On the evening of Friday 18 September 2015, I sat in the circle of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to watch a performance of Henry V. I was immediately struck by how stylish Prince Hal and his courtiers looked. It was clear from the opening scenes that the production had a Medieval setting: the characters were clothed in tunics, jerkins, and wide leather waist belts. But the garments somehow felt distinctly fashionable. As well as communicating a historical setting, these costumes had been crafted to create sleek silhouettes, and were finished with simple metallic embellishments to cut through the aesthetic of the garments’ rich, smooth fabrics. The costume department had adapted Medieval dress in a way that suited my 21st-century sensibilities.
This realisation led directly to the development of my PhD research project. I wanted to find out how historical aesthetics communicate ideas to modern audiences, the extent to which costume design can be read to reveal the contemporary significance of Shakespeare’s plays, and the ways in which theatre engages with history and cultural heritage. Focusing primarily on 21st-century stagings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, I research how and why Elizabethan and Jacobean (or ‘Jacobethan’) styles of dress have been adapted for modern performance.
Costuming Shakespeare: Elizabethan Dress through the Centuries offers a new perspective on the history of Shakespeare in performance. Featuring ten important items from across the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s extensive collections, this online exhibition gives an insight into how Elizabethan-inspired approaches to costume design have changed in significance since the 16th century.
In its own time, early modern fashion played a critical role in communicating information about a person’s status and identity (relating to gender, rank, citizenship, profession, age, courtliness, sanctity, and more). When Shakespeare’s plays were first staged at the turn of the 17th century, players performed in the clothing of the day; the colour, fabric, and style of a garment worn on stage could be read to reveal a character’s social status, origin, and occupation.
Elizabethan-inspired costumes have since been used to layer Shakespeare’s plays with a nostalgic representation of the past (thereby adjusting their political significance), to rediscover an ‘authentic’ approach to Shakespearean performance, and to separate fantastical spaces in the texts from their real-world counterparts.
By renegotiating relationships between the past and the present through costume design, designers have played an important role in shaping Shakespeare’s legacy and ongoing cultural significance. This exhibition celebrates and explores the rich and varied history of Elizabethan dress as costume design for Shakespeare’s plays in performance.
Click here to see Ella's exhibition in full.