The Merry Widow: Trend-maker

23 November 2011 | By Annie Carroll

The Merry Widow’s romantic, extravagant aesthetic thoroughly captures the popular imagination, be it in operetta, ballet or film. Annie Carroll looks at the fads the Widow has inspired.

On what must have been a bitingly cold Viennese evening in the December of 1905, Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow had its very first performance. Lehár, a relatively unknown composer, managed to convince Vienna’s prestigious Theatre An der Wein to premiere his work. It didn’t take long for dubious producers and audiences to be won over by the lush, melodious score and romantic libretto. The production enjoyed huge success throughout Europe before finding its way to American shores in 1907.

The New Amsterdam Theatre in New York hosted the operetta’s Broadway premiere. Despite American audiences’ patriotic preference for home-grown works, The Merry Widow became a stateside phenomenon, sparking new trends in fashion and dance and even giving its name to liqueurs and cigars. The Merry Widow as brand was born.

The fashion silhouette established in 1907-1908 had women dressing in long, slender, hourglass outlines that tapered to the feet. This tailored look was contrasted with the crown of a large, circular hat made popular by the London designer Lucile’s creation for The Merry Widow’s heroine, Hanna Glawari. Of all the fashion styles precipitated by the operetta, none was as popular as Lucile’s design, which quickly became known as the ‘picture hat’. Renditions of the hat were often made in black straw, covered in swathes of gauzy chiffon and festooned with black and white ostrich feathers. The public became so enamoured with the picture hat that Lucile’s design remained popular for years afterwards.

The style grew increasingly dramatic, with some hats reaching widths up to 18 inches and decorated with sensational trimmings  – sometimes whole stuffed birds. (Even the most fashionable women began to complain about the impracticalities of the vogue.) The famed hat was seen on special delivery stamps designed by New York architect Whitney Warren, in what has to be the most artistic design ever rendered for a United States stamp.

Corsets were much sought-after by women keen to replicate The Merry Widow’s wasp-waisted silhouette; however, another trend rose to counter it – the corset-free look popularised by the designer Paul Poiret and the dancers of the Ballets Russes. As the twenties dawned, the structured shape of the operetta’s corset-and-hat combination gave way to the soft drapes and modernistic lines popularised by Poiret.

The Widow was to have her day again in the 1950s, however, when the 1952 film version of The Merry Widow, starring a hyper-hourglassed Lana Turner, ignited a feverish fad around the eponymous corset. Again, the extremes of Widow fashion proved wearing: Turner famously proclaimed: “I’m telling you – ‘The Merry Widow’ was designed by a man. A woman would never do that to another woman.”

Clothing trends weren’t the Widow’s only legacy. The softly swaying Viennese waltz that was the backbone of Lehár’s hit meant that the ballroom waltz was the most hoped for crowd-pleaser in every new operetta. The dance style became the order of the night, dominating all manner of social gatherings. The waltz took on various forms – formal or relaxed, classical or romantic, stage or even street. Born from sweeping, sensuous movement, the Viennese waltz permeated society from the most aristocratic level to the most humble. The Viennese operettas that followed swept the world; however Lehar’s The Merry Widow remains the superlative operetta, rivaled only by Johan Strauss’ Die Fledermaus in the frequency of its performances.

Just like today’s avant-garde and athletic dance works, the Viennese operettas stand as a testament to the time and place in which they were conceived. Lehar’s The Merry Widow, and all the cultural firestorms it ignited, still remains at the heart of every interpretation made of the operetta, including Robert Helpmann and Ronald Hynde’s luscious ballet production.

Be the latest to fall for The Merry Widow’s sumptuous appeal – get tickets for our seasons in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra