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Chapter IV: The Runway part a

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Fashion Shows, Strip Shows and BeautyPageants:

The Theatre of The Feminine Ideal

by

TARA MAGINNIS

Chapter IV: The Staging Context

The Intent of any kind of theatre performance is to manipulate the audience with thesensory content of the performance into feeling and thinking what the artists wish theperformance to convey. The negative side to this is described by Anita Block:"Theatre consciousness is the condition of being entranced by the glamour and theoften spurious trappings of the theatre--such as clever acting, smart dialogue, dazzlingcostumes and effective scenery-- into a drugged indifference to the values of the playcontent." The audience is most easily moved by those "trappings" which itdoes not consciously recognize as being part of the performance, since its critical focusis likely to be centered on what it sees as the "performance". Audience membersrarely question or analyze the theatre building itself as part of the performance unlessit intrudes upon their notice (as in the case of hard seats, poor sightlines or anextremely unusual playing space). Consequently the physical layout of the playing space ina theatre, unless abnormally awkward or intrusive, can have an enormous effect on theaudience's unconscious attitude toward the performance and the performers. Steven Josephin New Theatre Forms (1968), insists,

In a theatre, actors and audience meet each other at the moment of performance, they share the experience and each contributes something towards it. Real actors, acting in the presence of a real audience: this is the essence of theatre. In designing a theatre this meeting can be seized upon and developed so that the presence of the actor is more strongly felt and the contribution of the audience is increased.

Richard Southern has written:

Whenever you put on any sort of theatrical show the thing which matters most (on the material side) is not the scenery but the stage--its shape, its nature, and its relation to the audience...the stage affects the acting--it conditions the look and the `reach' and the concentration of a show; It can endow the actor, and thus the action, with an essential command of appeal.

Different stage shapes (and their relation to the position of the audience in thehouse) act upon audiences differently: an indoor proscenium theatre has a completelydifferent audience dynamic than an outdoor theatre-in-the- round. Other less drasticdifferences in theatre space also produce varying kinds of effects on audience reactionsto a performance. Performers also are obliged to work differently on different types ofstages, depending on their varying position in relation to the spectators.

Sociologists have given clues as to the way space, body position and distance betweenpeople affects the way audience members view performers. Edward T. Hall for example,describes the social values applied by Americans to certain distances between people asfalling into four main categories:

Intimate distance (0-1&1/2 feet), Personal distance (1&1/2-4 feet), Social/Consultive dis- tance (4-10 feet), and Public distance (10 or more feet).

These four categories of distance form the basis of the theoretical understanding ofspatial relationships between people both onstage and off. Hall describes some of the maincharacteristics of each of these distances and how they affect one's view of the personseen at that distance:

Intimate Distance The presence of the other person is unmistakable and may at times be overwhelming because of the greatly stepped-up sensory inputs. Sight (often distorted), olfaction, heat from the other per- son's body, sound, smell, and feel of the breath all combine to signal unmistakable involvement with another body. This is the distance of love-making...the high possibility of physical involvement is uppermost in the awareness of both persons.

Personal Distance ...the distance consistently separating the members of non-contact species [like humans]. The three dimensional quality of objects is particularly pronounced. Objects have roundness, substance and form...surface textures are also very prominent. Subjects of personal interest and involvement can be discussed at this distance.

Social Distance--Close Phase Details of skin texture and hair are clearly perceived. Impersonal business occurs at this distance. It is also a very common distance for people who are attending a casual social gather- ing. To stand and look down at this distance has a domineering effect.

Social Distance--Far Phase This is the distance to which people move when someone says, "Stand away so I can look at you." Business and social discourse....has a more formal character.

Public Distance--Close Phase Fine details if the skin and eyes are no longer visible. 60-degree scanning includes the whole body.

Public Distance--Far Phase Thirty feet is the distance that is automatically set around important public figures...there are certain adjustments that must be made, however. Most actors know that at thirty or more feet the subtle shades of meaning conveyed by the normal voice are lost as are the details of facial expression and movement...the nonverbal part of the communication shifts to gestures and body stance.

