A night at the opera

Going to the opera was a social occasion in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its popularity reflected the growing leisure time and wealth of the upper middle classes. Opera's strong associations with fashion, glamour and status are reflected in clothing, accessories, photographs and promotional materials in our collections.

In the 18th century, theatres were noisy and the aim was to see and be seen. Stages and auditoriums were lit from great chandeliers, making the audience as visible as the performers. Audiences would chat, walk around and play games. In fact, it wasn't unknown for ladies to have a game of cards during a performance. The aisles in the pit were known as 'Fops Alley' and young men would cruise up and down, flirting with women. There was standing room on stage for additional audience members, providing another distraction from the focus of the performance. People would stop talking during the arias – great show-pieces that everyone recognised – but would then resume their conversation, card game, or perusal of other members of the audience.

Watching the audience was as important as watching the stage. When electric lighting was first installed in the late 1800s and auditorium lights were lowered during the performance, opera audiences complained that they could not be seen. By the mid-19th century, opera glasses were an essential accessory for fashionable theatregoers. To satisfy the demand, manufacturers produced a range of beautifully made and exquisitely decorated models, many with a central focus wheel and two eye tubes that could be adjusted simultaneously.

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Opera glasses, 19th century. Museum no. S.320-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fashion designers competed to create luxurious attire for visits to the opera. Elegance and formality were paramount, leading to lavish cloaks, suits, hats and dresses. When the spring-loaded collapsible top hat was invented in France in 1840, it soon became known as the 'opera hat', due to the common practice of storing the hat, in its flattened state, under the seat during a performance.

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Opera hat, 1850 – 1859. Museum no. T.25-1946. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cloaks were popular with men and women. They protected the delicate fabrics of evening wear without the crushing effect of a standard coat, while also allowing a glimpse of the finery underneath. The most opulent cloaks incorporated luxurious linings and trimmings such as coloured silk, velvet and fur. One of the most sumptuous examples in our collections is a velvet, fur and metallic silk applique cape designed by Liberty's. The cape belonged to a woman named Mabel Rowe, and was given to her by her husband as a special gift. It was kept in the family through subsequent generations. Mabel Rowe's daughter, Cynthia Bosher, described watching her mother getting dressed up in the cape for visits to the ballet at the Royal Opera House in London.

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Opera Cloak, Liberty & Co. Ltd., 1928, England. Museum no. T.141-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

During the first few years of the 20th century, opera handbags became fashionable, often fitted with telescopic opera glasses, fans, and compact mirrors. A typical example can be found in our collections, complete with all its accessories. Made in France, this rectangular handbag, in beige leather with a cream silk lining, is fitted with a snap-fastening change purse at the top and a scalloped pocket below, which contains a leather-backed mirror, a bone note card, pencil, opera glasses, powder puff and embroidered silk fan.

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Handbag, Lemiere, 1910, France. Museum no. T.219 to F-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Getting the attention of the wealthy opera crowds required publicity. This was an important part of the opera-going experience, with materials, such as souvenir fans and posters, designed to generate audience loyalty and interest in upcoming performances. One such fan is printed with details of the boxes and the people who rented them for the 1800 season at the King's Theatre, London. The original King's Theatre burned down in 1789 and was rebuilt in 1792. The fan was printed to commemorate the opening of the new building.

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The Opera Fan, 1800, England. Museum no. S.1647-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado passed its 1000th performance at London's Savoy Theatre, the opera's producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte (who also built and owned the theatre), provided souvenir Japanese fans to celebrate the show's success. Relevant programme details, printed on fine paper, were glued to the fans which were supplied by Liberty's, who also provided the fabric for the drapes in the theatre.

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Souvenir Japanese fan commemorating The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre, 1896. Museum no: S.1210-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 20th century, as opera styles diversified, publicity material reflected changing creative and cultural moods. A poster advertising the third season of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1978, features a minimalist image of a tuxedo shirt and bow tie – a modern take on old-style glamour.

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Poster advertising the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Missouri, 1978, US. Museum no. S.898-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By contrast, a silk programme from 1966, produced for the premier of Samuel Barber's opera, Antony and Cleopatra at New York's prestigious Metropolitan Opera House, makes a playful nod to opera's past. Silk and satin programmes were regularly produced in the 18th and 19th centuries to mark special events in the theatre. The 1966 white silk programme, printed in black, red and yellow ink, with gold embellishments, maintains this tradition for a modern audience.

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Silk programme for Samuel Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1966. Museum no. S.1666-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London