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6. A BRIEF HISTORY OF COSTUME IN THE THEATRE


I felt it essential in this book to try and outline the continuity by which the archetypal needs and experiences which humans seek to express through Drama -(the name of an actual Greek town)- which stretch back to the dawn of history in an often-broken yet unchanging line. In endeavouring to rationalise this sense of the functions and processess of Costume the authors have been greatly aided by the perceptivewritings of Sir James Laver, Keeper of Prints & Drawings at the V&A He died in 1975 but his books about the historical function of stage and costume design remain some of the best ever written . He defined the history of drama as following an identifiable cycle:

Drama as Magic
Drama as Religion
Drama as Decoration
Drama as Psychology
Drama as Technology
Drama as Literature

Drama as Magic: Pre-history

Though we no longer expect the theatre to stimulate the growth of our vegetables, or to encourage fertility or potency in our partners, we may still occasionally take them to the cinema as an aid to seduction; and this should remind us that Drama, like all the arts, has its origins in magic and enchantment. When the primitive hunter donned a flayed animal skin, and put his head into the creature’s mask, he danced a mimetic ritual to attract the herd so that the tribe could eat; for by his invocation he was attempting to enter into sympathy with his intended quarry. By identifying with the creature’s habits he supposed that he could thereby charm it into his snare. In other words he was dressing up in ritual costume to perform a magical ceremony.

When society moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the object of dramatic ritual moved from the enchantment of animals to the fertility rite. Mimetic magic was still its medium. Most important for the development of theatre, the prosperity of a tribe or nation were thought to depend on the goodwill of a sacred figure such as the corn God, the divine king, or Dionysus. The ceremonies performed to celebrate the cycle of sacrificial death and rebirth gradually evolved into the theatre of the Greeks and Romans. It is generally agreed that both comedy and tragedy rose from village festivals and processions in honour of Dionysus.

Drama as Religion: From the Greeks to the Middle Ages

It was the Greeks who took the giant leap from Ritual Drama, which involves presenting the archetypal emotions and behaviour of idealised figures - to Theatre as a presentation of the unvarnished emotions and behaviour of ordinary people. A considerable body of evidence survives in vase painting which gives some idea of the costumes worn for both comedy and tragedy. As Laver writes: ‘The most characteristic feature of Greek tragic costume was the cothurnus or thick-soled boot, worn to give more height to the actor, appearing as he did before so large an audience, and to indicate the differing degrees of dignity in the personages. Thus kings were made taller than their companions, and this effect was reinforced by the increased height of the onkos, a kind of lofty head-dress forming part of the mask. The bodies of the actors were padded to prevent these devices from making them seem excessively slim’ –

Because of its ritualised character Greek drama was invariably played in masks. In Onomastikon the 2ndC Greek writer Iulius Pollux , describes contemporary theatrical practice; listing the dozens of masks so vividly that it remains clear even today what the characters would have been like. For instance the leading man‘s masks is ‘beardless, fresh-coloured, swarthy, having locks clustering, and black. The Curled [mask] is yellow, blustering, with bushy hair encompassing a plump face, has arched eyebrows, and a fierce aspect. The Graceful has hyacinthian locks, fair skin, is lively, and of a pleasant countenance, fit for a beautiful Apollo. The Horrid is robust, grim-visaged, sullen, deformed [as for] the yellow-haired attendant. The Pale is meagre, with disheveled hair, and of such a sickly countenance as is suitable for a ghost or wounded person.
‘Slaves’ masks are the leathern, having no onkos, but with a fillet, and long white hairs, a pale whitish visage, and rough nostrils, an high crown, stern eyes; the beard a little pale, and looks older than his years. But the Peaked-beard is in the vigour of life, has an high and broad prominence dented all round, is yellow-haired, rough, ruddy, and suited to a messenger. The Flat-nose is bluff, yellow-headed, the locks hang on each side from the forelock; he is beardless, ruddy ?’
Descriptions of the attendants’ masks remind us of the rich mythological world which the plays celebrated: ‘an horned Actæon, a blind Phineus or Thamyris (one having a blue eye, the other a black); a many-eyed Argus, or Tyro with mottled cheeks, as in Sophocles, which she suffered from the blows of a cruel stepmother; or Euippe, Chiron's daughter, changed into a horse in Euripides.’
Then there is a completely separate range of masks for comedy, of which the female masks (for the male actors) are ‘The Prostitute - tall, with many small wrinkles, fair, paleish, and with rolling eyes. The Fat Old Woman has many wrinkles on a plump skin, and a fillet round her hair. The Talkative has full hair smoothed a little, high eyebrows, fair skin. The Curled Virgin has a distinction of false hair, high eyebrows, and black, and a pale whiteness in her skin.’
Then there are such detailed descriptions – differentiating the Demi-Mondaine from the Harlot Left Off Trade, the Concubine from the Common Whore, and even of the Virgin Slave ‘who wears only a short white frock’ from the Slut who ‘is both squat, and, being dressed in a red gown, waits upon the Courtesans.’ The fact that these parts were all played by men does nothing to lessen their similarity to contemporary Hollywood films where, as Meryl Streep memorably observed, ‘if a Martian came to earth it would assume that the whole of the female sex was entirely devoted to hooking.’
But then, a startling aspect of costumes for popular and satyric comedy was the persistent use of the oversized phallus of red leather. Doubtless it was a tradition inherited from the earlier fertility rites. Presumably the succession of ‘dick jokes’ we encounter in Aristophanes and Euripides had the whole house in fits of laughter just as our parents’ generation hooted at the double-entendres of Max Miller or Mae West and we titter at the low camp buggery jokes of Julian Clary and female impersonators. Since it must have been extremely difficult to look at anything else, it’s fascinating to reflect that perhaps the very idea of upstaging so familiar to most actors owes its origin to competing with a two foot leather cock!

Drama in the Christian Era

Given both the joyous and persistent use of sex on the classical stage and the fact that performers were effectively synonymous with prostitutes, it is hardly surprising that Christianity was totally hostile to all existing forms of theatre. Baptism was refused to anyone who had been an actor or actress. Serious theatre fell into almost complete decay during the first four centuries of the Christian era. Oddly enough, its lowest form, the vulgar satyric mime persisted till the 7thC in Constantinople. After that only the wandering entertainers, the jongleurs and musicians survived to provide a link between the Roman theatre and the Commèdia dell’Arte of the 16thC. It remained the case, however, that during the ‘age of religion’ that actors were well-advised to cultivate aristocratic patrons who could protect them against the periodic persecution by Christians!
Just as the pipe organ, once hated by them for its association with gladiatorial games, has come to be uniquely associated with the church, so, with perfect irony, it was in the Christian church itself that the drama came to be reborn as the mystery and morality plays of the middle ages. In this epoch the Catholic Church was the sole provider of education as well as spiritual sustenance. Its ceremonial and liturgy provided the fabric for European life. Even the royal courts acknowledged its power. Since few people could read their own language, never mind the Greek and Latin of the scriptures, the mediæval clergy found that the most effective way of expressing the stories and the morals of the Christian faith was act out the Bible stories in dramatic form.
The church’s use of drama originated on continental Europe, probably in the 9th or 10th century, and arrived in England shortly after the Norman conquest, towards the end of the 11thC, when all Christendom was expecting the physical return of Christ, as the existence of The Domesday Book (1086) testifies. To begin with, the clergy would simply enact those parts of the New Testament that were relevant to the feast-day concerned. Any reasonably well-endowed religious establishment owned a considerable range of vestments whose traditional shapes had developed from Byzantine court dress. Copes, chasubles [the embroidered poncho-like garment worn by the celebrant priest] dalmatics [the decorated short-sleeved tunic-worn by assistants] and stoles would have been available in each of the liturgical colours of green, purple, red, black and gold – just as they are to this day. Also available were assorted linen robes such as the alb [somewhat like a long-sleeved nightie, often having a hood] and the cassocks or habits of the monks, generally black or brown. ‘To indicate that they represented women, they merely put the amictus [an elongated neckerchief] over their heads. When the pluviale [a semi-circular cope] came into fashion [in the 12thC] it was draped in the manner of a woman’s cloak.’
Directions are given in one of the first Easter Resurrection plays for scene on the road to Emmaus: ‘Two ecclesiastics enter as pilgrims dressed in cloaks [pluviali] over white linen tunics [albæ] with staffs and sacks in their hands. They must wear hats and beards. Christ, whom they meet, must wear an alb and amictus, be bare-footed, and carry a cross on the left shoulder.’
The characterisation was by way of stereotypes, similar to that found in pre-Renaissance illuminated texts, stained glass and misericords [the carved undersides of hinged pews that could be raised to support the long-standing monastic bottom]: Balaam was always found with spurs to drive his recalcitrant ass: Doubting Thomas generally wore a silk tunic, perhaps indicating luxury and indolence, and a non-clerical hat. Masks were much used. Jews were characterised by long coats and tall hats, often cut into pointed teeth. But gradually the Mystery Plays became more complex and less restricted to Biblical narratives and eventually so many ‘improprieties’ were introduced, such as Mrs Noah and her gossips, so brilliantly recreated by Benjamin Britten in his community opera Noye’s Fludde, or earthy representations of the devil as a comedy turn, that from the 13thC onwards priests were often forbidden to participate.
No Nativity was complete without the pantomime of Herod’s proverbial raging. Indeed we see the evolution of modern showbiz values in the relative scale of payments to the actors: for instance ‘we learn from Sharp’s collection of accounts for the craft-plays of Coventry that, while the actor who played God was paid 2/- and Judas 18d, Herod received 3/4, and Pilate 4/?.’ On possibly the first occasion of a woman appearing on the stage, we learn of a girl of 13 playing the title role in The Mystery of St Katharine in Metz in the 14thC, ‘but she did not remain long on the stage, as she married one of the spectators immediately after the show.’ However no English women appeared on a public stage before the Restoration, despite a vogue for private masquing at the Elizabethan and Stuart Courts.
The more such characters began to be played for laughs the closer the stage moved to the street – with lay people progressively taking over and developing the comic parts and, as far as one can tell, wearing contemporary garments with liturgical or military additions. For instance, in Italy ‘angels frequently wore women’s dresses and the everyday clothes of smart young men of the period, but with wigs and shining discs at the back of the head to represent haloes.’ As the dramatic requirements grew more complex we begin to hear of specially commissioned costumes: these included leather coats, ‘steyned’ tights, [I hope that means dyed] and rather charmingly named ‘hearys’ or wigs. Some characters, for example Saints undergoing martyrdom and, as you would expect, Adam and Eve wore flesh coloured all-in-ones probably made out of fine suede to indicate their nakedness, and the devil traditionally wore black and red to symbolise the flames of hell, with furred or feathered legs and a grotesque animal mask directly traceable to the much earlier mime dramas of the Satyrs and Dionysus – The Harrowing of Hell remained a firm favourite for several centuries, so much so that in France in 1503 almost the whole budget of one religious pageant went on the riotous representation of Hell.
ILLU - nativity scene
The best information as to the costuming of plays can be obtained from contemporary tapestries and also, most profitably, from 15thC altar-pieces. These, with their crowds in fantastic attire, probably came closest to representing the staging and costumes of late medieval drama. These conclusions are supported by the one actual 15thC representation of a mystery play that has come down to us in Les très riches Heures du Duc de Berry.’
ILLU - heures
To the mediæval European mind ‘us’ meant Christendom and ‘them’ meant everybody else, especially those of different ethnic backgrounds. To a mind-set which still believed that the world beyond Europe was inhabited by mythical beasts such as the Omnipod (a sort of plant-like animal with a single vast foot with which it could shade itself) other ‘heathen’ races were little better than savages and were treated with a mixture of disdain and hostile wonder. In the aftermath of the Crusades (undertaken because it was widely believed that Christ had failed to return because The Holy City was still in heathen hands) the overt racism they had engendered was tempered by the discovery that the ‘Turks’ [a description applied to all Arabs] had a highly developed civilisation, from which the Crusaders brought back many inventions: paper, the lute, pointed arches, and single digit numerals. Therefore such ‘outlandish’ characters were a ready source of colourful villains -in both senses of the adjective- except it seems in the case of the Three Kings, who were considered exemplary heathens drawn to the light of Christ. The religious paintings of the period give a clear picture of how such personages were presented; just as angels usually wear a dalmatic and alb with gloriously coloured wings, the magi are presented in ‘foreign’ garments, that are meant to be Turkish or Nubian, or whatever – stage costumes, in fact.