Runway stages have the almost unique facility of allowing the performer to create orannihilate distance between all four of these distance categories without having to leavethe stage. This is possible because of the runway's intimate proximity with the audience,and the stage proper's height and public distance from them. A performer, simply by movingforward onto the runway, or even, ultimately, lowering herself onto it at audience eyelevel, can travel through the areas of interactive distance from the "public"through to the "intimate." Southern comments:

It is useful for an actor to be able to create or annihilate distance between himself and his audience as he chooses...it is not so easy to achieve this sense of withdrawal and advance on a picture-frame stage. Here [on a thrust stage] we may have control of distance--acting back- wards and forwards; that is to say playing on different scales--large acting at the back, spread wide, coming to small acting at the front, pin-pointed and concentrated...here the actor has a most potent weapon offered him, the weapon of direct address. You are the object of that advance. For you he came forward; to you now he speaks.

The runway stage is, of course, a form of thrust stage, indeed the most extreme formsince it is generally too narrow to be used for conventional action, and is purely used asa method for advancing on the audience. The closest parallel in stage shape to the runwaystage is the hanamichi bridge (see fig. 4-1) in the Japanese Kabuki theatre, however, notthe less formal Western incursions into audience space like theatre-in-the-round. Runwayshave been used in Japanese theatre for centuries in order to bring performers physicallycloser to the audience, without putting the performers on the same level or destroyingtheir stature and glamour.

Forms of Western theatre staging like theatre-in-the- round have made use of incursionsinto audience space in order to increase the intimacy and physical reality of theperformance, but this incursion is usually accomplished by positioning actors in theaudience seating area or having them make their entrances through the aisles/vomitoria atthe level of the audience. While this can increase the intimacy and/or the reality of theperformance, it also diminishes the stature (both literal and figurative) of theperformer, by putting him on an equal footing in relation to the audience:

"Subway" entrances lack the dramatic effectiveness of the hanamichi and do not possess its varied possibilities for use, since they are not part of the stage, not platforms, but simply doorways, allowing access to the stage without the possibility of exhibiting the actor.

The hanamichi bridge of Kabuki theatre however, does put the actor "onexhibit" so to speak. While the bridge extends out into the audience area from thestage to the back of the house, it does so at a level elevated to audience head height.This allows the performer to make close physical contact without losing stature. On thecontrary, with the dazzling glare of troughlights on the performer, and the performerwalking with feet at the level of the audience's heads, the performer seems towering andalmost super-human. Leonard Cabell Pronko in Theatre East and West observes:

The hanamichi cannot be compared with Western forms of central staging, or with Western uses of the theatre aisles or even with the strategic placement of theatre seats for interaction among actors in different parts of the auditorium and/or on the stage, because the hanimichi is always a platform related to, but set apart from, the stage. It does not put the actor on the same level as the spectator, thus destroying the actor's distance and glamour. The Kabuki runway brings the actor into very close rapport with the audience, but it guarantees him at the same time his own place as an artist and creator of theatre magic.

However, there is one very important difference between the Hanimichi bridge and thetype of runways most commonly used in stripshows, fashion shows and beauty competitions:The Kabuki runway is used for exits and entrances only, and it is connected to the back ofthe theatre to allow for this. The runways used in strip, fashion and beauty shows usuallyconnect only to the stage, and are used solely as a means to annihilate distance in themanner Southern recommends. Performers coming forward on this type of runway have no otherpurpose in using it than to demonstrate to the spectators that "You are the object ofthat advance. For you he [or she] came forward." This physical arrangement allowsperformers using the runway to control the heightening of physical intimacy with theaudience while actually adding stature, and glamour. This naturally can contribute toidealizing the performer into an abstract superhuman image that is made to seem physicallylarger, taller and more overwelhming by virtue of the performer's physical position inrelation to the audience. Since this is what strip, fashion and beauty shows try to do,the raised runway has an obvious advantage over other types of staging for these forms.

Runway staging was not common in American theatre until it was used regularly infashion shows. At present it is used quite routinely in fashion shows, strip shows andbeauty pageants. Modern strip show stages are usually small (because they are located inbars and clubs) and now include a metal pole at the end of the short runway. Fashion showstages are tremendously varied in type, but still most often use a single medium lengthrunway attached (forming a T) to a small stage with steps. Large beauty pageants sometimeshave a very long runway (Miss America contestants go down a 140 foot platform) extendingfrom a large stage, usually in a T-shaped configuration.

