Gabrielle Ray

'Gabrielle Ray said, 'I am always dancing; I love it! When I don't dance, I sing. What else is there to do?'

The Merry Widow Hat

The Merry Widow Hat

The Merry Widow ran for 778 performances from 8th June 1907 to 31st July 1909 [1] and such was the popularity of the Merry Widow that all the stalls for the final performance were sold for a guinea; one gentleman offering 30 guineas for a particular seat. [2]

The triumph of the Merry Widow was also a personal triumph for Lady Duff-Gordon (“Lucile”) who “dressed” many plays but said that this was her favourite. The Merry Widow Hat, which she designed for Lily Elsie brought in a fashion which carried the name of “Lucile,” its creator all over Europe and the States. Every woman who wanted to be in the swim had to have a “Merry Widow Hat,” Lucile made thousands of pounds through a craze which lasted longer than most fashion crazes, “for the charm of the play kept it alive.” [3] Lucile had insisted that the hats should be large and decorative enough to make an impact even from the gallery, but Elsie feared that they would merely look ridiculous, she worried that with the elaborate dresses and the costume jewellery it would be difficult to descent the stairs without falling; However, with practice she made her first entrance down the staircase at the Embassy in full costume looking and sounding incredible. [4] Elsie supposedly declared to Lucile, after the first performance of the Merry Widow that “it has been the greatest night of my life, and I owe it all to you!” and threw her arms round the designer. [5] 

The advances in technology and the evolving relationship between couturiers and the theatre enabled actresses to become “glorified fashion mannequins.” [6] Thanks to Lily Elsie’s promotion of the Merry Widow hat on stage and her fan’s desire to emulate her, this style of oversized, generously decorated headwear became extremely popular in both Europe and America. The Merry Widow hat was so prevalent that is commonly appeared in cartoons and postcards that gently mocked the absurdity and impracticability of the style. [7] (Fig. 1 – 3. Merry Widow parody postcard c 1908, Fig. 4. “Getting Over The Difficulty” – George Morrow, Punch 1908)

As well as the “gentle mocking” through humorous postcards various articles appeared, mostly “tongue in cheek” suggesting the difficulties encountered not just by the wearer of these oversized milliner’s creations but by the public in general. The Tamworth Herald reported that “the latest malady is the “Merry Widow” neck. Women get it from their continual efforts to maintain the balance of the “Merry Widow” hat. Men get it through attempting to dodge the “Merry Widow” hat.” [8] Whilst the Los Angles Herald suggested that sidewalks on Broadway and some of the other congested promenades might need to be widened to accommodate the hats worn this season, [9] and a few lines of verse were penned by “The Commoner” to the President (“Teddy” Roosevelt) complaining about the hats. [10] (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5. The County Record, 16th April 1908

Fig. 5. The County Record, 16th April 1908

Ridicule of the Merry Widow hat wasn’t only to be found in the newspapers as the Lincolnshire Echo reported, a magistrate in Prague fined a lady fifteen shillings after a man’s face was injured by “the long hat pins which projected from her enormous hat, remarking that there was no excuse for her as the Merry Widow hat was quite out of date.” [11]

Several churches also added their voice against the Merry Widow hat, The Reverend Sydney Goodman of an Atlantic City church said that “men do not want to be annoyed by the hats of women who come to services.” [12] Whilst the Reverend Day of a Methodist church in Albion couldn’t see how he could preach through those flowery gardens, where his sermons would surely lodge there and wondered whether a man could “be converted and saved while sitting behind a big hat.” [13] Cambridge, that city of academia believed that “Cambridge women seldom go to extremes in fashion, “The Merry Widow Hat” has not found favour here,” with a less than generous comment, “I hope it is not uncharitable bit I have always felt instinctively that the larger and more overweight the hat upon the head, the fewer and poorer were the brains inside.” [14]

Although the Merry Widow hat appears to have started a trend, Macqueen-Pope noted that large hats were “an issue” some years earlier where he observed “The Edwardian woman theatre-goer – or perhaps we should say, ladies who frequent the theatre intent on viewing the performance – were determined to look as different from their sisters as possible, whilst still remaining “in the framework” – as the phrase of today – of fashion. Two women who wore the same model of hat at the same time and place were immediately potential enemies. In Edwardian days, theatres and audiences alike believed in individuality.” [15]

Elsie and “Lucile” created a fashion trend that lasted well beyond them and after many of the Edwardian theatres aren’t even a distant memory, but their legacy is still evident today at many events such as weddings, funerals and large public gatherings like Royal Ascot where the Milliner’s art continues to demonstrate elegance (Fig 6), a style that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Edwardian theatre audience (Fig 7) and those that may be seen as outrageous and continue to draw comments from the press of today. (Fig 8)


[1] The Merry Widow Waltz

[2] Forbes-Winslow, D; (1944) “Daly’s – A Biography of a Theatre,” W.H. Allen & Co; London (p 78 – 79).

[3] Lady Duff-Gordon, (1932) “Discretions and Indiscretions,” Jarrolds, London, cited in Miss Lily Elsie accessed 30th June 2015

[4] Slattery-Christy, D; (2008) “Anything But merry! The life and times of Lily Elsie,” Author House, Milton Keynes (p 128)   

 [5] Lady Duff-Gordon, (1932) “Discretions and Indiscretions,” Jarrolds, London, (p 103) cited in Berlanstein, L.R; Schweitzer, M; Stowell, S; (2012), “Staging Fashion 1880 – 1920, Bard Graduate Centre; New York (p 132)

[6] Schweitzer, M; (2009) “Darn That Merry Widow Hat; The on – and offstage Life of a Theatrical Commodity, Circa 1907 – 1908,” Theatre Survey 50, No 2, (p 199) cited in Berlanstein, L.R; Schweitzer, M; Stowell, S; (2012), “Staging Fashion 1880 – 1920, Bard Graduate Centre; New York p 134)

[7] Berlanstein, L.R; Schweitzer, M; Stowell, S; (2012), “Staging Fashion 1880 – 1920, Bard Graduate Centre; New York p 134 – 135)

[8] Tamworth Herald, Saturday 18th July 1908.

[9] Los Angeles Herald, 22nd March 1908

[10] County Record, 16th April 1908

[11] Lincolnshire Echo, Friday 15th January 1909

[12] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Saturday 9th May 1908.

[13] Kentucky New Era, 22nd April 1908

[14] Cambridge Independent Press, Friday 30th October 1908

[15] Maqueen-Pope, W, (1947) “Carriages at Eleven, The Story of the Edwardian Theatre,” Hutchinson & Co;London. (p. 53 – 54)


July 3, 2015 - Posted by | Gabrielle Ray


  1. Very informative post !

    Comment by The Muscleheaded Blog | May 24, 2018 | Reply

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