As a volunteer on this project, my task is to update catalogue entries for The Trust’s collection of costume designs. This is a lot of fun as I get the chance to look at hundreds of individual designs for many RSC productions. I’ve found that these designs provide a (usually!) colourful and perhaps under-explored way into our understanding of the themes or ‘moods’ that are unique to a particular production.
Without needing to see the costumes themselves, we can identify and interpret the symbolism intended by both designer and director. Some of my favourite designs were by the French designer Jacques Noël for the 1960 production of ‘The Winter’s Tale’. These are extremely appealing – the costumes are painted on black paper, deliberately chosen to contrast with the vibrancy of the colour designs. However, as well as demonstrating beautiful artwork, the designs reflect both the religious and romantic themes explored in this production.
For example, the Ladies’ court dresses are classical and elegant- the colours chosen for them are rich purples and reds. However, the corseting reveals a restrictive element, suggesting the strained morality of Leontes’ court (image 1). The similar designs but different colours of Peggy Ashcroft’s costumes as Paulina highlight her wise and stable presence. Perdita’s ‘shepherdess’ costume suggests the sense of pastoral romance in Bohemia (image 2).
Costume designs can also complement other archival material used for researching particular productions. Noël’s ‘Winter’s Tale’ colour designs bring the black and white production photographs to life. Being able to see both the design and photograph of Hermione’s dress together provides a greater sense of the mood and staging of the play (image 3 and 4). Similarly, set designs may not appear very exciting at first glance. But used with the costume designs, we can see that the set’s simplicity is vital in drawing attention to the rich metaphors within both costume and language (image 5).
A selection of the costume designs is currently being digitised - a first-step towards making these exciting resources available to a wider audience.
Shakespeare-by-Design project volunteer