Since most runway stages are attached to a traditional proscenium "stageproper," this form of stage also has the uses and advantages of a proscenium stagefor the maintenance of public distance. Even in an ordinary proscenium space, the bright,active, noisy, magical performance space of the stage, totally overwhelms the dark,inactive, silent, ordinary observing place of the audience. Donald Kaplan likened theaudience area of such a theatre to a stomach, passively awaiting the actors performancelike predigested food coming through the mouth-orifice of the proscenium arch. As thetheatre fills up and the performers prepare to go on, a voracity in the auditorium isabout to be regulated from the stage by an active exercise of some kind of prescribedskill. In such a context, the runway can be likened to spoon- feeding the hungry audience.

Raised runway stages use the proscenium dynamic of distance and then use the platformextending out into the audience to violate that distance with sudden intimacy. Thisactually heightens the proscenium's overpowering effect on the audience, by theencroachment of the performer's space/power into traditional audience space.

Before fashion shows, burlesque, and beauty pageants began to employ runways as part oftheir staging, these three forms of theatre simply employed staging that didn't require arunway. Each form used a different type of playing area than the other two. Runways ineach case appear to have been employed first in order to provide a larger quantity ofseating where audience members could get a closer look at the clothes (or the girls'flesh, depending on the type of performance). The three sections of this chapter willexamine why a stage with a runway was a superior playing space to the previous playingareas for these three forms of theatre and how the performers in each area have made useof the runway to heighten the impact of their performances.

Runway Staging and Fashion Shows

Before runways came to be used in fashion shows, most shows were either staged byparading models through the aisles of seats, allowing patrons a close look at thematerials of the garments, or within a decorated proscenium stage, which offeredopportunities for the glorification of the models and gowns. In order to gain oneadvantage the other was automatically lost. Innovative producers like "Lucille"Duff-Gordon often attempted to combine these two forms of staging in order to work aroundthis problem. Lucille's salon shows began with models framed (and "glorified")on a lit stage, from which they descended to audience level in order to show their gownsin better detail (see fig. 4-2).

Good as this was, it obviously was not as effective as maintaining glamour at the sametime as showing detail. As soon as the model descended she lost some of her physicaldominance and magic. With the runway added to a stage, or standing on its own, she lostnothing; she could be seen better by more people, while at the same time appearing on ahigher plane in both the prosaic and metaphoric sense. Early runway shows in departmentstores generally impressed customers who had previously been invited to couture showingslike Lucille's, even when the early models had problems adjusting to the demands ofwalking onto a runway:

The orchestra struck a discord in true Turkish style. The curtains parted. Inside the doorway, an alcove hung in scarlet satin was flooded with dazzling light, concentrated upon a figure that...seemed to be out of the "Arabian Nights"...The Spectator gave his critical attention to Paul Poiret's latest vagary, amid a buzz of interest rising from the packed audience. She slithered down the steps with a balancing, careful motion---The Spectator noticed that all the models found difficulty in getting down those steps with dignity---and paraded swaying along the narrow platform. One evening gown after another...posed in the fierce light and descended the steps...like a group of proud and painted peacocks curiously removed from humanity, the models moved back and forth on the winding platform, and the crowd massed and augmented behind the seats. "I saw the models in Paris this summer," said a dressmaker behind the Spectator. "They had a small stage and music at Lucille's, but nothing like this."

Impressive as this show seemed to the Spectator and dressmaker, it is obvious that themodels had some difficulties traversing the narrow runway stage and the steps leading toit. After runway shows became more common, however, models developed a method of moving onthe runway that is still used today:

There are certain basic model's skills. There is, of course, that walk, expendable for studio work but crucial for the runway. Everyone knows the stride: the funny lope where one foot goes directly, precisely, in front of the other, as if trying to crush a slow moving beetle with one toe.

The tightly narrow walking style "where one foot goes directly, precisely, infront of the other," is standard practice for traversing a runway. It is so standardthat models can now perform it with little rehearsal time, and only cryptic diagrammatic"scripts":

The show's called for 11:00 A.M. and the models must arrive between 8:00 A.M. and 9:00 A.M. From eight to ten, "We work the girls," says Arceneaux. This amounts to a quickie run- through based on the show's script...Arceneaux instructs the models where to enter, where to walk, to count to ten as they stop in certain parts of the stage to "work the clothes," and when to return. Each model has a rack of clothes, each with a card prepared by Arceneaux indicating by color whether to enter stage left or stage right. It carries a diagram with arrows showing the step- by-step route onstage as Arceneaux noted previously.

These diagrams include a kind of standard modeling shorthand for the usual moves:

1/2 T ....One-Half Turn

3/4 F.T.S...Three-Quarter French Turn (Sway)

E.T.....European Turn

C.T.....Carousel Turn

P.4....Pivot Four

M.P....Model's Pivot

3/4-1/2 T...Three-Quarter Half Turn

A diagram using these abbreviations may look like this:

RUNWAY FORMAT A

Audience

Enter..5.E.T. 3.1/2 T. 1.E.T. 4.P.4. 2.T.3/4-1/2 Aud. ...Exit or C.T.------------------------------------------------------

Audience

This translates to the following:

1. Walk to the middle of the ramp and do an easy European turn. 2. Walk down to the end, and do a smooth Carousel Turn or a Triple Three-Quarter Half Turn. 3. Walking just past the center, do a Half Turn. 4. Finish up with four steps for a Pivot Four, which, of course, is another Half Turn with four steps between. 5. Walk down to the stair end of the ramp, do a smooth European Turn and go off.

These techniques of walking and moving in a tight straight line that will fit on anarrow runway (even two abreast) were described in books on modeling as early as the1930's and 1940's when modeling agencies and schools started emerging and standardizingmodeling techniques:

Here is how to do a half turn. We shall start with a left pivot. Place your left foot directly in front of you, toe pointed about two inches to the left. Place your right foot in front of, and at right angles to, your left toe so that the instep of your right foot is approximately one and one half inches from the toe of your left. Any variation of this placement results in an incorrect pivot. After you have the correct position, raise both heels about an inch from the floor and turn on both toes until you are facing in the opposite direction.

This very tight, unnatural method of turning is still in use today, because it is theonly graceful way to turn on a narrow platform. This style of turning, however, is carriedover into fashion shows which take place on larger staging areas, simply because withrunways the most common staging pattern, the style of movement adopted for the runway isseen as the standard method for modeling. These methods came into use because of theattendant difficulties of models moving abreast on a runway without knocking one anotheroff the stage while doing turns. Diehl in How To Produce A Fashion Show points outthat the most common shape of a fashion show stage provides physical difficulties for themodels traversing it:

The T-Shaped Runway---gets its name from the "T" formed by the stage and runway at right angles to each other. While it is the most common shape, it is also the simplest; Unless the runway is built wide, it is difficult for two models to appear abreast or pass each other. A simple variation on this shape is to butt a platform or widened area at the foot to allow several models to appear there simultaneously or to give them space to make wide turns (a good idea when wide full-length skirts are being shown).

There is, of course, an enormous variation in the type of runway stages used by fashionshows, much more so than in beauty pageants and strip shows. Apart from the simplerunway-only style stage shown in the diagram on page 270, and the T-shaped runways whichare most common (see fig. 4-3) are variations (see fig. 4-4) on the T, Y, X, and I shapes:

The Y-Shaped Runway---two runway arms are placed at angles to the stage, either abutting it or branching out from a connecting runway, to form a "Y" shape. It has the advantage over the T- shaped runway with a very large audience. The model can traverse the entire "Y", which gives a fairly close view of the show pieces to all parts of the audience. Since it is longer...groups of models should appear in close order...walking both arms of the "Y" simultaneously.

"T" and "Y" Variations---varying these basic patterns is an easy way to add an element of interest to a show. The long arm of the T- shaped runway can be zigzagged for a new twist. Or the "T" can be up-ended, with models walking straight down the long arm to the perpendicular crosspiece at the end---the platform or stage area being on the audience side rather than the stage side.

An "X" or cross can be formed by adding angled center sections. Another type of runway uses the theatre in the round principle to involve the audience in the show. A platform is set up in the center of the audience where clothes can be seen from all sides simultaneously.

While fashion shows are often still performed either on a proscenium stage or byparading through the aisles, runways are the common staging of choice, and they areconsidered by fashion coordinators to be the staging plans which are the most dramatic andimpressive to an audience. This can be explained through the understanding of people'sreactions to various distances when observing models as artistic objects. Maurice Grosserin The Painter's Eye sees that:

At more than thirteen feet away...the human figure can be seen in it's entirety as a single whole...we are chiefly aware of it's outline and proportions...and see him as something as having little connection with ourselves. At this distance whatever meaning or feeling the figure may convey is dominated...by the position of the members of the body.

