Monday, August 27, 2007


The images we usually see from Victorian period drama are of important actors (Macready, Booth, Forrest) or of cast members from the bigger theatre companies. Just as today, the costuming in community theatre is not remotely like that of a Broadway play, the small stock or touring company did not costume itself like the important "legitimate" ones.

Up until mid-century, Shakespeare would be performed in contemporary formal dress. Engravings of Fanny Kemble as Juliet (c. 1830) show her in her bedroom with Nurse, in a low-necked formal dinner gown with elbow-length gloves. Shortly thereafter, actor-managers like Charles Macready, who were ready to invest money and time in "archaeological" productions, started presenting Shakespeare with scenes and costumes scrupulously researched and replicated. But smaller companies, with no assured audience or budget, followed tradition by requiring actors to supply their own costumes. Indeed, attaining employment could depend on the quality of an actor's wardrobe, with a place going to quality clothing, not better talent. Generally an actor would have three outfits: one formal or evening dress, one informal or perhaps peasant, and one "period" -- which could date anywhere from 1200 to 1800. The period outfit would be used for any and all historical plays, which meant that the court in a production of Richard III would have lords and ladies kitted out in court dress from the time of Richard II to George III. Little notice was taken of this -- the point was splendour, not accuracy. As an early actor said, "There were two kinds of drama: white waistcoat and drawing room, and spangles and parade."

The photograph I have above is an unnamed American actor circa 1860. He has knee breeches and pumps (c. 1800), a cocked hat (c. 1750), a stock with a very wide knot (c. ??, perhaps stylish only on stage), and an overcoat with 17th-century sleeve puffs that I've only seen on actors. Made of red velvet with ermine trim, it was a standard for Shakespeare's Richard III. However, there is no crown, and the outfit underneath is plain to say, the least. This looks like a typical outfit put together from various second-hand purchases the actor made to look "long ago" for some historical play.

No comments: