The costumes are often one of the first things an audience will discuss in the interval of any play. They are so powerful in making or marring any production, that when they fail they create an impenetrable barrier of unbelievability. Paradoxically, the mark of a successful costume is that it is in effect invisible: it becomes a lens focusing attention on the Character who wears it, a lens through which the audience sees to the essential truth of relationships between characters and thereby to the moral heart of the drama itself. In films too, publicity shots of actors in costume do more to establish the mood and quality of a movie than any amount of text.
This being the case, it is surprising how little is published on the æsthetics of Costume as a subject in its own right. It is invariably discussed, if at all, in a secondary relation to Set. Despite a number of excellent How To books on the mechanics of costume design and some collections of stage and screen photographs there is almost nothing on the process and æsthetics by which drawings on paper become the external signifier clothing the actor in the character s/he portrays.
Within the drama community too the costume designer is a long way down the hierarchy of artistic importance so far down that to critics they are all but invisible. In his recent The Future of Theatre Benedict Nightingale manages to write a whole book without mentioning the subject once. Even in Roland Rees definitive Fringe First on 20 years of experimental theatre the chapter on Design focuses principally on questions of defining the space rather than the characters. And in many contemporary academic studies -Styans Modern Drama in Theory & Practice and Kayes Postmodernism & Performance are just two examples- Costume does not even merit an entry in the index.
Altho I am now known principally as a costume designer I do also design sets, and am therefore very aware of the greater priority directors give to discussions about the setting. There may be perfectly valid reasons for this but after many years reflection I can see no other convincing explanation for the peripheral position of costume design and making than that it is principally the domain of women and gay men. To coin a phrase real men dont do costumes.
For any serious discussion of the function of Costume the problem is that the theatrical vocabulary is dominated by masculine body-perception where doing and heroic action are the principal virtues. However, not only does Costume not work like that; it cant even be discussed in those terms. As a result it has been largely ignored in post-war debate about the nature of theatre and, I can only assume, that the deeper questions about the function of Costume are indeed as closed a book to the critical fraternity as their reviews suggest.
The essence of a successful costume in the straight theatre is that it serves. No matter how flamboyant, it is useless if it does not aid the performer by clarifying the narrative or expressing character. This almost-subconscious process requires a completely different vocabulary to one suitable for discussing the conscious qualities of text and action. It is symptomatic of the attitudes I have alluded to, that the term costume drama has almost become one of patronising critical abuse within the profession. Writing to me after seeing Mrs Brown, Danny Boyle expressed this succinctly: I'm not a big fan of costume dramas on film and particularly America's encouragement of them in Britain I'm sure this hinders the development of our contemporary cinema. But he was kind enough to add: to my surprise I really enjoyed Mrs Brown and thought the costumes were in a different class to anything I'd seen in Western cinema. Truly. While there have undoubtedly been many boring classic drama films its quite ridiculous to heap the blame on the costumes, however much they have failed to observe the basic rule laid out above. Indeed I would argue that the common shortcoming of such films arises because, for reasons I have never understood, directors allow their actors to perform at a much slower pace than they would with a contemporary story, and therefore its the costumes fault!
In my experience, the Characters internal world is rarely considered first. I as much as any other designer or director need to find a Concept or world-view to pin everything onto before starting to think about the Characters who are to inhabit it ... yet without whom there would be no drama.
This was not always so. Prior to the evolution of scenic design as we now know it, modifications of the setting were largely symbolic and depended on a limited range of theatrical properties. Under such circumstances costume assumed the principal role in defining the emotional world of the drama. To a much greater degree than is generally acknowledged that remains true today. Although we all claim to be able to distinguish between actors and the parts they play in fact the moment people put on any kind of costume or uniform they are translated, like Bottom, they enter a world of enhanced possibilities where they are no longer limited by the restrictions experienced by we who remain untranslated. It was this observation that led Lord Raglan to write in 1936 it is hardly an exaggeration to say that nowhere in the world is anyone allowed to take a prominent part in any ritual unless he is dressed for it. A costume doesnt give the Priest a moral authority nor the Judge a power of life and death, but the very fact of this visual differentiation confers a kind of numinous or transpersonal power on the wearer and indeed it is conspicuous that in demotic cultures the rational-isation of the judiciary or the laicisation of the priesthood is associated with the reduction of just such majesty. The semi-mystical significance attached to the regalia of monarchy are an even clearer illustration of the power conferred by costume. Indeed the degree to which clothes are vested with significance is further confirmed by the fact that an army officer is reduced to the ranks is by his badge being upbraided and a priest expelled from holy orders is said to be de-frocked.
This is really my starting point for this book, for we have so lost sight of the fundamental functions of drama in the many cultural cross-currents to which we are subjected at the cusp of the 21stC, that it may not be inappropriate to take stock of the situation as we enter a new millennium.
Clothing performers has two main functions: to create and express the world of the drama and to enhance the audiences enjoyment. These two aims are not always compatible. Nowadays the perceived seriousness of a production is usually in inverse proportion to its desire to entertain. In other words the higher the art, the less gratifying the stage or screen picture. Is it a remnant of the British love affair with the hair-shirt? Or is it the de facto puritanism of intellectuals ill at ease with the language of their own bodies? Or is it that we are all now too afraid to surrender to the sensory stimuli that arise outside a permitted range?
