Let’s Get Dandified!

In association with Colonial Williamsburg & the Williamsburg Regional Library,

Panglossian presents

The Milliners, Or Female Revenge
A Burletta in Two Acts

March 18, 2014, 7:30pm @ Williamsburg Regional Library

With a special showing as part of Millinery Through the Ages, a conference at Colonial Williamsburg celebrating 60 years of the Margaret Hunter Millinery shop.

Directed by Ed Whitacre
Featuring costume design by Janea Whitacre
A Morning Ramble

About the Show

Harriet, Nancy and Sally are miffed to the extreme (mad as hell) and are not going to take it anymore!  A man, hired by the Mistress of their shop, is threatening their positions in practicing their Millinery trade.  They are ready to act.  We get to see them succeed in striking a blow, not only against male usurpation of a female trade but also against the stereotypes of women in their profession.

“The Milliners” by T. Harpley, written circa 1780s, is a burletta* (a brief, comic operetta) that was most likely an “afterpiece” that would have appeared following the performance of a full-length play or at the end of an evening of a variety of offerings at the theatre.  The Milliner** character was frequently included in 18thc plays as they and their shops offered a reasonable go-between for the young heroine and her dashing young would-be lover.  Milliners provided a delicious opportunity for moralistic commentary owing much to their reputed promiscuity or prostitution.  This play, however, has as its focus the trade of Millinery and the problem of Man-Milliners usurping the Milliners’ livelihood by owning shops or serving as shop men.

The issue of Men-Milliners was a pertinent 18thc problem, especially in the mid 1780s when England was negotiating a commercial treaty with France to settle economic issues after the American Revolution.  The treaty had a clause that would ease immigration for more French fashion tradespeople into the country, thus making further impact on the independency of English tradeswomen in the millinery trade.  Audiences of “The Milliners” would have been savvy to the issue of one gender entering a trade traditionally of the opposite gender and to the concerns of foreign competition.  They would have perhaps been amused at the female characters’ pursuit of pushing out the threat of men taking over their trade while embracing the preference for foreign fashion. One 18thc writer cited that women customers were a large cause of the problem, as they would rather have a man wait upon them in a shop than one of their own sex.

As a modern audience we get to appreciate in “The Milliners” the frivolity, wit and lyricism of a “period” piece, and we get to see how far we’ve come…or not…in our attitudes about roles and gender.


  • Italian, along with burla or burlettina, for “little joke.”
  • Term used in the 18thc to denote the comic intermezzos between the acts of an opera seria, but was sometimes given to more extended works.
  • Used, in contrast to burlesque, to describe works that satirized opera but without using musical parody.
  • Some composers for scherzo-like instrumental music have also used the word “burletta”.


  • Maker and seller of millinery.
  • Millinery is the ornament and accessories of fashion.
  • A milliner may also have had an apprenticeship in mantua making, a mantua being a gown or dress.

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