By Kaitlyn Munro
We recently had the pleasure of conserving and preparing a beautiful old stage costume for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s upcoming exhibit: America’s Shakespeare. A reproduction of an 18th c style suit, this costume strives to be as sumptuous and elegant as it’s inspirations. The mauve and maroon cut velvet maple leaf pattern, surely a European import, commands the stage.
This natty three-piece suit was worn by the actress Ada Rehan. She was born in Limerick County, Ireland in 1859 and moved to the United States with her family when she was six. Her acting career started at a young age with some small roles.
Miss Rehan began acting with the famous Augustin Daly’s company in 1879. With Daly, her career was launched! W. Graham Robertson, costume designer for Daly’s Theatre and most likely designer of this costume said, “Daly must have been a great actor who could not act. He was rough and uncouth, with harsh utterance and uncultured accent; a singer without a voice, a musician without an instrument. But in Ada Rehan he found his means of self expression; Ada Rehan with her quaint charm, her voice of music, her splendid presence and her gentle good nature which he could mold to his will.”
In the late 19th c, she played the role of Viola in Twelfth Night and wore this exact costume for when Viola is in disguise as a young man named Cesario. In a review from 1893, The Chicago Tribune says her performance as Viola is “Shakespeare’s ideal”.
In order to be safely displayed, we completed a few conservation treatments. Over time, the jacket lining had shredded from rubbing against the metallic trim on the waistcoat. We needed to make sure the damaged interior, would be protected while on display. An additional protective lining of semi-sheer organza was stitched to the most damaged areas.
We also cleaned the lace cuff ruffles that had become yellowed, acidic and soiled. During this process, we discovered that they had most likely been dyed as part of the costume design, in order to tone down the bright white lace. This was clear after two cleanings, and the remaining distinct line in between outer visible ruffle and inner cuff.
We can’t help but imagine her wearing this while trying to woo Olivia with this speech:
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ’Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me. (I.v.237–245)
To see this marvelous costume in person,
you can visit the Folger Shakespeare Library from 4/7/16 to 7/24/16
More information about the exhibit can be found here.