Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

Global Perspectives


Joanne B. Eicher and Phyllis G. Tortora (eds)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Historical Costume Design

Sara Jablon-Roberts

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.5040/9781847888594-EDch1001514


Contemporary Western Theatrical costumes are generally expected to convey the time period in which a production is set. However, scholars have little agreement when answering one of the first questions that a designer of a historically set production faces: how accurately should period clothing be reproduced? Over the years and via textbooks, articles, and practical experience, three primary approaches to designing costumes for historically set productions have evolve (a) contemporary clothing, (b) historically accurate period clothing, or (c) clothing that manipulates historical accuracy to create costumes that only indicate the period. Proponents of using contemporary clothing submit that the technique promotes the timelessness and universality of themes. It also presents performers dressed as people recognizable to the modern audience in clothes conforming to current beauty ideals. With familiar images onstage, audiences may freely concentrate on the messages of the production. Conversely, historically accurate costumes can be seen as a tool to educate the audience as well as establish an apparently true and complete world, allowing spectators to inhabit a past time and therefore understand the play more fully. Historically manipulated costumes are inspired by historically accurate clothing, while not attempting to recreate it. Designers manipulate the real history found in research to create a costume design that they feel best communicates intended messages while also differentiating time periods. Most designers might choose to utilize any of these three techniques depending on the parameters of the specific production on which they are working.

In contemporary Western theater, one of the fundamental objectives of a costume is to communicate to the audience. A costume is intended to provide information about qualities and traits of the character wearing it and to express larger themes and moods about the production as a whole. One piece of information costumes are generally expected to convey is the time period of the production. This assumption is so prevalent that when costume design scholars and practitioners developed taxonomies grouping costumes by shared characteristics, they inevitably identify historical costumes as a discrete category of costume design. However, scholars have little agreement when answering one of the first questions that a designer of a historically set production faces: how accurately should period clothing be reproduced? Over the years and via textbooks, articles, and practical experience, three primary approaches to designing costumes for historically set productions have evolved: designing costumes of (a) contemporary clothing, (b) historically accurate period clothing, or (c) clothing that manipulates historical accuracy to create costumes that only indicate the period.

Contemporary Costumes

The costuming of historically set productions in contemporary dress has a long lineage in Western theater. Beginning with Ancient Greek drama, theatrical costumes consisted of the clothing of the day worn with symbolic accessories meant to indicate features like gender, social position, age, and morality. Every kind of characterization could be achieved by wearing ritualized accessories, such as exaggerated headdresses or masks, concurrently with contemporary clothes.

For instance, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, plays were performed in elaborate versions of everyday clothing, with tragedies adding allegorical Roman details. The heroes of tragedies wore costumes that could be identified onstage because of their neoclassically interpreted Roman armor, skirts, and extravagant, towering ostrich-plumed headdresses. Most tragedies were written with mythological, Greek, Roman, or biblical subject matter, but no matter the setting, heroes wore the contemporary/Roman mélange called the habit à la romaine for at least 200 years. Through accepted conventions, symbolic design details were immediately recognizable to the audience, while underneath, performers wore current fashions—clothes they often provided themselves. The custom of dressing historical plays in contemporary clothing continued until the end of the eighteenth century.

This approach resurfaced in the twentieth century as a legitimate method of costuming historically set productions, and was especially applied to the plays of Shakespeare, who wrote productions set in many time periods but produced them in the clothing of his own sixteenth-century England. In fact, in every century since, there have been examples of Shakespeare’s plays costumed in the contemporary clothes of the production’s era. This method of designing is not limited to Shakespeare, however. Proponents submit that the technique promotes the timelessness and universality of themes and presents performers dressed as people recognizable to the contemporary audience, in clothes that conform to current beauty ideals. With familiar images onstage, audiences can freely concentrate only on the messages of the production.

This can be seen in the 1996 Broadway production of Chicago designed by William Ivey Long. Costume designers often consider historically accurate clothes of the 1920s, the period in which Chicago is set, to be difficult for the stage because the straight, boyish silhouette is very different from the contemporary hourglass standard of beauty. Therefore, instead of costuming the performers in 1920s styles, Long designed formfitting and body-baring contemporary clothes. Rather than highlighting the historical era of the musical, his choice promoted the universality of the themes of celebrity culture, class distinctions, and gender stereotypes.

