By Jess Dankenbring, '17
This past summer, Ama Ansah, ’16, spent her days sorting through antique dresses. As she examined a mink collar, magnificent train, or buttons down to the ankle, she thought how each gown told a different story. She loved imagining these women serving tea or entertaining, and the dresses gave her a glimpse into how these women lived.
Each of these stories played a part in Ansah’s research on the relationship between feminist movements and 19th century English actresses, with a focus on stage costume and persona.
“There was a bit of a domestic revolution in the late 19th century,” Ansah says. “As these women are having more free time and more leisure time, they are able to go out, do their shopping, go to the theater. And in this free time they realized how not free they truly are.”
She started to focus on how various actresses and actress organizations played a role in early feminist consciousness and how the systems of fashion on stage reflected society.
London offered various archives for Ansah’s research, including the Victoria and Albert Museum’s extensive costume collection and historic garments at the Clothworkers’ Centre. “I would spend a full day just sitting with all these different remnants of this time period that I find so fascinating and be able to peer into people’s lives that way,” she says.
At the Museum of London, Ansah had the opportunity to look at programs from the original production of Hedda Gabler that were annotated by people who had attended the play.
“It’s interesting to see how people interact with objects that we consider so mundane,” she says. “A lot of the time we go to a program and we get the little brochure and then we just toss it, or if we’re feeling really nostalgic we may stick it in a drawer. But you never think of that as something that somebody 100-plus years later is going to be looking at and mining for information.”
Ansah was also able to meet with Donatell Barbieri, who is a costume-based scenographer and scholar, as well as a research fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“We got to meet up and discuss costumes as an area of historic research,” Ansah says. “She was so enthusiastic about what she did, and it was just really inspiring.”
Barbieri also encouraged Ansah in her research. “It’s really nice to see that there’s someone else who’s interested in what you’re doing and is encouraging you to continue to do that,” Ansah says.
In addition to exploring historical garments and other 19th century theater objects, Ansah also studied playwright Henrik Ibsen, who wrote many plays expressing the discontent of women in domestic situations, and Elizabeth Robins, an actress, author, playwright and suffragist. Both had a connection to early feminist values that were being expressed at the time. Robins in particular led a fascinating, but not well-known life, and Ansah used her as a central piece of her research.
“We always want to put these historical figures on a pedestal, but really she was just having some of the same insecurities and the same struggles that we all have,” she says. “It’s a very human experience. That’s what I really liked about this research is being able to find these amazing historical figures who have not exactly been lost to history, but are not as well known as some of the others. I was able to see them not just for all the amazing things they did, but as themselves as well.”
The trip to London and exploring archives offered a fresh look at theater for Ansah. Her research was able to encompass her theatre and history double major, as well as her women, gender, and sexuality studies minor.
“I enjoyed getting to look at theater from a different perspective because normally I’m backstage, I’m helping with costumes, running around doing all this stuff,” she says. “But it’s also nice to be able to step back and go ‘this is the bigger context of what we’re doing.’”