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Opera - 400 years of style

23 June 2020

During the 400 year history of opera the focus has been on what was worn on the stage; here we bring you the other side of the story, what has the audience worn; a waltz through history. One of the frequently asked questions for all opera companies, including Welsh National Opera, is ‘what do you wear to the opera?'

This century, people are worried about what to wear and being seen but the problem in 18th century society was not being seen enough. You went to show off your latest dress, in fact when electric lights were introduced so the audience lights could be dimmed, there was uproar; what’s the point of going if no-one could see your new cloak? Also it made the card game you were playing really quite hard to see. There was the infamous ‘Fops alley’ where suitors flirted with suitees; many a heart was broken and a marriage proposal made. Of course everyone would hush when a famous aria was sung but all-in-all it was one big chaotic party.

The hugely helpful Victoria and Albert Museum in London gives us an insight into what would have been worn, ‘A typical outfit consisted of a full-skirted knee-length coat, knee breeches, a vest or long waistcoat, a linen shirt with frills and linen underdrawers. Lower legs showed and were an important part of the silhouette. Men wore silk stockings and leather shoes with stacked heels of low or medium height. The whole ensemble would have been topped by a shoulder-length full-bottomed wig and a tricorne (three-cornered) hat with an upturned brim.’ So to sum up: heels, wigs and get your calves out for the masses. As for the women it’s surprising they could even get through the door with the hoops in their skirts at the height of its popularity measuring 1.5 metres across (could be a useful measuring tool in post-lockdown times.)

Corsets and crinolines continued into the 19th century but this was all to change in the 1900s thanks to designer Paul Poiret who rid the female figure of the rigid tailoring and introduced loose draping. Which brings us up-to-date to the 21st century where thanks to #LastNightAtTheMet; a dedicated blog showing the gorgeous array of outfits that the audience don to an evening at the Met, we can see exactly what people wear.

Watching people pour through the doors you can see a whole slice of life from the very casual to the very opulent. The massive variety of the opera audience ultimately always reflects society at the time. From corsets to jeans the main thing we've established is as long as your ears are clear and your eyes are free of paraphernalia, you can sit back, enjoy the magic unfolding before you and forget what you're wearing entirely. As long as you are not wearing a Carmen Miranda style fruit basket on your head (we want other people to enjoy the show too!), we really don’t care what you wear; we just want to see your lovely faces in the auditorium again.