Drama as Decoration: Origins of costume design: Masques and Entrées

By the 15thC, fuelled in part by the humanist ideals of the Renaissance, moral power ceased to be the prerogative of the Church, and this vacuum was enthusiastically invaded by the secular authorities. Drama ceased to be about religeous education and began to be more of a demonstration of political power.

In the middle ages, the climax of a Royal Progress, or ceremonial visitation to a nobleman’s court, was the entrée of the ruler into the cathedral to hear High Mass. Tableaux vivants would often line the route in the style of the old mystery plays, and after the Mass there would have been a banquet followed by a tournament. Renaissance monarchs, however, wishing to display their might and magnificence to established or recently conquered dominions, began to demand ceremonial that reflected personal magnificence, so public displays of regal piety went out of fashion.

The new dispensation found its inspiration in the deities of a far older civilisation. Classical gods such as Mars and Apollo and heroes, such as Hercules or Cæsar were borne on carriages accompanied with dancers and singing boys dressed as nymphs, fauns and satyrs. The prettier musicians rode dressage-trained horses, whose caparisons were as ornate as their riders – presumably the plainer ones were confined to rustic costumes on foot. In Costume on the Stage 1600-1940 Diana de Marly writes ‘State processions were redesigned to look like Roman Triumphs. The Hapsburg Emperor Charles V ordered a suit of roman armour to wear in parades, and plays were expected to imitate classical prototypes.’
Such processions, with their attendant banquets and firework displays clearly featured an extremely high design content, not to mention top class stage management skills. Splendid contemporary drawings and written descriptions exist that give a vivid picture of what these entertainments must have been like. Laver quotes a description of a Banquet given in 1468 to celebrate the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margaret of York ‘Tableaux vivants included Paris with the three goddesses vying for the apple... a pie was served up in which was concealed an orchestra of 28 musicians; a whale 60 feet long appeared from whose open jaws poured sea-gods and sirens who proceeded to dance a quadrille. Smart young aristocrats delighted to take part in these events, the best artists used to lend their services, even Leonardo da Vinci himself designed the mechanical devices required on these occasions.’
Figures representing Qualities such as Joy, Hope or Fear, were carried over from the morality plays of the Middle Ages, but the Classical element eventually prevailed, providing the excuse for ever more exotic costumes - with Venus and the Graces, Juno, Mars, Amor and Neptune attended by satyrs, tritons, and nymphs, whose diaphanous costumes offered the ideal excuse for displaying those parts of the body which the church endeavoured to keep covered up – creating a folies bergères tradition which undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of such pageants.

According to the Venetian Geraldi Cinthio’s 1554 Discurso sulle Tragedie, ‘comedy should use ordinary clothes but tragedy must be dressed in an aristocratic of magnificent manner.’ And 10 years later Leone de’ Sommi’s Quattra Dialoghi in Materia di Rappresentazione states that ‘a comedy could have velvet and satin garments provided that tragedy was still better dressed in cloth of gold or silver with rich embroidery.’ Whilst absolving his contemporaries from the need to follow the costume traditions of the Roman stage too closely, he mentions the ‘white costumes for old men, coloured garments for young characters, yellow clothes for prostitutes and twisted cloaks for pimps and parasites,’ .
The relationship with the Arab world remained just as mistrustful, and ‘Turks’ continued to be depicted as much as they had always been … indeed, sadly, just as US politicians continue to depict them to this day.
ILLU

Commèdia dell’Arte

Commèdia, the root of much subsequent drama, discovered a formula which both Hollywood and TV sitcoms serials and soaps have exploited to the full. Audience identification is created by a range of stereotype characters whose antics are given fresh impetus by constantly changing situations. Just as people would once go to see ‘the new Clark Gable film’ without any particular concern for its subject matter, or will today turn on Neighbours, so Italian audiences flocked to see the ever-new story of Jack the Lad (Arlecchino or Arlequin or Harlequin) rescuing his master Pantalone’s beautiful young daughter or ward from a bloodless marriage to the lecherous old Doctor in the nick of time by his lazzi, or tricks, and uniting her with her noble young lover who is always too stupid to do it for himself.
Duchartre says that the plays evolved from an Etruscan form known collectively as Atellanoe, after the ancient city of Atella, which was one of the first to have a theatre. Roman playwrights, especially Plautus, used the same stock characters and scenarios to comic effect. Itinerant companies seem to have kept the form alive in Italy in the intervening period, though it was frowned upon by the Church. It was always distinct from the fairground clowning of Commèdia Buffo. On his celebrated visit to Venice in 1610 Europe’s first tourist Thomas Coryate describes ‘other comical rogues [who] are called monta in banco, from which cometh our word mountebank, which signifies to ascend upon a bench or stage. The poorer sort, those that perform in the street or public places are ciarantano or ciarlatani, [charlatans] as strolling players or barkers. After they are all upon the stage attired with habits, according to the characters they sustain, the music begins. This is a preamble to the ensuing matter in which the captain and ring-leader of mountebanks opens his trunk and sets abroach his wares.’ The origins of the medicine show, no doubt. To have seen Dario Fo perform is to have glimpsed the pantomime of controlled anarchy which is true Commèdia.
Once I Commèdiani had crossed the Alps in the wake of François Ier ill-fated Italian excursion in the 1520s and been translated to Les Comédiens -still the French word for actors- the popular demand for new stories created the new occupation of dramatist - much as the rapid evolution of silent films demanded script-writers just to think up new gags and plots, even before the demands of sound.
Costume was essential to Commèdia. Harlequin’s diamond patchwork, the formalisation of a garment covered in multi-coloured tatters of fabric, is still identifiable today, and the ‘droopy drawers’ of Pantalone persist in the word pantaloon. Moreover the characters had strong regional associations, for instance Brighella was traditionally from Bergamo, which their costumes were required to portray even when they had been frenchified.
As the prestige of individual actors waxed and waned so did their Commèdia character, but its /his identity depended somewhat more on the costume than the wearer, who was of course disguised behind his character’s mask. The introduction and ascendancy of Pulcinella the hunch-back is an example of this process, for he and others were later additions to the stock of characters. The one character who escaped the costume stereotyping was the young ingenue Isabel – I’d bet any money that the aspiring actress playing her always made sure that her aristocratic ‘patron’ kept her constantly provided with the latest fashions. However, as a commoner she could not hope to lead fashion, which was exclusively created by aristocrats at Court.
Actresses were never permitted to perform in papal Rome, but we do know of women appearing elsewhere in Italy from the later 16thC. One of the earliest was Isabella Andreini, who married an actor in the Commèdiani Gelosi in 1578 and by the time they visited Paris in 1600 had become its leading lady. Her success inspired several French women to emulate her, and 29 years later a couple of their successors sailed to England with a company but, as Diana de Marly puts it ‘when the girls appeared on stage at the Blackfriars Theatre there was a near riot and they were pelted off the boards. The Protestant audience objecting to the Roman Catholic ‘whores’.’
Drama as Literature: Shakespearean Costumes
Elizabethan dress tended to be very stiff and formal, but under the influence of the Arcadian movement of Sir Philip Sydney looser and simpler forms of classical dress became fashionable for masques. When Queen Elizabeth made a Royal Progress to Elvetham her host, Lord Hertford, provided nymphs attired in white shifts who, as Graces or Hours, scattered flowers in her path.
There is not a lot of information available concerning the clothes worn in the earlier productions of Shakespeare’s plays. It is generally assumed that most actors wore a version of the fashionable dress of the time, with appropriate additions. This is borne out by the sartorial anachronisms to be found in the texts. There is a well known line in Julius Cæsar about ‘sweaty night-caps’ being thrown in the air, and the doublet is referred to in the same play. In Antony & Cleopatra, the heroine tells her maid “Cut my [corset] lace, Charmian,” and in Twelfth Night Maria refers to the way in which leather trousers, gaskins, were not held up by internally but were laced to the doublet, when she jokes to Feste “that if one break, the other will hold; or both break, your gaskins fall.” Such remarks do cause problems to the designer, and to the director as well, because they must be considered as part of the plan when discussions as to when to set the production are in progress.
ILLU
The only known Shakespearean drawing is of a 1595 production of Titus Andronicus. It is probably typical of the -to us- eccentric mixture of outfits. The two soldiers wear contemporary military dress, with a Roman-style helmet for one of them. The two kneeling figures wear floppy shirts with padded breeches which is the simple ‘undress’ garb of the period, Tamora has a flowing robe with decorated sleeves and a crown; her antique ‘foreignness’ demonstrated by the lack of corset or farthingale. Alarbus is given a costume similar to the Roman garb used in the pageants of the period, and Aaron the Moor looks very like the mythical Balthazar from many paintings of the Journeys of the Magi. In other words, depending on your viewpoint, the costumes were either a charmingly random selection of appropriate styles, or a complete muddle.
We also read that the stock of costumes were of considerable value, as actors were in the habit of borrowing the more fashionable outfits for parties, and were fined if any were lost or damaged. Aristocrats would also donate their cast-off garments to favoured players as a mark of esteem, and no doubt once-used pageant and masque costumes also found their way into the wardrobe store. In 1617 Orazio Busino, Chaplain to the Venetian Embassy ‘derive[d] no little amusement from gazing on the sumptuous dresses of the actors’ – despite not being able to understand a word they said. Shakespearean costumes were anything but a unified, colour co-ordinated design concept!
This dressing-up box approach to costume design has had something of a vogue recently. For instance the 1992 RSC Griff Rhys Jones /Ultz production of Twelfth Night examined each character separately, and dressed them accordingly: Malvolio for instance wore a black overcoat with child’s school strap shoes, I think to indicate his arrested development, the twins had Victorian sailor suits, having been lost at sea and so on. The purist in me rather disapproved of such sloppy thinking, but in fact this faux-naif approach has the longest pedigree of all!
We know that special costumes were made for such characters as Henry V, Wolsey, Tamerlaine, Faust, Tasso, and that shepherds sometimes wore ‘Italian’ costumes. In his Diary Philip Henslowe says that paying for their own costumes ‘caused [the actors] great inconvenience’ so that they were forever petitioning their managers or patrons to fund future costumes, particularly since the English theatre practice of creating a completely new world for each play led to constant demands for new costumes which continental Commèdia actors were spared,
Italy being the cultural focus of Europe during the Rinascente or Renaissance, artists and musicians from all nations were magnetised by it. Traveling there in the retinue of a nobleman between 1598 and 1604, the architect and artist Inigo Jones (1573-1652) returned to England full of enthusiasm for the new forms of theatre and design. Altho the English theatre-goers had yet to see a real women act, Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, shared her husband’s passionfor masquing, and for her Jones created as-it-were fancy-dress versions of court attire, decorated with delicate evocations of antiquity. A good deal of his work is preserved in the Chatsworth collection, including costume designs for The Queene’s Masque of Blacknesse (1605) and for Hymenæi (1606) – roughly contemporary with Shakespeare’s last plays.
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Ben Jonson, the librettist of The Queene’s Masque of Blacknesse, describes the setting as ‘a river in Æthiopia [the standard term for Africa], famous by the name of Niger; of which the people were called Nigritæ, now Negros: and are the blackest nation of the world. ? Hence (because it was her Majesty’s will, to have them Black-mores at first) the invention was derived by me thus:
‘In front of [a] sea were placed six Tritons, moving [with] sprightly actions, their upper parts human, save that their hairs were blue, as partaking of the sea colour: their [fabricated] parts, fish, mounted above their heads, and all varied in disposition. From their backs were borne out certain light pieces of taffeta, as if carried by the wind, and their music[al instruments] made out of wreathed shells. Behind these, a pair of Sea-maids, for song, were as conspicuously seated; between which, two great Sea-horses as big as the life … [sic!]
‘The Masquers were placed in a great concave shell, like mother of pearl, [cunningly] made to move on those waters, and rise with the billow; the top thereof was stuck with a chevron of lights [presumably candles], which, indented to the proportion of the shell, struck a glorious beam upon them, as they were seated.
‘The attire of [the] Masquers was alike, in all, without difference: the colours, azure, and silver; (their hair thick, and curled upright in tresses, like Pyramids) but returned on the tip with a scroll and antique dressing of feathers, and jewels interlaced with ropes of pearl. And, for the front, ear, neck, and wrists, the ornament was of the most choice and orient pearl; best setting off from the black.
‘For the light-bearers, sea-green, waved about the skirts with gold and silver; their hair loose, and flowing, garlanded with sea-grass, and that stuck with branches of coral. These thus presented, the Scene behind seemed a vast sea (and united with this that flowed forth) from the termination, or horizon, of which (being the level of the State [sic, but probably Stage], which was placed in the upper end of the hall) was drawn, by the lines of Perspective, the whole work shooting down-wards, from the eye; which decorum made it more conspicuous, and caught the eye a far off with a wandering beauty. To which was added an obscure and cloudy night-piece, that [set off] the whole … Which was of Master Ynigo Iones his design, and act.’
Of the subsequent Hymenæi Jonson wrote that the costume of the Lords ‘had part of it (for the fashion) taken from the antique Greek statue; mixed with some modern additions: which made it both graceful, and strange. On their heads they wore Persick [Persian?] crowns, that were with scrolls of goldPlate turned outward, and wreathed about with a carnation and silver net-lawn; the one end of which hung carelessly on the left shoulder; the other was tricked up before, in several degrees of folds, between the plates, and set with rich jewels, and great pearl. Their bodies were of carnation cloth of silver, richly wrought, and cut to express them naked, in manner of the Greek Thorax; girt under the breasts with a broad belt of cloth of gold, embroidered, and fastened before with jewels: Their Lapels were of white cloth of silver, [ingeniously laced and matching] the upper half of their sleeves; whose nether parts, with their bases, were of watchet cloth of silver, chevroned all over with lace. Their Mantles were of several-coloured silks, distinguishing their qualities, as they were coupled in pairs; the first, sky colour; the second, pearl colour; the third, flame colour; the fourth, tawny: and these cut in leaves, which were subtly tacked up, and embroidered with OOs, and between every rank of leaves, a broad silver lace. They were fastened on the right shoulder, and fell compass down the back in gracious folds, and were again tied with a round knot, to the fastening of their swords. Upon their legs they wore silver Greaves, answering in work to their Lapels; and these were their accoutrements.
‘The Ladies attire was wholly new and full of glory; as having in it the most true impression of a celestial figure: the upper part of white cloth of silver, wrought with JUNO’s birds and fruits; a loose undergarment, full gathered, of carnation, striped with silver, and parted with a golden Zone: beneath that, another flowing garment, of watchet cloth of silver, laced with gold; through all which, though they were round, and swelling, there yet appeared some touch of their delicate lineaments, preserving the sweetness of proportion, and expressing it self beyond expression. The attire of their heads did answer, if not exceed; their hair being carelessly (but yet with more art, if more affected) bound under the circle of a rare and rich Coronet, adorned with all variety, and choice of jewels; from the top of which, flowed a transparent veil, down to the ground; whose verge, returning up, was fastened to either side in most sprightly manner. Their shoes were Azure, and gold, set with Rubies and Diamonds; so were all their garments; and every part abounding in ornament.’
Son of a cloth-worker, Inigo Jones, at this stage barely 30, can little have realised that his introduction of classical Roman costume was to be a mainstay of the British stage for nearly two centuries. For when James I’s heir apparent, Prince Henry, appeared in the 1611 masque Oberon, the Fairy Prince Jones put him in the costume of a Roman Emperor with a cuirass, boots and trunk-hose stiffened with leather strips to give the impression of a roman tonnelet skirt and a plumed helmet - which Like their Italian counterparts, these ‘antic costumes’ were made fantastic by being seen through Jacobean eyes, in particular, the roman skirt was thought to be too risqué for the royal thighs also, Henry’s surviving brother, Charles I, tho an enthusiastic masquer, declined to wear his hair short in the roman manner on stage since (a) the court fashion was for shoulder-length hair and (b) it was the hairstyle of his puritan opponents, derisively named Roundheads on that account.
The Puritans’ strong objections to the theatre came from their interpretation of Deuteronomy 22.5 which proscribes, as ‘an abomination to the Lord’, the wearing of women’s apparel by men. In his Histrio-matrix or The Scourge of Players Thomas Prynne lambasted the stage in 1633 for its encouragement of ‘sodomy occasioned by acting in women’s apparel, by long compt haire and love-locks ? Sodomites usually clad their Ganymedes in women’s apparel, caused them to nourish, to frizle their haire, to wear Periwigs, and Lovelocks.’ Since the puritans were as outraged at the idea of women acting in women’s apparel, it is hardly surprising that they felt compelled to close the theatres altogether for 30 years.

