recent RB offenders ...

 

Oh go on, you know you want to..

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 4 August 2018 at 12:51, loveclassics said:

In 1779, the playwright Richard Sheridan wrote 'The Critic' ...presumably, women in white were a theatrical cliche from much earlier

 

Linda, well done for beating 1786! If we can now find whatever Sheridan had in mind (Ophelia's mad scene, perhaps?) we might yet trace this tradition to its source.

 

In any case here is the relevant section (from Act III):-

 

Puff. Now she comes in stark mad in white satin.

Sneer. Why in white satin?

Puff. O Lord, sir — when a heroine goes mad, she always goes into white satin. — Don’t she, Dangle?

Dangle. Always — it’s a rule.

Puff. Yes — here it is — [Looking at the book.“Enter Tilburina stark mad in white satin, and her confidant stark mad in white linen.”

Enter Tilburina and Confidant, mad, according to custom.”

Edited by Sebastian

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A couple more clues: in 1785 Mrs Siddons played Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, not in traditional black but in white satin, which the press characterised variously as being so as to show that Lady M was mad at this point, and justified by her being in night wear.

 

And here is Ophelia in white satin, albeit at the end of the 19th century:

 

http://www.english.emory.edu/classes/Shakespeare_Illustrated/ET.Ophelia.html

 

 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 04/08/2018 at 11:51, loveclassics said:

In 1779, the playwright Richard Sheridan wrote 'The Critic'...presumably, women in white were a theatrical cliche from much earlier.

 

In 1774, the 19 year old Sarah Siddons won her first success as the wronged wife, Belvidera, in Thomas Otway’s 1682 play 'Venice Preserv’d' (Belvidera, it perhaps goes without saying, ends the play mad and then dead). According to contemporary sources collected in Hogan's “The London Stage” Belvidera traditionally wore a white dress for her mad scenes (though this was changed when Siddons played Belvidera again in 1782 - see Hogan, 5.1, 577 and 579).

 

Perhaps “The London Stage” has examples which date from earlier even than 1682. The collection - covering 1660 to 1800 - has the attractive subtitle “A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments & Afterpieces, Together with Casts, Box-receipts and Contemporary Comment". Compiled from the playbills, newspapers and theatrical diaries of the period, it dates from the 1960s and is helpfully available online. 

 

Edited by Sebastian

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Incidentally, another play from 1682 - John Banks' 'Vertue Betrayed' - has the heroine Anna Bullen, not going mad in white as such, but rather led to her execution "all in White" (as the text has it). Anna Bullen, married in the play to Henry VIII, is based on Anne Boleyn.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You've been very busy, Sebastian.  Seems like Sheridan was spot on about the 'woman in white' being a familiar character in the theatre.  I didn't know that Anne Boleyn was executed in white but there's a famous work of art: Death & the Maiden by Delaroche (1833, in the National Gallery) which is of the execution of Lady Jane Grey in which she is dressed in white.

 

It would be fascinating to trace the origin of this, if I were a professional art historian/critic I'd consider making it the subject of a programme for BBC4 or possibly the South Bank show.

 

I would love to find out where and when it started.  I think I will start with Wilkie Collins whose novel The Woman in White is often described as the first true detective novel.  Somewhere there must be some information about his sources.  I'm currently recovering from a broken foot so this should keep me occupied while I'm stuck on the sofa.  Thank goodness for the internet!

 

Linda

 

 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 hours ago, loveclassics said:

 I think I will start with Wilkie Collins whose novel The Woman in White is often described as the first true detective novel.  Somewhere there must be some information about his sources.

 

Sarah Wise wrote an article for History Today (August 2010, Vol. 60 Issue 8) which looks promising if you can find it: "The Woman in White, A Novel for Hysterical Times". Incidentally Wise went on to do a book, "Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England", which reinforces the point about the cliché of the mad woman in white.

 

Sorry about your foot, by the way. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...