Of course, updating the dress of characters who are speaking words of the past can lead to anachronisms that can hurt communication, rather than help it, something that is often an issue in Shakespeare’s plays. In addition, contemporary clothing cannot aid in conveying the historical period of the production, a function that costumes generally perform. This was the case with Long’s production of Chicago, which does not appear to be set in the past at all. Despite these drawbacks, costumes consisting of contemporary clothing are one approach to the design of historically set productions.

Historically Accurate Costumes

Through the eighteenth century, performers wore contemporary clothing in virtually every production. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, attitudes toward historically set theatrical productions (and history in general) began to change. Neoclassicism evolved into romanticism, which emphasized authenticity and experience, cyclically deriving from and leading to interest in archaeology and history. Romanticism served to introduce new prominence to research in the presentation of past periods and a passion for the idea of historical accuracy, which resulted in the second approach to the costume design of historically set productions, designing historically accurate costumes.

In 1823, British designer and historian James Robinson Planché designed what is considered the first attempt at historically accurate costumes for a production of Shakespeare’s King John, set in the thirteenth century. Planché was devoted to historical accuracy and consulted only sources authentic to the era, including effigies and illuminated manuscripts. Referring to actual historical research was such a novel concept that it was promoted in the advance advertisements for the play. Paul Reinhardt reproduces one of these:

The Publick is respectfully informed that Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King John is in a forward state of revival at this Theatre, and will shortly be produced with an attention to Costume which has never been equalled on the English Stage. Every character will appear in the precise habit of the Period—the whole of the Dresses and Decorations being executed from copies of indisputable authorities, such as Monuments, Seals, illuminated Manuscripts, painted Glass, &c.

The use of research in costume design is now virtually universal, especially for historically set productions, no matter the approach. Designers tend to consider research as the basis for creativity, a platform for exploration and imagination. Most claim that no costume decision can be made without knowledge of the historical reality, which can be unearthed only through the research process. Research is conducted in multiple stages, commencing with the general and narrowing to more specialized topics. General research encompasses the characteristics of the world in which the production is set—the philosophical, cultural, political, religious, technological, and sociological contexts. Only then does appearance research begin. Sources include texts (books, catalogs), images (paintings, photographs), and artifacts—particularly surviving garments of the period. All research is valuable, but for historical research, primary sources (those created at the time they are presenting) are considered essential. Some secondary sources are viable historical research, provided they themselves are supported by primary sources. An example would be a survey of historical fashion—the text was written after the fact and therefore is a secondary source, but if accompanying images are primary sources, such a book would be considered appropriate historical research.

In fact, Planché published books of his research—the thirteenth-century frontispieces, engravings, and the like—as well as his costume designs in order to further his stated goal of better educating the public. Some view historical accuracy in that light, as a tool for teaching. Others believe that the strict reproduction of historical dress establishes a complete world, allowing spectators to inhabit a past time and therefore understand the play more fully. Planché’s audiences enthusiastically embraced historical accuracy as both instruction and entertainment.

By the mid-nineteenth century, historical accuracy was accepted in Western theater as the only appropriate method of costuming historically set productions. British producer Charles Kean presented the works of Shakespeare as enormous historically accurate spectacles meant to astonish the audience with a window to the past. In the 1853 preface to the published program notes featuring the source materials used for the designs of Henry VIII, Kean wrote that his purpose was “to render the stage what it should be—a true and perfect mirror of history.” Providing the “truth” of the period to the audience was held as a much more important objective than their amusement, and accurate costumes were thought to exhibit superior morals. The press, the audience, even Queen Victoria loved these huge productions and truth in presentation was greeted as the most proper method of theatrical design.

As romanticism transitioned into realism at the end of the nineteenth century, historical accuracy in service to truth remained the primary approach to productions set in past periods. Both romanticism and realism were idealistic movements that strove for authenticity, but whereas romanticism was reliant on emotion and imagination, realism emphasized objectivity and observation. Due to the insistence on accuracy as the path to insight, the accurate reproduction of historical dress was thought to best present characters as genuine people. Realism renounced romanticism’s lavish costumes as mere pageantry, but maintained the earlier movement’s emphasis on the importance of truth and accuracy. Realism’s fervor for strict reproduction was based on the ideas that there is only one truth, that it is an objective fact, and that it is possible—indeed, imperative—to present reality in its totality. Designers were urged to copy images found in historical sources as Planché had claimed to do, because only authenticity could communicate honestly. Any inaccuracy or anachronism was a lie that would distract audiences, distancing them from the play and impeding understanding of reality. This perspective of theater was embraced by the theatergoing public. After the proliferation and promotion of historically accurate romantic and realistic theatrical productions, audiences wanted to see genuine people in believable situations in whole environments and were not content with the jumbled—and often unrelated—mix of contemporary and symbolic costumes of earlier eras.

However, even as audiences reacted positively to historical accuracy, its value was never uncontested. While advocates for authenticity believed theatergoers were best served through careful reproductions of past styles, and that inaccuracy would distract them from the production’s themes, opponents believed the precise opposite—that it was accuracy that distracted audiences. This view held that historically accurate displays overwhelmed the text, burying the truths meant to be presented and barring the audience from understanding the themes of the play. This was a common criticism of Charles Kean’s productions in the 1850s, that his colossal productions flooded the audience with spectacle, leaving little room for more subtle communication.

Other opponents of historical accuracy argued that it was not accuracy as a concept that was objectionable, but rather that of specific periods. Some historical eras, they submitted, had clothing so different from contemporary styles that audiences would find them comical or grotesque, and the peculiarities would divert them from the themes and truths onstage. This assertion concerning bizarre fashion trends of certain periods has been an issue throughout the entire chronicle of historical accuracy in theatrical costume design, a charge even Planché faced in the 1820s. Regardless of the reason, these critics of historical accuracy join together in the belief that authentic fashion details attract too much awareness, taking audience attention away from the play.

Even those who advocate for historical accuracy acknowledge certain struggles. For instance, attempting it requires significant resources. Designers understand that accomplishing historical accuracy is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and expensive. Available labor is necessary, but it must also be skilled in historically accurate manufacturing techniques, which can be unusual in contemporary costume manufacturing. Making an Elizabethan doublet using only historically accurate methods, for example, requires handwoven textiles dyed with natural dyestuffs, sewn by hand using only procedures accurate to the sixteenth century. This knowledge is not common and the processes are slow.

Another mark against historical accuracy is the common conclusion that it is frankly impossible. Many costume practitioners and historians agree that designers cannot help but incorporate elements of their own era into designs purporting to reproduce those from the past, making complete historical accuracy unattainable. The cultural lens, or the perspective from which all members of a culture view the world, causes people to experience their realities differently, thus making it impossible to view other cultures authentically. Even if intentions toward creating a historically accurate costume are genuine, designers inevitably create costumes that at least partly accommodate their own culture’s beauty standards. Even Planché, in his groundbreaking historically accurate costumes for King John in 1823, slightly altered thirteenth-century silhouettes to conform to those of the era in which he was living. Presumably he did not even notice he had done this, interpreting his authentic sources with his nineteenth-century eyes. It is widely believed that merely being alive in an era other than that of the production makes attempts at genuine accuracy futile.

However, despite the large number of practitioners and theorists who argue against historical accuracy, it remains a dominant approach to the costume design of historically set productions. Many designers still attempt it, even while understanding that they will not be able to achieve it. They believe it is the only honest way to honor people who lived in an actual, not fictional, moment in history. The costume designs of Jenny Tiramani are often held up as the closest to historical accuracy it is possible to attain. Tiramani, the former director of theater design at Shakespeare’s Globe theater and principal of the London-based School of Historical Dress, believes historical accuracy is the way to present true history to audiences and that audiences want to understand that truth. She strives for accuracy by examining every primary source she can find and through expending significant resources—financial, labor, and time—which allows her to create her costumes using the hand techniques of highly skilled artisans. But even Tiramani acknowledges that her designs cannot be absolutely accurate, simply by virtue of being made in the twenty-first century.

