Today I’m going to gush a little about costumes. All right, today I’m going to gush a lot about costumes.
Obviously one of the joys of most of Shakespeare’s plays is that they can be set whenever and wherever. Ralph Fiennes Balkan Coriolanus, for example, or the David Tennant 80s-fest Much Ado. But this post is going to focus just on the Globe. Because what the Globe does is costume them as they would have been costumed. Which means – oh boy – sumptuous frocks, sumptuous-er suits, and (a personal weakness) hand-knitted stockings.
It’s lucky that the Elizabethan period was one which so richly repays the fashion conscious*. The tendency for vast (really, vulgar) ostentation was so great that Elizabeth twice felt it necessary to update the sumptuary laws – the second law (1574) starts “The excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares thereto belonging now of late years is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow”**. Incidentally, if I were Elizabeth I think I would have taken it as a good sign – surely only an economy with a lot of slack in it would lead such excess (and certainly such widespread excess – you don’t bother making sumptuary laws unless a lot of people are spending too much on clothes…)
I suppose it made sense, after recreating a wooden theatre using historic carpentry techniques (give or take a concrete floor) to extend the same hand-crafted ethos to the stagecraft. The variety of techniques used in Elizabethan apparel probably also added to the appeal. There’s the beautiful woven fabrics themselves, the embroidery on top, and the pleating, slashing (and even ruff-making) which bring the fabrics to life.
As ever the Globe benefited from passionate and incredibly intelligent individuals. The pioneer of historical fashion research, Janet Arnold, worked with the theatre, If you have any interest in historical clothing and its construction, her books Patterns of Fashion are a must read for their detail, accuracy, and to-scale patterns to allow you to make your own clothing. The current costumiers continue this – if you go to the exhibition and stay around for their talk, they are able to tell you how fashions varied between social classes and what historical sources they use to inspire their choice of fabric prints.
I am under no illusions that these things were easy to wear (especially as a woman who basically lives in trousers). Women would be wearing an outfit that started with a linen shift, covered in a corset (you were straight-laced if you had a maid to lace you in – tightly – at the back, and if your corset laced up in front and therefore could be tightened, or loosened, at will, you were probably a loose woman). This was followed by stockings and garters to hold them up***, farthingales (Spanish to show off your skirt, French enhance your bum), a partlet, skirt, jacket and cap. No wonder they were always fainting – although it probably also kept out the cold of the Little Ice Age… But sometimes – just sometimes – I think it would be fun to put it all on and go out play a part.
If you go to the Globe exhibition they dress up a member of the audience – alas on my last trip I wasn’t picked.
* I know there are other reasons why much theatre wasn’t staged by the Puritans but come on, boring black costumes wouldn’t have helped…
** Taken from this website http://elizabethan.org/sumptuary/, spelling and punctuation updated from the original law.
*** Incidentally, cross-gartering – tying your stockings with a garter crossed above and below the knee – was the modern, trendy way of doing it in those days.