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Assiut Cloth in Early 20th century Opera

In the early 20th century, costume designers chose assiut cloth operatic productions set in the Middle East.  Plays such as “Salome,” “Anthony and Cleopatra,” and “Lakmé” featured exotic costumes and sets that evoked an imagined exotic opulence of these far-away places set in the distant past.

Opera singer Constance Collier as Cleopatra 1906 | Studio Davina •

Above: Constance Collier as Cleopatra, 1906

Assiut shawls started reaching Europe and America at the turn of the 20th century. Costume designers quickly adopted the cloth for use on the stage.  The gilded shimmer and shine of the foot-lights ignited the metal stitches epitomizing the wealth and standing of the characters. The cloth’s natural drape and flow made it an excellent choice for long body-skimming gowns. A knowledgeable audience would instantly recognize the fabric and accept the implied authenticity of the material. But above all, assiut was compelling to look at and evoked a standard of worldly taste that would appeal to a sophisticated world-traveled audience.

Above: Opera Singer Maria Jeritza c. 1910

Throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, Opera-goers enjoyed these orientalist themes.  But as their popularity expanded, vaudeville singers would pull individual songs from these high-brow productions to add a touch of class to their repertoire. Salome became such a popular and iconic figure to portray, that dancers would extract just the dance scene from Strauss’s opera to perform.  Sometimes it’s often difficult to separate the dancers from singers, just by looking at the surviving photos.  See some more of my Salome collection in this blog post.

Singer Lottie Collins c. 1912 | Studio Davina •

Above: Popular singer Lucia “Lottie” Collins as Salome, 1912

Both Maria Jeritza and Lucia “Lottie” Collins above wear costumes designed in the “Salome Style.”  This costume formula features a sheer skirt, circular bust plates, belt, and accessories made from pearls. This costume was so closely connected to the role of Salome, it’s easy to see these images and jump to the conclusion that these performers are dancers.  However, if you look carefully at Lottie above, you will see that she’s wearing a dance-preventing corset under her “pinks.”   Pinks were a full-body covering that would create the illusion of nudity under sheer costumes. To ensure the audience could see at a glance the performer was covered, pinks often didn’t match the performers’ skin.

Yvonne Gall as Herodiade | Studio Davina •

Above: French Opera Singer Yvonne Gall as Herodiade
For more information on Yvonne, check out this blog post

I look forward to catching an assiut clad “Cleo” or “Herodias” at a modern opera production. Until then, I will enjoy collecting postcards and ephemera.  Want to see more vintage images?  Check out this blog post “Actresses and Dancing Ladies” or “The Merry Widow.”

Happy Costuming!
Dawn Devine ~ Davina
August 8, 2018


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