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Much ado about a dress

By Kathleen Telling

Rosalind Iden’s gown and the character it plays

Houston Rogers (British, born South Africa, 1901–1970). Rosalind Iden, ca. 1945/ Gelatin silver print. Donald Wolfit Papers, Harry Ransom Center.
Houston Rogers (British, born South Africa, 1901–1970). Rosalind Iden, ca. 1945/ Gelatin silver print. Donald Wolfit Papers, Harry Ransom Center.

William Shakespeare’s contributions to the English literary tradition can be neither overstated nor exaggerated. On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, the Ransom Center pays tribute to the life and canon of Shakespeare, as well as to the innumerable performances and interpretations his works launched, in our current exhibition Shakespeare in Print and Performance. One of our visitors’ favorite features of our current exhibition is the “guide by cell” audio tour. This audio tour lets visitors call in and hear informational snippets about the items on display. Ransom Center Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts Gerald Cloud and Cline Curator of Theater and Performing Arts Eric Colleary narrate.

 

Here, listen to Eric Colleary reflect on the wine-red dress worn by actress Rosalind Iden in the Donald Wolfit Shakespeare Company’s performance of Much Ado About Nothing. Much like Beatrice, Hero, and Benedick, the dress is a character in and of itself. Alterations and additions reveal adaptations to each new production and actress. Stage directions and personal tastes can be read in each stitch.

 

On Saturday, April 23, the date of Shakespeare’s death, visit the Ransom Center for treats in the lobby, a 20 percent discount on Shakespeare merchandise in our museum store, and enter to win a Shakesepeare-themed gift basket!

 

The Ransom Center offers free daily docent-led exhibition tours at noon, with additional tours at 6 p.m. on Thursdays and 2 p.m. on the weekends. Shakespeare in Print and Performance runs through May 29.

 

 

Unidentified maker. A gown worn by Rosalind Iden in the role of Beatrice in <em>Much Ado about Nothing</em>, ca. 1945. Textile, metal, and glass. Donald Wolfit Costume Collection, Harry Ransom Center<br /> Links from a gold-tone necklace owned by Rosalind Iden are sewn around the neckline of this gown. All of the costumes in the Wolfit archive bear marks of extensive wear, reuse, and repair, reflecting the constant use and hectic schedule of Wolfit’s touring company. Because the company’s costumes were largely created or chosen for ease in traveling and interchangeability with various productions, they were not renowned for their opulence, innovation, or craft. Critic Caryl Brahms described a visit to the costume storage at Wolfit’s offices as “a stock of dip-in-and-grab-one costumes ‘suitable for Shakespeare’ [that] are in a constant state of being repaired.”
Unidentified maker. A gown worn by Rosalind Iden in the role of Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, ca. 1945. Textile, metal, and glass. Donald Wolfit Costume Collection, Harry Ransom Center
Links from a gold-tone necklace owned by Rosalind Iden are sewn around the neckline of this gown. All of the costumes in the Wolfit archive bear marks of extensive wear, reuse, and repair, reflecting the constant use and hectic schedule of Wolfit’s touring company. Because the company’s costumes were largely created or chosen for ease in traveling and interchangeability with various productions, they were not renowned for their opulence, innovation, or craft. Critic Caryl Brahms described a visit to the costume storage at Wolfit’s offices as “a stock of dip-in-and-grab-one costumes ‘suitable for Shakespeare’ [that] are in a constant state of being repaired.”
A program for “Scenes from Shakespeare,” ca. 1950s. Donald Wolfit Papers, Harry Ransom Center<br />In his autobiography, Wolfit identified this image as a production of <em>Much Ado about Nothing</em> at the Royal Opera House, Cairo, in 1945. <em>Much Ado</em> was a staple of the Shakespeare recitals given by Wolfit and his wife and leading lady Rosalind Iden. In the recitals, the encounters between Benedick (played by Wolfit) and Beatrice (played by Iden) were presented in costume, but without blocking or sets. The gown on display does not have the neck ruff shown here, nor does it have beads and other embellishments that were added to the dress later.
A program for “Scenes from Shakespeare,” ca. 1950s. Donald Wolfit Papers, Harry Ransom Center
In his autobiography, Wolfit identified this image as a production of Much Ado about Nothing at the Royal Opera House, Cairo, in 1945. Much Ado was a staple of the Shakespeare recitals given by Wolfit and his wife and leading lady Rosalind Iden. In the recitals, the encounters between Benedick (played by Wolfit) and Beatrice (played by Iden) were presented in costume, but without blocking or sets. The gown on display does not have the neck ruff shown here, nor does it have beads and other embellishments that were added to the dress later.

 

 

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