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The Dollar Princess

August 5, 2008

In amongst our old family photos is this old souvenir postcard of a show called The Dollar Princess. On the back, in faded ink, someone has scrawled “Jessie worked as a dresser for the show the Dollar Princess”. Jessie was my greatgrandmother. I don’t know very much about her apart from how beautifully wistful she looked in photos:

I wonder what a dresser in the Edwardian theatre world would have done? (Does anyone know?) I imagine it would have been a bit like being a Wardrobe Assistant today. I suppose as well as helping actors into their costumes, it would probably have entailed looking after, cleaning and mending outfits and ensuring they were in the right place when required. What costumes greatgrandmother would have had to look after! The wardrobe for The Dollar Princess was designed by top Edwardian couturiere Lucile (or Lady Duff Gordon, survivor of the sinking of the Titanic and credited with inventing the concept of the fashion show). The show opened on 25th September 1909 in London and ran for 428 performances at Daly’s Theatre. The story is basically that of a young American oil tycoon who, when recruiting domestic staff, takes on a succession of impoverished members of the European aristocracy. His sister, who of course has money, later follows the course of true love and takes a job in another household pretending to be impoverished – ‘The Dollar Princess’. This sister was played by one of the rising stars of the Edwardian Stage, Miss Lily Elsie. (There is a fascinating website on Elsie here to which I am indebted to for a lot of the information on this page.)

Lady Duff Gordon writes in her autobiography that she was asked to give Elsie a kind of “makeover”, and having propelled her to stardom made all her clothes:

I shall never forget the day when George Edwardes brought in Lily Elsie to see me for the first time. But she was a very different Lily Elsie from the glorious creature whose beauty was to be the talk of every club in London. The girl who came in with George Edwardes was trembling with nervousness as she moved across the room. I had to look again to discover that her hair was a wonderful shade of gold and that her skin, which was innocent of make-up, was of the real lilies-and-roses type… George Edwardes drew me aside and explained that this was the new girl whom he was putting into the principal part of ‘The Merry Widow’ and that he wanted me to design the dresses for the production, particularly for her…’Now this is where you can help me enormously. You must give her a personality and coach her so that she can keep it up’….I promised to do my best and I started right away by asking her to take off her dress and hat and by making her stand in front of me in her satin slip, while I made a mental picture of her. I discovered first that she had beautiful lines, then that her head was perfectly poised, and thirdly that she had the gift of standing absolutely still for as long as one wanted her to stand. I was at Daly’s on that triumphant first night of ‘The Merry Widow’ when everyone was acclaiming the new star whom Edwardes had discovered. Lily Elsie was generous in her praise of me and thanked me for the help and inspiration I had given her…’It has been the greatest night of my life and I owe it all to you!’ she cried, throwing her arms impulsively round my neck when I went into her dressing room afterwards…From that day I designed all her clothes both for the stage and in private life and some of my most successful models were created for her, for once she had ‘found herself’ she wore them so charmingly that every woman who saw them wanted to have them copied…”

from Discretions and Indiscretions by Lady Duff Gordon

Here is Lily Elsie wearing one of the gowns Lucile designed for The Dollar Princess:

Accounts of the show in newspapers took pains to offer the eager reader detailed descriptions of the costumes (before television was invented the theatre was a the place to see the latest fashions). I wonder if the photo above is the dress mentioned that appears in Act III:

Act I. An extremely attractive frock fashioned in pale blue satin. The over-skirt of satin is most gracefully draped, the soft folds being gathered into three loose knots, below which a filmy under-robe of fine gauze is revealed. The soft pink and white of the gauze contrast delicately with the pale blue over-dress, and is softly swathed and gathered to form the corsage of the frock.

Act II.A dainty blue toilette, again fashioned in the form of an over-dress. The soft frills and folds of the lace under-robe are extremely pretty, and the touch of perfection is given by the large pink rose which adorns the corsage.

Act III.An exquisite gown of palest shell pink heavily pailletted, with which a soft veil of pale blue gauze drapes the shoulders.

I wonder how strange and funny greatgrandmother would have thought it that I envy her the chance to have touched, mended and had 428 performances to get thoroughly fed up with amazing creations made by one of the great Edwardian couturieres. What stories she would have told about how often she had to sew paillettes and beads back on, the (fictional) night that Elsie ripped a hole in her hem during the ball scene and had to have it patched up in the interval, and what questions I would have asked.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2008 4:37 pm

    What a fascinating post! I really admire how thorough your research is. What a lucky relative you have, I would love to do the modern equivalent and work on costumes in film.

  2. October 30, 2011 6:56 pm

    There is a very interesting book, Theatre & Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes, (1994) by Joel Kaplan and Sheila Stowell which discusses Lady Duff Gordon’s impact on fashion through what they term “mannequin parades” such as The Dollar Princess. I am sure that the author’s wished they had that great postcard!

    • October 30, 2011 10:05 pm

      Griffith, I actually own the book you mention- bought it a little while after writing this particular post. It is indeed a fascinating book- I remember the chapter called “Dressing Mrs Pat” particularly. (I suppose film has taken over relationship with fashion that theatre once had.)
      By the way, don’t you wish someone would reprint Lady Duff Gordon’s Discretions and Indiscretions? It seems impossible to get hold of a copy!

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