Meanwhile - in mainland Europe -The Baroque: Theatre as Spectacle

While English drama traces its ancestry from medieval morality plays and the histories of Holinshed and Homer, the lyric arts of opera and ballet evolved out of the pageants and masques of the Italian and French courts, especially those of Le Roi Soleil himself, Louis XIV.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that both from perspectives of design and intention there remains a fundamental difference between the two kinds of experience. Plays are made up of words, they tell stories and engage the conscious mind in issues of believability and plot. Ballet and Opera, being essentially ‘irrational’ and having evolved from the divertissement of courtly spectacle, have always demanded more of a bridge from the designer between the onstage world where people ‘naturally’ sing and dance and the audience’s everyday world where they don’t. It is not easy to disentangle the genres of opera and ballet in the 17thC. Both had their origins as Court fêtes, but these new forms of musical entertainment were so hugely popular with the public that their development into separate and fully fledged art forms grew and spread with astonishing speed. Although the first true operatic pieces were Monteverdi’s in Florence, it was in Rome that the fusion of the spectacular Intermedii of the princely courts with Florentine lyric tragedy occurred under the patronage of the Borghese and Barberini families. Musical tragedy became Opera, the plural of opus, refering to the fact that until the 19thC many such ‘works’ were made by cobbling together the songs of a number of different composers -as for instance The Beggar’s Opera- a tradition which has continued in ballet to the present day.
It was Louis XIV who supplied the inspiration for the fusion of all the elements of the old Entrées into one glorious spectacle which served a double purpose of amusing his courtiers and impressing the world. Everything that was permitted to appear in painting and on the stage was minutely prescribed by a sub-committee of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres directed by the painter Charles Le Brun. Classical subjects were particularly favoured both in painting and for Court entertainments as they lent an archetypal grandeur to the monarch, by differentiating his ‘eternal’ quality from that of the rapidly changing Court fashions. Le Brun ruled that Roman costume must be accurate and scrupulous in its depiction of the characters’ decorum or social status. The most extravagant of all Louis’ spectacles was the great 1662 Carousel de Louis XIV, in which it seems that every performer and aristocrat, every artist, designer, dressmaker and craftsperson in the land played a part.
These developments were stimulated as much by visual as musical considerations. Firstly the sets became ever more spectacular, aided by a specially built theatre equipped with the latest scene shifting machinery, and secondly the costumes became a magnificent art form in their own right. Artists such as Bernini were employed to design the settings. Such was his versatility, John Evelyn records, that he also painted the scenery, carved the statues, invented the machines, composed the music and constructed the theatre – so he could hardly have been prevented from designing the costumes into the bargain.
While comedies were almost always played in an elaborated version of the fashions of the day, but the tragedies were usually set in classical times. By this time there was already a tradition that emperors, princes and heroes of all kinds wore a version of the Roman military tunic, as Jones had witnessed on his continental journeys. A corselet, often of leather was moulded over an idealised set of muscles, worn with a short tonnelet skirt and elegantly shaped cannions. The tonnelet, gradually grew to echo women’s fashions, until it needed full-scale hooped panniers to support it. The helmet sprouted tremendous plumes of a size and magnificence that must have caused problems with anything other the grandest of doorways. Indeed there is a later drawing of the castrato Farinelli clad thus, who looks twice the size of anyone else on the stage. (Apparently one of the side effects of pre-pubertal castration is that the body is never given its hormonal signal to stop growing, and so these adult sopranos often became immensely tall.)
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Very few costumes survive from this period but Diana de Marly tells that ‘those which do are so thick with copper embroidery, sequins, braid, spangles and hoops that the underlying material is invisible. … The clothes naturally became extremely heavy, and dancers would come off stage ‘smothered in perspiration and sinking at the knees.’ The practical purpose of such ironmongery was to sparkle under candlelight, which had the effect of deadening all but the brightest whites, yellows, scarlets and oranges, and under which the copper would pass for gold. As an anonymous satirist wrote in 1699
And the bills were tremendous. In a surviving account for 2100 livres submitted by the Comédie Française to the Royal Exchequer in the 1680s all the costumes are itemised at 100-200 livres each. The extravagance of these figures is confirmed by the relative value of an inventory of Molière’s wardrobe on his death estimates his personal costumes for M. Pourceaugnac as worth 30 livres; comprising ‘red damask breeches garnished with lace, a coat of blue velvet decorated with artificial gold, a fringed sash, green garters, a grey hat decked with a green plume, a scarf of green taffeta trimmed with lace and a cloak of black taffeta, and a pair of slippers: while the costume of his wife Armande Béjart wore for the opera Psyche was valued at 250 livres; consisting of ‘a skirt of cloth of gold decorated with silver laces, over which went a short tonnelet skirt in the roman style of gold and silver material; the bodice was embroidered and the sleeves were in the same cloth. She also had a skirt of cloth of silver worn with a sleeveless tunic of crêpe, both decorated with silver lace; and a skirt of green and black moiré garnished with embroidery, the tonnelet and sleeves decorated with fine gold and silver; and a skirt of fine silver lace.’
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But the zenith of high baroque costume arrived with the designs of the great Jean Bérain (c1637-1711) for Lully's 1675 opera Thésée at the Académie Royale de la Musique, and five years later Bérain gained full control of the opéra's scenic department. At this epoch the Jesuits were very keen on drama as a means of instruction in their schools, and in 1682 one of their number, Père Ménestrier, wrote a definitive and extremely long, treatise on ballet ,‘The costumes are essential to the beauty of the stage actions, and sometimes their variety makes up for lack of skill on the part of the dancers. [Perish the thought!] One must show imagination and whimsicality in these ornaments. And since the ballet has only silent actors, it is necessary that their costumes speak for them, as well as their movements.
‘First, a costume should be appropriate … if the dancer represents an historical personage, the costume should be, as far as possible, of the period. Undoubtedly, that of the ancient Romans is the most impressive of all, while at the same time allowing maximum freedom to the legs. The same concern for accuracy must prevail with regard to the dress of foreign nations. The Greeks favour circular caps with a quantity of plumes, and the Persians follow almost the same fashion. The Moors are distinguished by their short, curly hair and swarthy complexion; they go hatless, except for fillets embroidered with pearls after the manner of a diadem, and also wear earrings. The Turks and Saracens are clad in dolmans and bright turbans with aigrettes. American Indians sport a multi-coloured feathered head-dress and loincloths to conceal their nakedness; they also wear feathers about their necks and carry a bouquet of feathers in each hand while dancing. The Japanese bind their hair into large tufts at the back.
‘The second rule is that the costumes must be greatly varied, and, if possible, the same type of dress should never appear twice, or at least the entries should be so arranged that there is a long interval between those that are similar. [Or, at least one should] change the colour if no other difference can be made, as will sometimes be the case in historical ballets when all the characters are of the same race and almost of the same decorum. After an entry of soldiers, it is pleasant to see an entry of shepherds, and after that, an entry of mythological divinities, then of robbers, followed by one of animals, of genii, of Americans, of Persians, of Moors, etc. This diversity always keeps the spectator [who, remember, was the pleasure-hungry aristocrat, never the general public] in suspense.
‘The third rule is that uniformity must prevail as far as possible in the individual entries, that is to say, all those dancing in them must be costumed in the same colour and style if the subject permit.
‘The fourth rule is that the costume must not be an obstacle, but must leave the body and limbs free to dance. Feminine costumes are the least suitable because they are necessarily long.
‘The costumes of allegorical persons are the most difficult, as well as those for virtues and vices which we represent under human forms. It is precisely here that the talent and ingenuity of the costume designer may be observed. For the costumes must express, as well as they can, the nature and properties of the subject.’ Ménestrier then articulates the conventional image of the four seasons, continuing: ‘Winds must be dressed in feathers because of their extraordinary lightness. Fortune should have a costume of changing colours, eyes bandaged, and a roulette wheel in her hand. Embroidered upon her costume are sceptres, crowns, arms, etc. Destiny should be clad in blue strewn with stars and bits of crystal because it is in the stars and crystal balls that man seeks to know his future. Her crown shall be of stars, and she shall hold a wand in her hand. Cupid should be dressed in rose?hued fabric embroidered with flaming hearts. his eyes bandaged, a bow in his hand, and a quiver on his back. Hate, on the contrary, should wear a fiery robe and carry a dagger in one hand and a vial of poison in the other, or a smouldering torch of black wax. The costume should be sombre because this passion is not without sadness. Poverty is recognised by her torn dress and motley rags.
‘Faith ought to appear in white as a symbol of her sincerity, and with a veil drawn before her eyes to indicate her willingness to submit to religious mysteries. She carries a book in her hand and wears a diadem on her head like that of Constantine.’ And Ménestrier concludes: ‘1 do not believe that she ought to carry a cross or chalice; it seems to me that we owe respect to sacred objects, and that it is not fitting to use those things which appear on the altar for stage properties.’
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Few such entertainments achieved such a complete balance of the three forms -play, opera and ballet- as Purcell/Dryden Færy Queen.The story is a simplified version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which each of the five acts contains a masque of very considerable scenic complexity. It demands huge resources (even its 1692 premiere cost a massive £3000 to stage) as three different specialist companies have to be engaged. The dancers are fairies, while the singers are gods, such as Hymen and Juno who descends on her peacock, or mythic beings such as Winter or Sleep. Actors play Shakespeare’s Lovers and Mechanicals. There are even comic songs for a drunken poet and rustic lovers in drag. It really has got something for everyone: a good love story, lots of spectacular scene changes and stage machinery, pretty legs on show from Cupid and the fairy dancers, and all shot through with Purcell’s exquisite music.

English Theatre after the Restoration

One of the first acts of the newly empowered people’s Parliament in 1642 had been to close, and later raze, the ‘chapels of Satan’ (which also involved having to put down the 7 bears of the Bankside Playhouse, who had been baited ‘Tuesdayes and Thursdayes’ – a ‘sport’ inexplicably absent from the authentic reconstruction of that theatre in the 20thC). Tho the theatres began to be rebuilt after the death of Cromwell in 1658, it was the return of the Court from French exile in 1660 that created the characteristic Restoration style. The explosion of creative talent after the puritan Commonwealth must have seemed rather like the creative outburst in the 1920s after the grimness of WW1. Adaptations of Molière’s style of Commèdia dell’Arte-inspired comedies of manners were very popular, and playwrights such as Vanbrugh, Congreve, and the first female dramatist Aphra Behn, developed sophisticated English versions, full of wit and sexual innuendo. This called for the latest fashionable costume, usually supplied by the actors themselves - or in the case of actresses, by their titled admirers if there was more than one, given that Charles II exercised his droit de seigneur by ‘auditioning’ nearly every one who appeared on the stage, and could hardly have been expected to pay for all their frocks. That the first actress appeared at all on the professional stage -on December 8th 1660- was due wholly to the fact that all theatres were licensed by the Crown. The puritan influence remained strong and deeply hostile, and doubtless women had to overcome the same prejudices from within the hitherto-wholly-male profession that non-Caucasian actors do today; but in this matter and in the importation of the violin orchestra, in imitation of Louis XIV’s XXIV Violons du Roi, Charles unknowingly ushered in the modern age.
We can therefore deduce that there must have been three types of costume worn on stage from the Restoration until the 19thC. Firstly, a style of dress that aimed to evoke the latest fashions which was used for contemporaneous plays; secondly, stylised ‘antique’ costumes used for Opera and Ballet; the third type was the hybrid mix of garments familiar from the pre-Commonwealth period, but with operatic, nationalistic and Commèdia additions. Traditions which lasted right into the 20thC had probably already grown up around certain key characters, such as Shylock, Falstaff and especially Macbeth.
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In a 17thC engraving of the interior of the Red Bull Theatre, Clerkenwell Falstaff is shown in doublet and breeches with turned-down laced-topped boots, a wide-brimmed hat and a falling collar that probably was already a Falstaffian stereotype.
Meanwhile the tradition of ‘Roman’ costume became rigidly stylised over the next two-thirds of a century. As companies and actors vied with each other for ever greater display armour grew in size and elaboration. So ridiculous had the business of the actors’ helmets become by 1711, each with a carefully graduated hierarchy of ostrich feathers, that Thomas Addison remarked in The Spectator, that this ‘very much embarrasses the actor, who is forced to hold his neck extremely stiff and steady all the while he speaks, and notwithstanding any anxieties which he pretends for his mistress, his country or his friends, one may see by his actions, that his greatest care and concern is to keep the plume of feathers from falling off his head. For my own part, when I see a man uttering his complaints under such a mountain of feathers, I am apt to look upon him rather as an unfortunate lunatic than a distressed hero.’

Similarly, since as leading lady the heroine’s dignity demanded that she wear a train, this required a page in constant attendance – of which Addison wrote ‘I do not know how others are affected at this sight, but I must confess, my eyes are wholly taken up with the page’s part. It is, in my opinion, a very odd spectacle, to see a queen venting her passion in disordered motions, and a little boy taking care all the while that they do not ruffle the tail of her gown.’ (This description would fit a Japanese Kabuki performance to this day, and those who have seen one may agree that it is strange how one can be affected by the emotional quality of a performance despite its being surrounded by circumstances which emphasise its artificiality.)
The same considerations governed the fact that altho Garrick discarded his stage periwig in 1757, which was by then absurdly old-fashioned, yet he replaced it with a less elaborate contemporary one as he still could not bring himself to be so ‘ungentlemanly’ as to appear in public in his own hair, therefore as Macbeth he adopted the curious convention of adding a wild horse-tail of hair to the back to a tightly curled, white powdered wig.
Altho people today imagine the kilt is traditional Scottish dress it was in fact an invention of the first quarter of the 18thC, following in the wake of the ‘Ossian writings’ which appeared to indicate an early Scottish culture but were later shown to be fakes. The belted-plaid for general wear was little more than a century older. Macbeth had been produced in Edinburgh in 1757, ‘new dress’d after the manner of the Antient Scots’, and this probably inspired Macklin to imitation, but one should not imagine that anyone at this period had a very clear idea what ‘antient dresses’ were like. Laver says ‘Miss St Clare Byrne lends her great authority to the view ‘that from 1762 onwards an attempt was made, in the history plays only, to get away from contemporary dress.’’
The antiquarian Strutt brought out his Horda Angelcynnan in 1776, and in the same year a dramatic critic complained that, in the revival of Macbeth at Covent Garden, Banquo ‘looked like a Saxon warrior, and Macbeth in his regal dress resembled the King of Diamonds.’

Historical Accuracy

As early as 1731 Aaron Hill, a successful playwright, had demanded that Garrick provide a historically accurate setting for his Anglo-Saxon play The Generous Traitor or Æthelwold, and sent him costume drawings. Tho history does not relate how far Garrick humoured his author, it was nevertheless advertised with ‘new habits, Scenes and other Decorations proper to the Play’; but he went on to publish a theatrical journal, The Prompter 1734-6, in which he inveighed at ‘the ridiculous Dresses, in which our inferior Sons of the Buskin generally make their Appearance.’
In the mid-18thC a similar reformation was occuring, quite separately, on the Paris stage. The leading actress Mlle Clairon had long been chid by the author and philosopher Marmontel for sticking too closely to the classic Comédie Française style of declamatory speaking and dress. Therefore when she played Roxanne at the little theatre at Versailles in 1752 he and the entire audience was mesmerised to find that she had laid aside the enormous hoop of formal dress and appeared ‘in the habit of a sultana ? her arms half-naked,’ scaling down her performance likewise. When congratulated, Mlle Clairon gave her reasons, rather prosaically, as having just toured to Bordeaux where the smallness of the stage obliged her to scale down her actions and declamation. Notwithstanding her success she bemoaned the fact that ‘the truth of declamation requires that of dress; all my rich stage wardrobe is from this moment rejected; I lose 1200 guineas worth of dresses.’ Later she even abandoned the pannier for her art! Her principal rival, Mme Favart, went even further at Le Théâtre Italien and disused the practice of making up the face into a stiff white mask, asking ‘Is it possible that an actress, whose countenance is enamelled with paint, and consequently incapable of any motion, can give expression to the passions of rage, terror, despair, love or anger?’ In 1761 she and her actor-director husband Charles-Simon Favart were perhaps the first to pursue authenticity to the lengths of having female costumes for Les Trois Sultanes made in Constantinople.

Diderot’s somewhat Shavian introduction to his 1758 play Le Père de Famille states that the costume cannot be too simple, ‘for Cécile, only the robe de chambre of a wealthy girl is needed. I will concede the Commander, if you wish, some braid and a walking stick … But everything is spoiled if Sophie is not dressed in Siam cotton and Mme Hébert in a commoner’s Sunday best. Saint-Albin is the only one whose age and station will make me, in the second act, accept a certain elegance and luxury.’
A real awareness of period grew steadily under the influence of the historical self-consciousness brought about by the Gothick movement of the late 18thC, people began to feel that the rather uneasy mixture of the Roman heroick manner and the attenuated remnants of the Elizabethan tradition of costuming was unsatisfactory. From the Restoration period onward Shakespeare was rarely played from its original texts, as it was considered too ‘rude’ (barbarous) for a more ‘polished’ age. Many dramatists from Dryden onwards had a hand in updating the scripts, and many amusing versions exist, such as the Romeo & Juliet with a happy ending which David Edgar so effectively gave to the Crummles troupe in the RSC’s 1981 Nicholas Nickleby.
But with a thirst for Shakespeare’s original texts came a completely new approach to stage costume where a quest for historical accuracy (whatever that could possibly mean in Shakespeare’s case) began to grow in significance for theatre professionals and audience alike - that has continued ever since. The trunk-hose gave way to a kind of knee-length tunic, thought to be mediæval, tho it was not in fact very close to any genuine historical costume. This was due largely to the influence of JR Planché. He was not only a librettist -of Weber’s Oberon- and a member of the Royal College of Heralds -Rouge Croix Pursuivant, no less- but he was a designer for the stage and author of an enormous two-volume Cyclopædia of Costume. In him the antiquary and the costume-designer met, and he was therefore not likely to accept the approximations to historical accuracy that had formerly passed muster. He offered to design the costumes for Charles Kemble’s King John without charge, and the playbill issued shows his approach to the problem:
‘This present Monday, January 19, 1824, will be revived Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King John with an attention to Costume never equalled on the English Stage. Every character will appear in the precise HABIT OF THE PERIOD, the whole of the Dresses and Decorations being executed from indisputable Authorities.’
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The production’s success was such, Planché wrote in his Recollections and Reflections, that ‘receipts for £400-600 nightly soon reimbursed the management for the expense of the production, and a complete reformation of dramatic costume became from that moment inevitable on the English stage.’ However it had not been plain sailing during rehearsals. ‘Never,’ he added, ‘shall I forget the dismay of some of the performers when they looked upon the flat-topped chapeaux de fer (fer blanc, I confess) of the 12thC, which they irreverently sitgmatised as stewpans. Nothing but the fact that the classical features of a Kemble were to be surmounted by a precisely similar abomination would, I think, have induced one of the rebellious barons to have appeared in it. They had no faith in me, and sulkily assumed their new and strange habiliments, in the full belief that they should be roared at by the audience. They were roared at; but in a much more agreeable way than they had contemplated [and it] was accompanied by four distinct rounds of applause, so general and so hearty. that the actors were astonished.’
Likewise, Charles Kean, a true Victorian, was determined to have an educative effect in the historical plays, and the tradition he established has, on the whole, been maintained. One who acknowledged his debt to Kean was Henry Irving (1838-1905). He had also been greatly impressed by the disciplined ensemble and dramatic coherence of Duke of Meiningen’s Company who toured Europe in the 1880s and were the direct fore-runners of the ideas of ensemble acting developed by Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre. Describing their performance, the French dramatist André Antoine wrote to a friend : ‘Their stage crowds are not, as with us, composed of elements gathered at random from artisans, engaged only for dress rehearsals, badly dressed, and little practised in wearing bizarre or awkward costumes, especially when they are accurate. The Meiningen Company consists of some 66 artists of both sexes. All who do not play a speaking part are required to appear nightly as supernumeraries in the play. In this way the Meininger achieve ensemble scenes that are extraordinary lifelike.’ Commenting with admiration on the novel and expressive use the actors made of turning their backs to the audience, Antoine goes on to disparage the costumes, which he describes as ‘splendid but ridiculously rich when they are strictly historical’ and ‘almost always in bad taste’ when, for want of documentary evidence ‘imagination and originality must be employed.’
No such criticism could be laid at Irving’s door. Indeed, of Ellen Terry’s sleep walking scene his 1888 Macbeth the critic Edward Russell wrote ‘Miss Terry is here again beautifully dressed [by Mrs Comyns Carr], but is now in drapery, dove-colour across white. If one were seeing the scene for the first time, its touchingness would seem infinite.’ An incidental feature of the production was Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music, of which Russell wrote ‘the battle scenes had a peculiar effect upon me. The soldiers ‘off’ sang as they fought. Simulated distance made it a kind of hum, but there was a distinct tune in it.’ Or was this an echo from The Gondoliers which was playing to packed houses at the nearby Savoy theatre?