If one considers Strauss's perennially-shocking opera Salome it will be known to anyone working in Opera that a new production is likely to fall into one of two categories. If the youthful Salome appears in a string under-vest and a charity shop overcoat to join the Baptist in a slimy grey cistern reminiscent of Alien 3, you can be sure that more critical beard-wagging will be expended on the issues raised by the production than in considering the experience offered by the music or stage-craft. (I do not speak against this style of production, only against the predictable response that such self-conscious modernism provokes.)
On the other hand should the heroine appear in a clinging Art Nouveau sheath dress, evoking a rather more vivid appreciation of John the Baptist's sexual turmoil, the audience might well enjoy the evening more but the lack of conceptual spin on the production will be guaranteed to generate patronising notices.
Bear with me as I outline the contradiction this creates for the costume designer. Of the three productions of Twelfth Night Ive costume-designed for the RSC Ian Judges 1994 Twelfth Night, with sets by John Gunter, probably created the most bravura period ensemble. Despite high praise about the production from some critics such as Benedict Nightingale (I dont think I have ever heard the famous speeches about love delivered with more freshness and candour; Desmond Barritt, the funniest Malvolio since Donald Sinden) there was another faction who sneered at it as tourist-friendly (Paul Taylor, Independent) and called Ian Judge the RSCs warm glow specialist, deploring his vague and regrettable Chichester Festival tendency (Michael Coveney, Observer). Louise Doughty in The Mail on Sunday actually spelled it out: It would be a hard and stony heart that could resists the charms of Twelfth Night Fortunately I am fairly hard and stony hearted. But then I dont much like feel-good dramas of any sort. There you have it in black and white.
The problem for the costume designer is that we are going through a phase in the theatre where almost all accurate period costume is damned as reactionary and productions using it, no matter how creatively, are dismissed as heritage theatre pandaring to the audience. In the 1998 Stratford season there were no productions using period costumes at all. Despite the enthusiasm of critics and young Turk directors for this progressive style it is an unfortunate fact, as attested by a financial report in The Times of 24/7/98, that the paying public has not responded particularly enthusiastically. It would be too neat a coincidence if there were a direct connection, but I do know from talking to Stratford box office staff in the past that the public, and tourists in particular, will frequently not book up for Shakespeare if it is a radical production. [See the interview with Trevor Nunn] Of course (post-)modernist interpretations can be equally valid, but my argument is that in the desire to throw out the bath water of mind-numbing tradition the baby of intelligent, character-focused costume design, goes unnoticed - and the virtues and benefits of traditional costume wisdom and methodology are discarded rather than adapted to new situations and æsthetics.
A further serious consideration is that period costume requires a far greater range of historical knowledge and craft workers than no-period or contemporary costume, and that if these are allowed to wither through prolonged neglect or a short-term swing of fashion they will be very hard to recover. It would be a foolish orchestra that dispensed with (say) bassoons simply because they were old-fashioned. This question is thrown into sharper focus by the fact that the problem hardly exists outside Art Theatre. In the populist medium of film, where audience involvement is important for more than financial reasons, attempts at ironic or post-modernist costume have to be much more carefully sign-posted if they are not to alienate people.
So what should the costume designers approach to historic drama be in this new æsthetic? Should they go for authenticity and damn the consequences, or consciously rein in their visual imagination, or abandon historically conscious design altogether? The problem -in the theatre at least- does seem to be a critic-led one. My experience of productions all over the world has convinced me that British critics collective capacity to overlook the presence of costumes on the stage and to ignore their function or metaphysical significance places them in a league of their own. From time to time I have tackled individual critics about this when I have met them socially. The general response is initially an embarrassed apology or a disarming confession of ignorance of the visual grammar of the stage, but if pressed your average critic will eventually admit that they dont consider costume an essential aspect of drama.
The problem for Costume is that it doesnt fit neatly into any of the designated academic categories. The nation of Shakespeare has always been notoriously word-driven, but I do also feel that the problem is further accentuated by the fact that English and Drama education is principally structured around the discussion of texts in isolation from all but the most basic consideration of their visual imagery and presentation. It seemed no accident that in a review on BBCr3s Nightwaves of the late Judith Caines image-led play Cleansed the Observer critic Susanna Clapp said on 6/5/98 that she wasnt sure that that is what theatre is really about. The British theatrical establishment has always seemed far more at ease with the language-as-literature theatre of Stoppard or Ayckbourn than it has with the language-as-visual-cue theatre of Bond or Barker.
The degree of public ignorance on the question of Costume became apparent to the authors of this book when publicising a study day called Costume Is Social History. We were struck by how utterly unprepared the media were to take seriously an event whose principal focus was clothes - only one journalist could see clothes in any other context than fashion, none of the theatre press exhibited any interest in a subject one paper described as marginal and for professional historians, the idea that any but literary source was a reliable guide to social attitudes was so unorthodox as to constitute heresy.
The costume or set designer must inevitably take a back seat while issues of script and casting are sorted out, but the pattern of French experimental theatre à la Brook or Mnouchkine where the evolution of design is a collaborative process over a period of time involving the actors is not only an unthinkable luxury in Britain but would be regarded by many directors as a highly undesirable irrelevance. By these attitudes a considerable richness is lost to British theatre and that ability, so characteristic of American cinema, to speak in the universal language of the heart is often barely glimpsed.
I hope that if it does nothing else this book will open up a greater understanding of the considerations that go into costume design and a greater awareness of how the feeling world in which Costume must necessarily exist can enrich drama in any style, period or medium.