Curator's Choice: Pauline Chase's 1913 Peter Pan costume at the Museum of London

By Chris Broughton | 11 December 2009
A photo of a middle-aged woman holding an ancient pair of dance shoes with blue gloves

Curator's Choice: In her own words... Beatrice Behlan of the Museum of London dusts off Pauline Chase's 1913 Peter Pan costume

"I do like beautiful lace and gowns and so on but I'm usually drawn to the more bizarre items, and this is quite unusual. It’s a theatre costume from the early 20th century and you don't get too many of those.

It was worn by an actress called Pauline Chase, who played Peter Pan 1,400 times in London and Paris between 1904 and 1914. The jacket is suede and the wings are silk and netting. I love the silly little balsa wood dagger – it’s really lightweight, not at all like a real dagger.

The costume in the picture isn't exactly the one we have - the shoes are slightly different. If you look on the internet there are pictures of Chase in other costumes as Peter Pan, but I like to think the dagger was a constant.

The shoes are well worn. They're fabric, and seem to have been painted rather than dyed - you can see the dabs of paint inside. At first, I thought the cotton "veins" on them were some sort of decoration, but now I suspect they might have held something, perhaps leaves.

But I think what I like almost more than the costume itself is Pauline Chase's story. She was born in 1885 and became an actress when she was 14 – she was American, but met an English impresario who brought her over here. She first played Peter Pan when she was about 20.

A picture of a black and white portrait postcard picture of a dancer

Chase played Peter Pan 1,400 times in London and Paris between 1904 and 1914

Chase was acting as understudy when the actress who played Pater Pan became ill, so she had to step in. She was only the third person who ever played the part and ended up doing so for 10 years. She was very, very beautiful, a real poster girl. Because of her slight physique and blond hair, they called her the Pocket Venus of New York.

Chase herself wrote that children sometimes found her confusing. She was supposed to be a boy but, as you can see from the photos, she was so obviously a woman.

She says, “a young gentleman of about six was brought to see me and I gathered from his introductory remarks that his big brother had made him uneasy about my sex. He put two cunning test questions to me, probably suggested by the brother.

“The first was, ‘can you whistle?’ By great good luck I could whistle that day. Then, ‘what do you think of kissing?’ he asked, anxiously. ‘Rotten,’ I said. He was immensely relieved, and I knew I was alright.”

She had all these romances – she was linked to Scott and, erroneously, to JM Barrie himself. Barrie certainly approved of her as a performer, though, and there’s even a rumour he adopted her.

There were lots of other rumours. At one point Chase was supposed to be engaged to Claude Grahame White, the aviator who landed his plane near the White House.

I suspect that was just a publicity stunt – she was clever, I think, and knew how to work the press. In the end she married a rich banker and that was it; she never set foot on stage again.

It’s amazing to think the costume is a hundred years old. I mean, just look at it, hot pants! Even with thick tights, it’s odd what they could get away with because it was on stage. This is so different to what she’d have worn normally. There are lots of pictures of her in beautiful gowns.

It’s the little things that make it for me – the fact you can tell she had problems with her tights falling down, and tried to fix the problem with elastic. Also, you would think she’d have been able to afford new tights, but you can see that they’ve been darned and darned and darned."

Pauline Chase’s Peter Pan costume is one of 4,000 items on display in the Museum of London’s Capital City galleries, which opened in spring 2010.

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