Theatre as Science II: Technology

What changed attitudes to costume as much as any other single thing was improvements in lighting. Covent Garden had gas lighting as early as 1817, although it had the slightly embarrassing tendency to burn theatres down. At once detailing began to show up as the light source became more directional, and subtler colours could be used without swallowing up all the available light like a black hole. The old style ‘glitter costumes’ had long since been abandoned due to the increasing historical self-consciousness, but it remained the practice to keep all the house lights full up throughout the performance. In 1846 the Paris Opéra experimented with electric arc lights, which must have been truly revolutionary. It was not until 1881 that the Savoy became the first London theatre to have electric stage lighting and its own generator. However it was Irving at the Lyceum who was responsible for the greatest innovation, that of lowering the house lights during the performance. In fact, Wagner may have actually been the very first to do this in his newly-completed theatre at Bayreuth in 1876, a novelty which undoubtedly contributed to the tremendous ‘modernity’ of his operas.

Drama as Psychology: Shaw & Costume

Of the fathers of 20thC playwriting, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov and Shaw, only the last exhibited any great interest in costume beyond its function as a dramatic signifier. He gave meticulous descriptions of his characters’ clothes and, in researching into Bulgarian uniforms and settings for Arms & The Man, used his very considerable draughtsmanship to give what were, in effect, a set of costume drawings. In his entertaining account of the tortuous rehearsals of Pygmalion in 1914 Richard Huggett makes clear that Shaw’s revolutionary concern with text and dramatic truth extended into every detail of the production – to the terminal perplexity of the producer and leading man Herbert Beerbohm Tree who had never been directed in his life, let alone by a writer. When not sending Tree copious notes in green ink (which occasioned Tree’s immaculate response ‘I will not say that everyone who writes eight page letters in green ink is a madman, but it is a remarkable coincidence that few but madmen write letters in green ink of eight pages’) Shaw had his hands full scolding and cajoling the notoriously wayward 49 year old Mrs Patrick Campbell into playing a credible 18 year old. Indeed Mrs Pat -Stella, to Shaw- placed the final straw on the production’s back by a fortnight’s abrupt disappearance during rehearsals and her subsequent return as Mrs Cornwallis-West (occasioning her great line that she had ‘exchanged the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue for the deep peace of the marriage bed’). The playbill shows that production followed the practice of the period, where the principals’ dresses were made by a leading couturier, ‘Mrs Patrick Campbell’s Dresses by Handley Seymour and Miss Stone’, with ‘Other Dresses by Miss Leverick,’ doubtless a less expensive costume-maker.
As the men required conventional contemporary they would have been expected to supply their own, or hire them. Given the explosion of theatre-building that had followed 1843 act which ended the unique privileges of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, by 1914 there were a considerable number of hire shops for men’s clothes, of which the oldest was Lewis Nathan who had opened for business as a gentleman’s tailor in 1790 and who in 1846 branched out into hiring a ‘stock of liveries from the best families, much bedecked with silver’ to enable the working classes to evade an ordinance forbidding ‘persons of the artisan class’ from entering the Royal Parks. Two years later the first evidence of theatrical hiring comes in the form of a writ for £123 against an actor-manager for a set of Othello costumes. Later Nathan’s merged with Berman’s costume house, and in 1992 Berman’s and Nathan’s were taken over Angel’s, who had themselves been founded in 1840. Leading Ladies’ costumes, then as now, were invariably made rather than hired.
Writing his memoirs in the year Lewis Nathan opened for business, 1790, the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson comments on the stage appearance of ‘country performers loaded with trumpery: Yet those despicable clothes had, at different periods of time, bedecked real lords and dukes, and were bought at much less price than now; and would produce, by one day’s labour of stripping merely the old material, forty or fifty pounds to provide a supper if the stomach required. … An old petticoat, made for a large hoop of the Duchess of Northumberland, 30 years ago, would have served a queen in the theatre several years, and then descended to a duchess of Suffolk, afterwards made two handsome tragedy shapes for an old rich Spaniard, and 10 years after that burn and produce money to purchase 30 yards of lustring for a modern stage lady.’
In Paris the English couturier Charles Frederick Worth had opened his salon in 1858, and made a point of cultivating theatrical connections, as a result he was patronised by most of the leading artists, such as Bernhardt, Albani, Patti and Melba, and even provided the costume for Eugénie Doch as La Dame aux Camélias in the premiere of Dumas fils’ scandalous play, which was later used by Verdi as the basis for La Traviata.
Altho the practice of aristocrats donating clothes to players had stopped rather abruptly in France in 1789 it soon petered out elsewhere Europe. But during the Second Empire in France (1852-70) such was the prodigality of Empress Eugénie, who changed her clothes twice a day, never wore a dress more than once and insisted on all her courtiers following suit – if you’ll allow the pun. French hire shops were said still to be full of this deluge of second-hand dress clothes at the time of the First World War, 50 years later.

Drama as Magic: Ballet Costume in the 20thC

Usually costume design reflects what is happening in fashion and fine art, adapting the spirit of the age to its own expressive needs, but for a few heady years at the turn of the century stage design charged triumphantly into the lead with Léon Bakst’s designs for the Ballets Russe’s production of Schehérazade which dominated European fashion and interior design. Serge Diaghilev, impresario and presiding genius of Les Ballets Russes, continued to be immensely influential in terms of 20thC music and dance styles, his company never again produced so universal an effect: tho with Le Sacre de Printemps, 1913, Nijinsky [dance] Rœrich [design & scenario] and Stravinsky [music] evoked a shamanic quality, long absent from European drama, uncannily adumbrating the coming slaughter.
It is therefore both interesting and instructive to consider that Diaghilev was in reality far less revolutionary than he seems. For instance, while Edward Gordon Craig was experimenting with abstract moving sets, Diaghilev’s productions were always based on the wing and backdrop tradition of classical ballet, and his dancers too, while greatly extending the concept of character dancing, did not fundamentally deviate from the 19thC traditions of footwork.
The one area where Diaghilev’s designers, Picasso, Benois, Matisse and de Chirico among them, did break new ground was in costume. This was the direct result of costumes being designed as part of a graphic process to be imposed on the body, rather than being thought of as performance clothes. Perhaps the first and best known example would be Parade of 1917 – in which the collaborators, Massine [dance] Satie [music] and Picasso [design], were inspired by Cocteau’s scenario to create what they, as war-beleaguered Europeans, believed to be the ragtime world of New York, and for which Picasso designed fantastical cubist costumes. This line of experimentation was carried a stage further in 1927 with La Chatte to ‘architectural and sculptural designs’ by Naum Gabo and Anton Pevsner and the ‘constructions and designs’ of G Yakoulov for Le Pas d’Acier. Les Ballets Russes were certainly not the only dance company offering avant-garde work, the Ballets Suedois under Rolf de Maré was in fact considerably more adventurous -see below- prefering the succès de scandale to the succès d’estime.
A more recent use of this principle was Ralph Steadman’s designs for Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO in 1979, where he succeeded in making the costumes, and therefore the characters, look remarkably like his famously hysterical scribbles.
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While Les Ballets Russes paved the way for many of the innovations we take for granted today, 20thC scenography really owes its origins to that strange wayward genius Edward Gordon Craig, whose actress mother Ellen Terry underwrote his early designing and directing experiments. But his frustrations with the exigencies of working with actors led him eventually to withdraw from human beings and to recreate his own imaginary world through puppet theatre.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) to costume design because other aspects of her life and death have been sensationalised. Yet she embodied a turn of the century movement which aspired to reestablish a kind of pagan simplicity in art and life which interacted strongly with Impressionism. ‘In her dances, Duncan drew on simple steps … Her works seemed to be spontaneous expressions, and many still confuse Duncan's choreography with improvisation. The freedom which Duncan expressed in her dancing was the result of structured compositions that bear clear relationship to the music, the performing space, and the audience.’ She usually wore a simple undyed tunic, gathered at the shoulder, except on the night of the Russian Revolution when, dancing in New York, she wore red to show her progressive sympathies. Duncan herself said of her danced performances of Tannhäuser, ‘my transparent tunic, showing every part of my dancing body, had created some stir amidst the pink-covered legs of the ballet.’ Therefore Frau Cosima Wagner vainly sent her ‘a long white chemise which she begged me to wear under the filmy scarf which served me for a costume.’ Another account of her was given in The [NY] Sun, 15th November 1908: ‘She is swathed from the waist down in a wonderful bit of Chinese embroidery. Her short, dark hair is rolled in a loose knot at the nape of the her neck, parted simply, Madonna like, about her face.’ By dancing barefoot, which Diaghilev’s dancers would never have considered, she was the acknowledged model of Martha Graham’s (1894-1991) Modern Dance school.
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There is a direct connection between Duncan and Craig since they had a child together in 1905. She subsequently arranged for Craig to design Rosmershölm for Eleanora Duse in Florence, but from her account it is clear that he cared little for the actors and nothing at all for the costumes. He subsequently broke with Duse when his set had to be adapted to fit other theatres.
Another American dancer who should not pass without mention in the history of costume is Loie Fuller (1862-1928) who, in the words of the US costume designer Melanie Schuessler, ‘made costume intrinsic to her art rather than a decoration of it’. Duncan was briefly in her company in the 1890s and left this account of Fuller’s experimental work with a range of costume designs and the early use of electric stage lighting: ‘Loie Fuller transformed herself into a thousand colourful images before the eye of her audience. [She] originated all the changing colours and floating Liberty scarves.’ Like Duncan, Fuller was never taken seriously by the classical ballet establishment but these women’s emphasis on the free expression of the costumed dancing figure -rather than the theatrical paraphernalia of narrative and scenery- made them true precursors of such seminal choreographers as Merce Cunningham (b1919) and especially the choreographer/designer Alwin Nikolais (1912-1993) whose narrativeless works involving light projections in place of decor disguised dancers inside a range of stretch materials with which he created a completely abstract sense of space and movement, often with electronic music, some of which Nikolais himself also composed. Some of the titles of his many ballets from the 1950s – Noumenon, Echo, Kaleidoscope, Tensile Integrations – well express a radical vision which, original and striking at the time, now seems positively prophetic of such abstractions as cyber-space and computer-driven speech synthesis.
Nikolais was influenced by the meta-physical forms of the Bauhaus designer Oskar Schlemmer, but while Schlemmer’s constructivist Triadic Ballet, conceived in 1912 but not premiered till 1922, sought to turn shapes into bodies, that is, to use dancers to animate static geometric designs, Nikolais sought to turn bodies into morphic shapes, whereby plastic movement was defined by the physical capacity of the dancers but was not expressive of the human form,
It may seem a violent gear-change to leap from such ideas to that of the Ziegfield Follies, but the link here is the extraordinary exotic and erotic costume constructions of Erté, the nom de plume of Russian émigré Romain de Tirthoff. Building his reputation as the leading cabaret-costume designer on his work for Josephine Baker, Erté was part of the Parisian cultural melting pot that also included the choreographer Rolf de Maré whose Ballets Suedois electrified Paris in 1923 with La Création du Monde designed by Fernand Léger, a negro ballet inspired by the composer Darius Milhaud’s visit to Harlem, and the following year caused outrage with Relâche, a dadaist anti-design ballet by Francis Picabia [scenario] and Erik Satie [music] in which the prima ballerina appeared in wellington boots and her partner danced holding a wheelbarrow. But Erté soon left this cultural ferment for the flesh-pots of New York where his genius was immediately recognised by the fashion industry and his breath-takingly extravagant Follies costumes for Florence Ziegfield – a tradition perpetuated by his successor Florence Klotz.
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Drama as Religion: British 20thC Theatre

