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Women on Stage
In the Victorian era, women with any pretension to being ladies, wore long dresses down to the ground with petticoats and corsets. Bras had not been invented and they were allowed a lot of cleavage but never should show their ankles. Some women sufferered serious internal damage due to the habitual wearing of very tight corsets. There were also a significant number of deaths by burning due to their skirts catching alight at the open fires or on candles. The hooped layers of material with air between meant they were engulfed in flames very rapidly. In fact, Eliza Craigie, the mother of the infamous courtesan and dancer, LolaMontez, perished in this terrible manner.
I'll never forget the first time I ever handled a real Victorian corset. It was at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London on a City University alumni outing. A curator passed around this garment made of whalebone so that we could see just how heavy it was. Although we were warned about the weight, I nearly dropped it. I can appreciate why an opera singer could not wear one on stage. A lady was considered improperly dressed without her corset and the Church frowned on women appearing in operatic roles. An actress was considered immoral anyway and no doubt some were. Due to the poor pay and conditions, many had liaisons with rich gentlemen. A few married them.
As promised, here is a picture of Dita Von Teese wearing a corset. You will notice her narrow waist which the Victorians tried to achieve. A maid would often put her foot on her mistress's back to get enough leverage to pull the strings tight. Ladies could not eat a lot at dinner. Maybe corsets could be promoted as a slimming aid today!
Dita Von Teese
Photographer Danielle Bedics
Catherine Hayes ( also widely known as Kate or Caterina) was initially being trained as a concert singer and only decided she wanted to take up opera after she saw her first one in Dublin. She was encouraged by Luigi Lablache and others but not by Bishop Knox. However, she was a determined young lady and she overcame any opposition in Limerick and went on to become a star rated better than Maria Callas. She always appeared on stage dressed for the part when she sang an operatic aria.
In the early days of theatre, men took the female parts and no women were allowed on stage. In Australia, this practice carried on well into the 19th century and, even when women could perform, their husbands often vetoed it.