Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!

For the final scene of the film version of Evergreen

Trying to cram two lives into an evening concert is a challenge, and in writing Over My Shoulder about the lives of Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie Matthews, I inevitably had to leave out a lot of lovely detail. One of subjects there wasn’t space for was their wardrobes and the outfits that caused a stir.

In my show I quote director Victor Saville who said “Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!” in reply to press comment on Jessie’s scanty outfits in one of his films. His response was to commission the silver sequinned bodysuit on the left for the next film.

Jessie was famous for wearing clothes that left little to the imagination, and not always by design. In Evergreen she had accidentally gone onstage one evening having forgotten the special skin-coloured leotard that should have been worn under her chiffon pyjamas. The audience saw rather more of her at that performance than they expected.

Chiffon was ideal for Jessie’s dresses because she loved to exploit the fabric’s floatiness as she moved, as in this video of Dancing On The Ceiling from the film of Evergreen (this sequence is 1’10” in if you are watching the whole film).

Elisabeth Schumann’s concert attire was generally more sober, although she did create a sensation in a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in Vienna. It being a midday concert, an evening gown was not appropriate and Elisabeth felt that the purple dress she finally agreed on was still rather too smart. So she ‘softened’ it with the addition of a matching hat. This startling choice attracted as much press attention as her singing: “ES made an entrance…as if she had just popped in from a stroll on the Ringstrasse for a moment, to sing about the heavenly life. With a hat. Let us hope that (Richard) Mayr will not appear for the Ninth in a top hat…”

Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

History doesn’t record what the conductor, Bruno Walter, thought of Elisabeth’s outfit and sadly I haven’t been able to find a photo of it. But I particularly like this one of her and Richard Strauss, with whom she toured the US in 1921. Elisabeth appears in many publicity shots in a fur coat and holding her favourite pet dog, Sorry (so named after the English habit of apologising, which she found hilarious). This lovely shot seems to catch her mid-rehearsal and more relaxed in her casual clothes.