Meanwhile in England, despite Michel St Denis and Harley Granville Barker spearheading the concept of directors’ theatre, Craig’s innovations were slow to take hold, partly because of his own rebarbative temperament, and partly because the budgets for progressive theatre were -as ever- small. So seriously did Granville Barker, Shaw, Barry Jackson and other 20thC theatre-progressives take the idea of repertory theatre companies and of founding a National Theatre that it would not be exaggerating to describe it and the ethos prevailing later at the Royal Court as a fully-fledged secular religion. Nevertheless British conservatism meant that most directors continued to be called, and thought of as, stage managers while producers were theatre managers - a tradition perpetuated in The Society of West End Theatre Managers to this day.
Among those who pioneered scenic design as something beyond ‘realistic’ set decoration were René Alio, Glen Byam Shaw and Motley, the professional name of the Harris sisters. Both Byam Shaw and Margaret (Percy) Harris founded theatre design schools. Also influential as designer was Claud Lovat Fraser, whose brilliant solution to an extremely restricted budget for designing The Beggar’s Opera, at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1921, was to use the shapes of the period (1728) but to restrict each costume to a single colour, without any decoration or detailing, and to use contemporary hair styles.
Three years later [Sir] Barry Jackson galvanised Birmingham, and then London, with a production of Hamlet in modern dress in which the player-prince was deliberately modeled on Edward Prince of Wales, whose determination to shake off the fustian image of monarchy struck a chord at the time. In one sense this was Shakespeare come full circle, but in another only indicated the degree of alienation that existed between the 16th and the 20thC. It led to a rash of modern dress productions of the classic repertoire including the same company’s Macbeth with the men as members of a highland regiment and Lady Macbeth in the newly fashionable short skirt, with fluffy bedroom slippers for the sleepwalking scene.
In Costume on the Stage 1600-1940 Diana de Marly describes the working conditions in West End Theatre wardrobe departments. At that time they still had ‘only a small permanent staff, and when a new play was coming up the wardrobe mistress would engage seamstresses to make the clothes, and then fire them when the work was over. There was a floating population of seamstresses moving from theatre to theatre, as the work became available, while the costume fitter [someone who in those days combined the role of cutter and supervisor] often had her own team of girls who would follow her from job to job. They all needed to live with their ears close to the ground to listen out for the next production.’ Plus ça change.

Drama as Decor: Hollywood

In the USA Film was anything but penniless, and producers vied with each other to create ever more spectacular shows. Altho the British Theatre has been loathe to admit the influence of Film, Hollywood’s continuing infatuation with the costume spectacular undoubtedly played a part in raising the public expectation of high production values in drama generally. Nobody’s designs more fully embodied the spirit of Hollywood fantasy than Adrian (Adrian Greenburg 1903-1959) who responded to De Mille’s instruction “Don’t design anything you could possible buy in a store” by experimenting with textures and shades of fabrics decorated with sequins, glitter, beads and bows that created an illusion of colour within the black and white images. He it was who created the predatory Garbo look as well as the fluffy feminine Norma Shearer and the blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, while for Myrna Loy, whose subtle acting he admired, Adrian provided understated costumes which would allow her talents full expression. Later, for Joan Crawford, he created the ‘American Silhouette’ which he successfully exploited as a signature couture line. And with the advent of colour Adrian even used his skill to create the enduring images of The Wizard of Oz.
The other side of Hollywood costume design was effectively a direct continuation of time-honoured theatre practice of endeavouring to create, or at least interact closely with, the cutting edge of fashion. No reference to US Film is complete without mention of Edith Head, whose 126 film career ranged from She Done Him Wrong (1933) via The Ten Commandments (1956) to The Sting (1973), for which she received a total of eight Oscars. She always found a way of giving the common-place a subtle twist which made it memorable.
Within as brief an overview as this it’s impossible to mention everyone who deserves it, particularly in non-English-speaking cultures, but Piero Tosi’s distinguished and brilliantly-judged costumes on many of Visconti’s films should not be ignored.
Drama as Literature: Costume Design into the 21stC
Like ‘Percy’ Harris, whose work with Lawrence Olivier and others won her many awards both sides of the Atlantic before and after WW2, another distinguished designer of that generation still living is Tanya Moiseiwitsch, whose subtle and stylish productions with Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis and Stratford, Ontario was further distinguished by her having also designed for those theatres, and the Crucible Sheffield, the characteristic thrust stage which places a much more emphasis on the actor and her costume. Miss Moiseiwitsch’s importance was recently honoured with a permanent display of her work in the London Theatre Museum, while the Motley Design School is a permanent memorial to Miss Harris.
Tho the Royal Court was a power house of post-war British theatre it was not the only one. Another very influential design movement was cradled in the populist environment of The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where Joan Littlewood’s migratory Theatre Workshop finally came to rest. Here the work of Sean Kenny and the great John Bury opened up the theatre space by simply ignoring the pros[cenium] arch. Both rejected drawing as a means of expressing their ideas, prefering to work directly on a scale model of the set. Audiences were stunned by the immense interlocking blocks and staircases of Kenny's Dickensian London created for the first production of Oliver, the joke of the time being that audiences came out whistling the set. (It is significant that both Kenny and his European counterpart Josef Svoboda were architects.)
This was a far remove from the elegantly costumed of Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel and Leslie Hurry favoured by the king of the West End, HM Tennant producer Binkie Beaumont. Theatre design as we know it today sprang out of a denial of this decorative painterly tradition, and has its æsthetic origins in the economy of Karl von Appen’s work for the Berliner Ensemble, which was first seen in England in the 50s. This profoundly influenced the Royal Court’s principal designer Jocelyn Herbert, whose versatility has ranged from Brecht to Birtwistle’s opera The Mask of Orpheus, and through her the following generation.
Through his long association with [Sir] Peter Hall John Bury bestrode the British theatre for 30 years. Altho not principally a draughtsman he took a great interest in costume, conceiving the pierrots for Oh What a Lovely War. At Stratford, where Bury became the first Head of Design he created the look for Hall’s seminal Wars of the Roses cycle with the costumes executed by Ann Curtis, who created extraordinary garments of metalized leather and hessian which were covered in buckets full of the dubious smelling mud mix called 'gunk', made of rabbit-skin glue, stage paint and sawdust, and every costume was hemmed and spattered in the stuff to create images of the squalid grandeur of the thirty years war which were light-years away from the silk and velvet elegance of Beaton and Messel. Subsequently, Bury followed Hall to the [Royal] National Theatre as Head of Design where, with his co-designer and wife Elizabeth Bury, he supervised every detail of his productions including lighting. Ann Curtis went on to have a busy career as a costume designer in her own right.
Also at Stratford in 1971 was the production that signposted the next, some would say other, main direction in costume design. For A Midsummer Night's Dream Peter Brook and designer Sally Jacobs devised a plain white box to create the perfect neutral space for the action, into which the fairies descended on trapezes wearing clown suits in primary colours, not a wig or a corset in sight.