Historically Manipulated Costumes

By the turn of the twentieth century, many theater practitioners began to contest the concept of presenting accurate reality. Instead, they focused on life in a more generalized abstract sense. Costumes for a production in that vein might evoke ideas rather than reproduce research. From this perspective arose an alternative approach to designing costumes for historically set productions, that of historical manipulation. This strategy allows costume designers to create a design inspired by examples found in the historical research, while not attempting to recreate it. Sometimes called stylization, manipulation involves identifying specific historical details representative of a period and altering them so the resultant costumes only suggest the era. Manipulated costumes can diverge little from the original research, closely duplicating it, or they can be nearly unrecognizable, an extreme distortion. The proportion of realistic to manipulated design elements can vary; even advocates of this approach recognize that no prescription fits every design.

Manipulation is achieved by utilizing the process of selectivity to choose the historical features that best communicate intended messages. The two main strategies are simplification and exaggeration of period design elements. The simplification of the styles of period clothing is done by using only general features to evoke the era, creating the impression of accuracy where none exists. The exaggeration of design details can appeal to the theatricality of stage productions and to preconceptions and stereotypes that the audience may be holding. Of course, some designers employ both strategies by selecting some details as nonessential and eliminating them, while amplifying ones deemed more valuable to communication.

An example of this approach to a historically set production can be seen in the design by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz for the 2012 Broadway production of Chaplin. The show takes place over the course of almost the entire twentieth century, and the designers decided historical markers in the costumes were necessary to show the passage of time, which was emphasized as a major theme of the production. They chose to focus on the proportions and the silhouettes of each era while eliminating all color—the palette was only black, white, and gray. Because changes in color were not available to indicate a shift in time, the designers exaggerated the design details they chose to keep, making historical silhouettes more dramatic than they were in reality. They manipulated the real history evident in research to create a costume design that would best communicate intended messages and differentiate historical time periods. For more extreme versions of manipulation, practitioners often recommend incorporating inspiration from a variety of subjects, if they support the themes of the production. Along with historical research, designers might integrate animal imagery, flowers, architecture, for instance.

Thus there are three primary approaches to the costume design of a historically set theatrical production, designing the costumes as (a) contemporary clothes, (b) historically accurate recreations of period clothes, or (c) clothes that reference the period via the manipulation of historical elements. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. In fact, rather than be wedded to a single one, most designers might utilize any of the three, depending on the parameters of the specific production on which they are working. Each show is different and requires its own solutions.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Anderson Barbara, and Cletus Anderson. Costume Design. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Find in Library Clancy Deirdre. Designing Costume for Stage and Screen. Los Angeles: Costume & Fashion Press/Quite Specific Media, 2014.

Find in Library De Marly Diana. Costumes on the Stage 1600–1940. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982.

Find in Library Finkel Alicia. “‘A True and Perfect Mirror’: Costumes for Charles Kean’s Revivals of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1852–1859.” Dress 14, no. 5 (1988): 4–16.

Find in Library Jory Marcia Dixcy. The Ingénue in White: Reflections of a Costume Designer. Hanover: Smith and Kraus, 2003.

Find in Library Monks Aoife. The Actor in Costume. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Find in Library Reinhardt Paul. ““The Costume Designs of James Robinson Planché (1796–1880)”.Educational Theatre Journal 20, no. 4 (1968): 524–544.

Find in Library Russell A. ““Shakespearean Costume: Contemporary or Fancy Dress”.” Educational Theatre Journal 10, no. 2 (1958): 105–112.

Find in Library Tiramani Jenny. ““Janet Arnold and the Globe Wardrobe: Handmade Clothes for Shakespeare’s Actors”.” Costume 34, no. 1 (2000): 118–122.

See also Clothing, Costume, and Dress; Dress as Costume in the Theater and Performing Arts; Historical Dress in French Film; Theatrical Costume