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Theatre Costuming vs Reenactment Costuming: Part 1

With my most recent show finishing tech tomorrow, and everything well in hand for opening on Monday, I feel that now is a good time to address the differences between costuming for theater and to re-create historical styles. I do both. I love both. They are completely different things.

Costuming for Theatre
First of all, when designing costumes for a theatrical production or television you aren't alone in getting to decide how they look. The director (and/or producer) is the ultimate authority and if they want a leather frock coat with studs, you will give them a leather frock coat with studs. You can try to point out historical inaccuracies all you want, but they only thing this will make you is unpopular with your creative team. Believe me, I learned that the hard way years ago. I also used to point out every historical discrepancy in films, but now I know that far from being ill-researched there was probably a good reason for doing something differently.

This brings me to my second point; necessity. Yes, that really should be a robe a la francaise if we're setting this play in the 1750s, and not a l'anglaise, but the second style hides a zipper and the actress has a ten-second quick-change. Sometimes the designer has to be the one to introduce anachronistic solutions to a problem, even if the director is into historical accuracy. The biggest factor determining what the costumes look like is always, always, always the budget! You're doing "The Taming of the Shrew" set in Edo-period Japan but you have a budget of nothing; sorry the nice brocades and gorgeous wigs are out. You'll be using printed cottons and re-styled Halloween wigs. You'll be borrowing or renting from every costume stock around you, and there's no telling what kind of selection for that style they will have. Did the local High School just do a production of The Mikado? Better call them as well.

This is not to say that style isn't important, it absolutely is, but the needs of the show are the most important thing. The whole point of costume for theater and film (including opera, musicals, etc) is to help the actors to tell the story. Mostly, I find, it's about expressing character. I once went to go see a film with a friend, and in one scene the lead actress was at a fancy party in a pink dress with ruffles. I leaned over and told my friend that the scene wasn't going to end well for our heroine. I was right, it didn't. The dress didn't fit her character, who was strong and self-reliant, from a working-class background and not at all fussy. The costume designer had used that dress, which was lovely in it's own way, to express that the character was trying to be someone else and was out of her comfort zone.

So maybe black is the color of mourning, but you have a character who isn't in mourning. Do you put him or her in black because they're conniving and evil? Or do you worry about the fact that in that time period black was an expensive and difficult color to achieve, and therefore more rare? You put the character in the color that best expresses what we're trying to say. Half the audience won't know that tidbit about the history of the color anyhow. Don't even get me started on the fiber content of fabrics.

Now, it's important to note that a costume designer can't afford to think that an understanding of historical clothing styles etc is unimportant. It's still exceptionally important, and where theater and reenactment costuming meet is the fact that they both start with lots, and lots of research. It can make the difference between a good production, and a stellar one; and I've had more than one actor tell me that putting on the costume changes their understanding of their character, and makes it more real. After all, the shape of our clothes, the height of our shoes, the number of layers, the wearing of hats or veils all change the way we walk and bend and reach and even hear. It changes the width of doorways, height of ceilings, amount of furniture in a room, and spacing of objects. This is why you get problems if a set designer and a costume designer don't talk to each other.

In our next installment we'll talk about reenactment costuming and how it differs from theatrical costuming. Have a burning question? Want to know more about costuming for theatre? Leave a comment and I'll be happy to answer!


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