Theater Costume History Costumes have played a huge part in theater throughout its history. They provide not only visual stimulation for the audience, but also very important visual direction to help the audience understand both the storyline being presented, as well as the messages. Here we will discuss the changes in theatrical costumes, along with the historical situations that helped influence them. At first in dithyrambous, there were no actors. Thespis was the poet who imported the first hypocrit, Aeschylos the second and Sophocles the third one. Besides these actors, who were playing the leading parts, there were also some other persons on the orchestra, which is what the stage is called in this era.
These other persons were playing “dumb” roles, which means they were the followers. The hypocrits were always men, even if they were playing female roles, which had special implications for their costumes. In order to create a female appearance, they were playing while wearing the “prosternida” before the chest and the “progastrida” before the belly, which made them appear to have breasts and a pregnant belly. In order to look taller and more impressive they were wearing “cothornous, which were wooden shoes that had tall heels. These shoes were the same for both feet, meaning they had no specially fit or shaped right and left shoe. For their main clothing, they were dressed in long robes with vertical stripes (Brooke).
Creative collaboration among the costume designer, the director and the set and lighting designers ensures that the costumes are smoothly integrated into the production as a whole. Stage costumes can provide audiences with information about a character’s occupation, social status, gender, age, sense of style and tendencies towards conformity or individualism. As well, costumes can: reinforce ...
The most essential and well known part of their disguise was the mask. These masks were made ad hoc and they had large holes for the mouth and for the eyes. The mask was absolutely necessary as it was necessary in the dionyssiac religion. The use of masks in ancient greek theater draw their origin from the ancient dionysiac cult. Thespis was the first writer, who used a mask. The members of the chorus wore masks, which were usually similar to each other but were completely different from the masks worn by the leading actors.
Because the total number of actors varied from one to three, the actors had to put on different masks during the course of the performance in order to play different characters. Since the actors were all men, the mask was also a helpful and necessary component of the overall costume to let them play the female roles they had to assume. By wearing a female mask, they could cover up their obviously masculine faces, or beards. Some claim that the masks the actors wore had another significance, in that they added resonnance to the voice of an actor so that everyone in the huge ancient theater could hear him clearly. This is greatly disputed, however, because the ancient theaters were designed in such a way that their acoustics were near perfect, and even an audience member seated in the very last row can hear a whisper from the orchestra. Another interesting idea is that the mask could give to the character some sort of universality, creating an average figure, so that the audiance would judge him on his actions and not his appearance.
This was definitely one possible result of wearing the mask, but it has not been proven that this was an actual intention of the purpose of the mask. As for the actual fabrication of the masks, usually the masks were made of linen, wood, or leather. A marble or stone face was utilized as a mould for the mask. Human or animal hair was also used in places. The eyes were fully drawn but in the place of the pupil of the eye was a hole that was cut out so that the actor could see (Brooke).
Moving forward in time, theater was also very important to the Romans.
It played a large role in the lives of the Romans, as it was another way of keeping people busy, entertained, and happy so that they would not plot against the emperor. The huge amount of people present still held problems, as it did in Greek theater, because the audience would not always stay quiet and sound could become a major problem in presenting. To solve this major issue, costumes and mask were worn to show the type of person on stage. Different symbols were devised to signify different sexes, emotions, and class status. The actors would wear masks; the masks were colored brown for men, white for women, and were smiling or sad depending on the type of play. The costumes also showed the audience who the person was, meaning their status or age; a purple gown was worn to signal that the character was a rich man, a striped toga would signal that the character was a boy, a short cloak for a soldier, a red toga for a poor man, a short tunic for a slave etc.
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As in Greek theater women were not allowed act, so their parts were usually played by a man or young boys wearing a white mask. By the end of the Republic, classical drama had fallen largely out of favor. The most popular kinds of performances were the pantomimes, which also focused on masks for costuming, and used these masks along with body language to completely tell the story because the actors used no words. These elaborate performances usually involved one male dancer, called the pantomimus for he who imitates all things, who used gestures and dance to act out a simple story, usually based on a myth that the audience would recognize. The dancer was accompanied by a chorus and musicians along with elaborate staging, so in some respects the pantomime resembled a modern ballet (Brooke).
By the end of the Roman empire, theater had changed very significantly. The violent fights of gladiators won popularity, and with them came some obvious changes in costume. Gone were masks to help tell a story, and for their replacement were all sorts of armor and helmets to somewhat aid the gladiators in protecting themselves.
The actual armor that was usen these gladiators would vary greatly; some would have extensive protection in the form of a helmet, large shield, and varied coverings for the chest, arms, and legs. Others would have no elaborate armor for protection, and would only wield their weapon. One of main records of this type of theater, which are pictures on pottery and engravings, show that the apparel of gladiators was variable, as in some instances the gladiator would appear very covered, and almost completely bare in other instances. An interesting thing to note is that this armor would sometimes be used in a different way, other than simply protection. To make the battles last longer and be more interesting, the matches would need to be set to be somewhat fair. To achieve this balance, they would even out the ability of the two fighters by weighing one down with more armor, or giving him and occasionally her a better or worse weapon (Brooke).
... . This allowed the ordinary people to see these plays. Many of the actors were willing to bring the plays to the public by arranging ... a significant drain on the company budget. As the theater progressed, the costumes became more elaborate. They were made of costly fabrics ... able to create his part of the story independently and later joined complete the play. Sometimes, the plots and the storylines ...
By the period of the Empire, Roman theater had completely degenerated into an extremely brutal and obscene spectacle, and it was finally banned by the Christian church. With this change, classical theatre came to an end in the West. Mainstream theatrical activity did not re-emerge for more than five hundred years, so theater was pressed out of the mainstream. Only the popular entertainers, which were individuals who were known as jongleurs and minstrels in the medieval world, survived and provided continuity to the world of theater until it could come back in a larger form. The particular clothing practices of these individual or group entertainers during the Dark Ages is not known for certain, but guesses can be made based on the overall changes in dress for people in that era. It has been suggested that the reason that clothing became longer, heavier and more fitted in this era. This is because the world weather pattern shifted throughout that time to make Europe the much colder continent that is still is today.
In Roman times, the weather was so warm in Northern Europe that they had successful vineyards in England, far north of where it is possible to grow them now. This would obviously cause great changes to the costumes that traveling or outdoor performers would wear, because they would need to adapt to be able to withstand the new weather (Boucher).
Another clothing variation that was popular in Europe was the wearing of a short tunic over a longer and fuller one. During this time in Europe, the Dark Ages, which was practically a thousand years while the European theater was “dark,” the Christian Church was unable to completely end the festive element among the common people that manifested itself particularly at the spring planting time and the harvest season. The church responded to this primitive need or desire of people to act out and express the stories of their lives and emotions. This response was secular drama that performed the mystery, miracle and morality plays that became common in the Middle Ages (Douglas).
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One important fact to keep in mind is that everywhere the church services were conducted in Latin, which effectively rendered it unintelligible to the masses of the people who did not speak or understand the language. If they were to be familiar with the stories of the Bible and understand the messages and morals that those stories taught, that knowledge must come to them through the medium of a portrayal of events in the life of Christ and of his saints. When the early attempts were made by the priests to act out the stories of the Christmas and Easter seasons, there was little or no national consciousness in continental Europe. It was, to all intents and purposes, one vast domain living under a feudal system and acknowledging a nominal allegiance first to Charlemagne and later to the “Holy Roman Emperor of the German people.” There was, too, but one religion. This religious and political situation made it extremely easy for the ideas of the Mystery and Miracle plays to spread through the agency of the bards and troubadors that wandered from court to court of the feudal barons. At first only the priests took part in acting out the events from the lives of Christ and the saints and the portrayal took place in the Church proper. Mystery plays were performed before the altar, with the actors, priests, and clerics wearing church vestments. The miracle plays, which retold incidents in the lives of saints, were also originally played by clerics and actors.
Most costumes from this era in theater can be somewhat known because inventories were kept of garments made and bought for the plays. Nearly all actors representing heaveny beings, saints, angels and other holy people originally wore some sort of ecclesiastical costume, and there are hundreds of paintings and illuminated manuscripts which show that the convention was a general one, though there are some fascinating exceptions. The lists indicate that the persons playing Adam and Eve were clad in close-fitting white leather or sometimes silk, the priest who played God would be costumed in bishop’s robes, and the player representing Jesus would be clad in a simple white robe. In the plays, Adam and Eve would change after their fall, and then wear garments that appeared to be fig leaves stitched together. Cain, Abel, Joseph, Lazarus, and other main biblical characters would appear in contemporary clothes, hoods, pourpoints or doublets, or loose gowns. An actor playing an angelic host, from the Archangel Gabriel to the smallest and most insignificant little cherub, would wear, according to his degree or level of importance, a cope, and dalmatic or simple alb which always had wings attached, often to the shoulder blades.
From the early theater of the Greeks to Broadway, theater had definitely evolved to one of the most accepted and highly communicated form of art. After all, everything is subject to change, the world of theater is no exception. The theater that we know today had undergone heavy changes. In those stages of changes, it had seemed that just after a type of theater has been accepted by the public, ...
Since no women were in theater at this time still, both because all parts were taken by priests, and it was considered inappropriate for a woman to act, a female character was indicated by the simple addition of a kerchief on the head (Boucher).
An interesting sidenote to consider is the impact that using heavy clerical garments in theater costume had on their wearers. The weight of the dalmatic and cope together make it impossible for the wearer to stoop. The actor’s shoulders are held back, the rising center of the straight material at the back of the neck comes up almost to the ears, which restricted the neck movements and added much to the dignity of the stance. The long flowing lins of the loose cope in front swing slowly with each step, and the trailing curve of the half circle at the back drags out, which performs the function of a train. Because of both the visual appearance of these garments for use in costume, as well as their functional qualities during use, the plays had much greater impact in making the plays appear ceremonial, as though they were religious rituals themselves.
Later as the performances grew more elaborate and space became an important factor in the presentation of the stories, the Mysteries and Miracles were pushed out into the courtyards of the churches and laymen began to take part in the acting, instead of only the clergy. It is thought that this caused the costumes to begin moving away from clerical garments, because these elaborate robes and headpieces could be damaged by weather and other dangers that lay in the outdoors. Later, national boundaries were becoming more or less marked. England, by its geographical position was isolated from the currents of thought that flowed through continental Europe, and there, as the people took over the responsibility for the acting of the sacred plays, it became the custom to turn individual incidents over to the guilds of the various crafts (Davidson).
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With this change in theater, the costuming was brought further away from the church. The use of clerical robes all but died out, and garments were designed and made specifically for theatrical use.
Also, there arose a feeling of need to present, not only isolated incidents or groups of related incidents at Christmas and Easter, but the whole history of man from his creation to the day of judgment. The various incidents of this long story were divided among the guilds of a district, staged on wagons easily drawn from one place to another, and were presented in proper sequence at set stations throughout the district. This complete history enacted by the various guilds came to be referred to as a “cycle” and for further identification was referred to by the name of the district in which it was presented. Viewed from the light of modern times the four most important cycles were those of Chester, York, Coventry, and Towneley, which was also called Wakefield. That these cycles, even though religious in nature, took into account the popular love of comedy is evidenced by the fact that in the only surviving incident of the Newcastle cycle Noah’s wife is represented as a vixen. This obviously meant a great change in costuming, because a much wider array of garments was necessary to present not only a couple of individual stories, but a long timeline within the play.
Though many of the same rules applied for costumes of the different characters, it is thought that the costumes became somewhat simpler in detail and construction to defray the cost of needing more costumes. About the same time, both in England and on the continent, the idea was conceived of representing the Virtues and Vices by name in the persons of actors, to afford the audience a “moral” lesson. From this grew the Moralities of which the most famous are the English Castell of Perseverance and Everyman, the latter presumably an import from Holland for many reasons, including some clues within the costuming that it was influenced by the Dutch. Both the Mystery and the Morality plays were often long winded and frequently dull. To relieve the audience from the tedium of these plays, “interludes” were presented which were usually slapstick farces as a rule, and which were more distinguished for their vulgarity than their humor. Most of these farces came originally from France or Italy and dealt either with the subject of sex or digestion.
Their costumes were generally not as specially made as were the garments used in the Mystery and Morality plays. Instead, they often used everyday garb. At their best, however, they carry on the true tradition of the Greek comedy writers and the Roman Plautus and Terence. From these “interludes” there developed a swift moving farce that was acted independently of any other performance. The best and most famous of these farces of the Middle Ages is the French Farce of Pierre Pathelin. These interludes, as they grew, slowly incorporated more and more props and specially made costumes for their characters, and paved the way for the intricate costumes for non-religious plays that would come in the Renaissance (Newton).
From the crude and basic garments used as costume in early theater to the varied designs that came before the Renaissance, costume played a part in helping the tell theatrical tales and communicating with the audience.
While the fashions and purposes changed through the ages, there remained a continuity of purpose; all the costumes held symbolism that aided the audience in following the story, and this same continuity still holds true in modern theater today. Works Cited Boucher, Francois. The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1983. Brooke, Iris.
Costume in Greek Classic Drama. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1962. Brooke, Iris. Medieval Theatre Costume. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1967. Davidson, Clifford. Technology, Guilds, and Early English Drama.
Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996. Douglas, Russel. Period Style for Theater. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1980. Newton, Stella. Renaissance Theatre Costume and the Historic Past.
London: Rapp and Whiting, 1975..