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.
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!