And to begin with, that is the way the designer wishes the audience to view the modelwearing the clothes. The first audience reaction desired, is that of a critical observerof the "outline and proportions" of the clothing, not a personal reaction to themodel as a human being. So the model is posed briefly on the stage proper at publicdistance (done as early as the Poiret fashion show mentioned earlier) for a preliminarydistancing effect, before launching the model out on the runway into the area of socialdistance where her stage personality can "sell" the clothes in a more personalway. Grosser describes the effect of this closer distance when used in art:

Four to eight feet is the portrait distance...near enough so that his eyes have no trouble in understanding the sitter's solid forms. Here, at the normal distance of social intimacy and easy conversation, the sitter's soul begins to appear.

There is however a limit to the closeness which is comfortable while trying to view aperson (even clothed) artistically:

At touching distance, the sitter's personality is too strong. The influence of the model...too disturbing...touching distance being not the position of visual rendition, but of motor reaction of some physical expression of sentiment, like fisticuffs, or the various acts of love.

Obviously, at intimate distance the model's physical bodily presence would completelyovershadow the clothes, and so she remains standing on the runway, always remaining atleast at social distance from audience members. This confirms and supports her role as aperson of high social standing, cool, distant, and on a pedestal. Her behavior on therunway may be smiling and friendly, but always at a distance that allows her to retain herglamour and dignity as an idealized figure.

As a result, even the slow-to-change Parisian couture industry has finally turned torunway shows for the launching of their "collections." Mikel Rosen in Fashion 86declared that "The majority of the competitive fashion world feel it is necessary tolaunch their designs by presenting their collections in the form of a show on acatwalk." Part of the reason for adopting this more dramatic theatrical form is sothe designer may display a coherent theatrical concept/context for the clothes.

Whether volatile or staid, a runway show illustrates a designer's individual aesthetic universe. Once sold, clothes are displayed in stores in ways that are out of a designer's control. They're bought by women who wear them in their own style. Only on a runway can a fashion designer present fashion as he ideally envisions it.

Rosen describes two contrasting "concepts" used by British designers in 1985,and the staging used to create them:

Roland Klein Each model girl was booked for having the same look, with scraped back hair and the same color red lipstick---one face merged with another and did not overpower the clothes. To create a feeling of space the runway was extended...the audience viewed the clothes from the left and right. Almost like being around a boxing ring. The models stormed or glided down the catwalk from a tunnel effect at the end. From a gap in the distance they came towards you and the power of the color hit you immediately.

From this deliberately aggressive show, styled to "hit" the audience with thedesigns worn by carbon copy models who "stormed" along a "boxing ring"stage, we go to Rosen's account of a show which seems to have a self- conscious theme offriendliness and universal harmony:

Wendy Dagworthy The models danced up and down the catwalk in an entertaining way, getting off on the music, finding each other along the way, making a friend and having a dance. The clothes looked like fun to wear. The models are now joined into small tribes---the blonde girls, the dark girls and the men. They enter the stage as a coordinated unit and then break apart to mix and match with other partners to show how the clothes can be worn by a whole population.

This second show seems to satisfy the contention made by Nadine Frey in "RunawayShows," about the purpose of having a fashion show: Fashion shows are invertedtheatre:

a commercially targeted performance art where the seats are free but almost everything onstage is for sale. More than just a walking 3-D wardrobe, fashion shows are a seamless sales pitch, a kind of giant mood ring, in which atmosphere and wares pull together to convey a designer's utopian, hence fully clothed, world.

Obviously, in a fashion-show world the central focus is usually on the women in it.Designers, when asked to "explain" their shows and clothing collectionsinvariably use the same words (or most properly, word) year after year: "I think thatglamour is back, femininity is back"- -Adrienne Vittadini; "I like very femininewomen--That's the ideal woman in my mind"--Caroline Roehm; "It's very feminineand very summery and softer"--Marc Bohan. "The big mood for me this season isfemininity"--Adrienne Vittadini; "Very feminine, amusing, fun clothes--sexyclothes"--Oscar De La Renta; "Clothes that feel great and a lot morefeminine"--Donna Karan. "It's adventurous femininity, elegance and Frenchchic"--Lolita Lempiicka and "It's a very feminine season"--Eric Javits.This isn't just a case of reading the same old rehearsed lines every time."Femininity" is the concept that designers are called upon to perpetuallyre-design. This is why designers go to such trouble to stage fashion shows. In order tosell the clothes, they must define them as part of a desirable image. And a runway fashionshow, with its elevated staging plan, helps designers exhibit the ideal"feminine" image embodied in a model of their choice, by glamorizing andshowcasing the performers in their "utopian" clothes.

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"The Costumer's Manifesto"
by Tara Maginnis