At the Royal Court theatre John Gunter and I, working with the director Peter Gill unwittingly started what has been dismissively referred to as the Hovis Ad school of design, which was one of heightened poetic realism. While all Court directors worked closely with their designers, Peter took detailed collaboration into a different league. Every pinafore and shawl, every nuance of applied coal-dust and sweat stain became a proper subject for the most intense and prolonged scrutiny. This obsessive care based on the build-up of minutely, lovingly observed detail permeated every aspect of the process, resulting, when everything worked, in productions of a perfect, and moving clarity, like the miniatures of Nicholas Hilliard or the paintings of Winslow Homer.
In that era of very different values, the BBC was an integrated studio environment with a properly funded costume design department and wardrobe, from whom came a stream of lovingly realised costume dramas, epitomised by the sumptuously accurate clothes created in 1974 for Galsworthy’s epic novel The Pallisers. Almost for the first time in the history of popular drama, the costume designer Raymond Hughes suceeded in taking a completely fresh look at the 19thC world without feeling the need to reinterpret it for a contemporary audience.
By the end of the 1980s, design in the theatre had moved from architectural grandeur, a sense of history and a unified display to ‘a kind of magpie resourcefulness, whereby actors wore whatever their characters might have worn, had they been around at this time a vertiginous disorientation stemming both from German Expressionism in the twenties and from Russian Constructivism before 1917’ in the words of Michael Radcliffe in 20thC British Theatre.
What might be called classical costume design is currently somewhat marginalised, at least in the straight theatre, with its major exponents, working mostly in big musicals such as the late Maria Björnson, The Phantom of the Opera, or film such as Mark Thompson The Madness of King George III.
Younger designers and directors such as Richard Hudson have created environments where nothing, even gravity has remained intact. In common with other art forms, direct response to emotional stimuli is distrusted so that everything, to be acceptable, must be a ‘take’, a parallel experience or ironic reference to something else. Strangely enough, only in film is this double or triple vision largely absent. In fact we live in an age when film directors such Peter Greenaway and the late Derek Jarman probably pay more attention to the stylisation of costume than ever before. Even the futuristic worlds of Spielberg or Lucas being costumed using surprisingly traditional values, but then irony has never been exactly to the forefront of popular entertainment.
US Theatre by Melanie Schuessler
Due to lack of public funding, US theatre has always relied far more on its receipts than the more heavily subsidised productions of some European countries. The National Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965, but with funding down from a 1992 peak of $176M to $98M in 1998 it is not able to offer more than token support to theatre companies, and comes under attack each time the federal budget is renewed. Therefore a history of 20thC design in the USA is as much an economic history as an artistic one. Theatre became big business in the first half of the century as the Syndicate, composed of booking agents and theatre owners, and rival corporations vied for the lucrative touring engagements. The Syndicate came to control most of America’s touring circuit by granting full-season bookings of star attractions to managers who agreed to schedule exclusively through them. The Schuberts, a family venture begun in opposition to the Syndicate, eventually cornered most of the touring business before the federal government, invoking anti-trust laws, ordered it to sell off many of its theatres in 1956. Thereafter, American theatre can be divided roughly into commercial or popular theatre and art theatre, with crossover between the two pretty much a one-way affair.
Early 20thC costume design in America continued the 19thC fascination with realism. Costume, sets, and lighting carefully treated the pros arch as a fourth wall, creating a ‘realistic’, and presumably believable, world behind it. Fashion played a major role also, and many leading ladies’ dresses came straight from Paris couturiers rather than local costumiers. The Theatre magazine in 1910 devoted several pages each month to a section on current styles, and even historical plays showed the influence of the fashionable silhouette. (Current fashion has continued to infiltrate period film and theatre costume throughout the century despite all efforts at accuracy.)
In contrast, Revue garnered a considerable following during its heyday for spectacle and exoticism (1915-1925). Revues specialised in numerous tenuously-linked numbers and, because they remained in one theatre rather than touring like Vaudeville, made full use of lush sets and costumes. The Ziegfield Follies dominated, producing a new show each year from 1907-1927 and sporadically thereafter until 1960. Early Follies made use of fashionable Parisian designers like Erté and the House of Callot as well as the European flavour of Lucille, Lady Duff Gordon, “the supreme dictator of elegance in women’s fashions during World War I.” Lucille’s salon models became some of the first “Ziegfield girls.” Later designers have less of the couturier and more of the costume designer about them: WH Matthews Jr, James Reynolds, and even Miles White, who designed several Broadway hits.
Eschewing both realism and glitz, Art theatre began in part through the influence of the ‘new stagecraft’, a set of European trends that penetrated American theatre slowly, beginning in small theatres like the Washington Square Players in New York and the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts. In 1914 the first theatre degree program began at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and thereafter drama departments appeared in universities across the country. After World War I, the importation of European productions and designers including Jacques Copeau and Max Reinhardt helped to inspire American theatre. The new stagecraft, led by Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia, focussed primarily on innovations in lighting and set design, though some adherents designed all aspects of their productions. Craig designed only one production for the American stage: Macbeth in New York in 1928. Appia’s designs primarily graced stages in Germany and England, but unlike Craig, he had specific ideas about costume. He focussed on the ‘harmonious balance between the actor’s form and the rest of the stage picture. Relieved thus from the fetters of realism and sumptousness the costumes can assume their proper function--to serve the performer.’
Perhaps the most enduring playwright to emerge during this period was Eugene O’Neill, considered by many the grandparent of US drama. His first play, Bound East For Cardiff (1916), was set aboard an ocean liner, contrasting life in the boiler room with that of the first class passengers. This was the first time the US theatre public had had such a well-focused mirror held up to the condition of their own proletariat, as opposed to imported European, and the effect was electrifying.
Principal US designers of the new stagecraft movement included Norman Bel Geddes, Lee Simonson, and Robert Edmond Jones, whose brilliant yellows, oranges, and vermilions in the costumes for The Man who Married a Dumb Wife shocked a generation accustomed to the drab monotonies of realism. Simonson writes of ‘the prevailing conviction that all scenic investiture is of importance only as part of the impact of a script so interpreted and a performance so integrated, that the combination fills a stage with the added intensity that dramatic imagination can give to a miming of life.’ The idea of unity in design has since permeated US theatrical consciousness, broken only by the post-modern tendencies of the last two decades.
The Depression of 1929-30 decimated the US theatre, especially the smaller and more economically fragile art theatres. Motion pictures and radio provided cheaper entertainment, and the remaining theatres had to struggle to survive. Broadway, the most commercially-oriented theatre scene and thus the most economically viable in difficult times, competed with the extravagant escapism of the Follies-style glamour films of the 1930s. Musicals dominated Broadway stages with costumes designed in the style of cartoony heightened realism still common today. The ‘can-do’ energy of perfomers such as Kelly, Cagney, Garland and Merman projected US entertainment across the world.
A noble attempt by playwright Du Bose Heyward to depict poverty and racism Porgy and Bess was an honourable exception. Expanded by George Gershwin into an operatic Musical in 1933, nevertheless its all-black cast and inentionally dingy design stuck in Broadway’s throat. The piece languished until the 1960s, when popular taste was more ready to accept Gershwin’s stipulation of a black cast.
It is sometimes argued that while British theatre is literary in origin, US theatre is musical. The 40s and 50s were indeed a golden age of Broadway Musicals: Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, and Hello, Dolly all shared the heightened realism and exotic fantasy of the 1930s. Some costume designers crossed back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood, most notably Cecil Beaton (My Fair Lady, 1956), Irene Sharoff (The King and I, 1950, West Side Story, 1957), and Adrian (Camelot, 1960). No director more symbolised old-style Broadway than George Abbott whose legendary productions between 1925-1982 included Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game. He remained active till just before his death in 1995 at the age of 108, and is now memorialised in the eponymous George Abbott theatre.
But as the 50s drew to a close the mood darkened, the heady optimism was punctured by Musicals such asWest Side Story which ushered in the era of quasi-realism and of Stephen Sondheim. This led via Hal Prince to Bob Fosse, the ultimate choreographer-control freak, and shows such as A Chorus Line and Sunday In The Park With George which were the antithesis of Tin Pan Alley razzmatazz. A major force in costume design in this period on Broadway as well as in film, opera, ballet, and television was Theoni V Aldredge, whose credits date back to 1950. But from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), she contributed to a string of hits including Hair’s off-Broadway debut in 1968, A Chorus Line (1975), Annie (1977), and La Cage aux Folles (1983) as well as numerous shows for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Of costume design she says “good design is design you’re not aware of. It must exist as part of the whole – as an aspect of characterization … A performance will suffer if an actor doesn’t love his costume, and it’s your job to make him love it.”
In the decades after WW2 spoken drama tended toward a stylised realism. In such original plays as Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Jo Mielziner's designs ‘eliminated nonessentials but retained realistic elements’ to achieve a degree of stylisation which accentuated the uniquely theatrical qualities of each play. The split between commercial and art theatre in New York became formalised with the emergence of Off-Broadway. Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, a failure on Broadway, was produced at the Circle in the Square in 1952, winnning critical acclaim and bringing attention to the diversity and quality of off-Broadway offerings. Originally conceived as a way of avoiding the high fees and restrictive practices of Broadway, Off-Broadway offered an eclectic repertoire in a variety of theatre spaces, altho initially experimental its production styles tended to the traditional and eventually became indistinguishable from Broadway itself. This in turn prompted the formation of Off-off Broadway in 1958.
Frustrated with the concentration of theatre in New York, renowned British director Tyrone Guthrie was the powerful force in establishing two regional theatres, the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Founded a decade apart (1953 and 1963, respectively), both were designed around a thrust stage by Tanya Moiseiwitsch to place maximum emphasis on the actors rather than on the settings, and this gave an opportunity of her distinctive costumes to shine. Dedicated to providing theatre of the highest quality outside of New York, both remain among the most successful regional theatres in North America, tho with Stratford’s international reputation transcending its ‘regional’ status.
The 1960s and 70s saw the advent of many small theatre groups focussing on experimental theatre, environmental theatre, and other new forms. These performances commonly used the minimum in sets and costumes, often allowing actors to perform in their own clothes. Richard Schechner, the motivating force behind environmental theatre, includes an entire chapter on nakedness in his manifesto. Though literal nakedness was not always included in his costume design, it became a controversial part of many performances. His Performance Group’s first production, Dionysus in 69, included total nudity by performers and audience volunteers. A year earlier in 1968, Hair had opened on Broadway, occasioning intense controversy due to the use of obscenity and nudity on stage. Less than a decade later, both would be considered acceptable, though actors’ unions developed new sets of rules regarding nudity on stage to protect their members.
Some small theatre groups turned toward postmodernism in the 1970s and 80s. The Wooster Group and Robert Wilson exemplify two different approaches to post-modern design. The Wooster Group's collaborative, multi-media presentations have many layers of meaning and systems of connected as well as random referents. Their costumes may have been as much found as designed, tho all seem to be deliberate, unlike the wear your-own æsthetic of earlier experimental groups. In contrast, Robert Wilson's productions have a high level of design and feature a more traditional director/designer hierarchy. Christophe de Menil, costume designer of Wilson's The Golden Windows (1982), reports that the two costumes involved in the show took her five months to design. the CIVIL warS (1983) required extensive research of costume history to find the proper shapes for each section. Her process echoes the various associations found in Wilson’s productions: “I don’t sketch. I think from the body and the historical material and from the movement. Is the actor going to move sideways, is he going to dance or crawl?” Though post-modern in their far flung net of meanings and images, each of the production's costumes have a solid connection to their particular scene.
US theatre continues to evolve into the new century. Even Broadway has begun to recover, after decades of Lloyd Webber imports, and the recent work of Julie Taymor on The Lion King has introduced large-scale puppetry and a cohesive simplicity rich with surface detail in both sets and costumes. Taymor’s work has typically drawn on diverse cultural aesthetics, melding inspirations from Japan, India and Indonesia with forms from Chinese opera, Commèdia dell’Arte, and modern performance art to create fluid, molded pieces that capture the eye and the imagination. The fact that this approach has proven immensely successful at the box office is a cause for hope.