What is the character’s personality?
© François Barbeau
A designer reveals personality through specific choices: colour (bright, sunny, gloomy, drab, eye-catching), cut (revealing, modest, elegant, boxy) and fabric/texture (rich velvet, floating chiffon, body-skimming satin, rough burlap, distressed denim). Fabrics like leather, fur, silk, and accessories like stiletto heels, sunglasses, and cigars all carry particular significance and a designer may play with, or against, certain prejudices or expectations. Costume may show how the character wishes to be perceived, as opposed to how he or she really is. The audience may laugh at the contrast of the shy and awkward character trying to appear cool and elegant in designer clothes, but that contrast speaks directly to the character’s inner conflict.
How does the use of colour affect costume decisions?
Colour is an interesting variable. Not only do particular colours have associated emotions, but they also affect the emotional state of the audience, for example, a designer may or may not want the audience to leave the theatre feeling too “blue”. Colour also has very different connotations depending upon culture and tradition. In the west, brides traditionally wear white, but at Chinese and East Indian weddings they often wear red. In southern India, the woman wearing white would normally be elderly. Light also affects colour in different ways and the savvy designer understands the many possibilities of these changing effects. Colour may play an important role in focusing the audience’s attention on a particular character. Juliet’s appearance on her balcony late at night will be enhanced if she is dressed in such as way that the lamplight glows on her and her pale dress or nightgown. Romeo is inspired to compare her to a rising sun against the darkness just before dawn.
How do costumes convey rank or status?
Military uniforms, religious habits, physicians’ white coats, judges’ robes and wigs are all costumes designed to set the individual apart from others. Sometimes colour does the same thing, as in “royal” purple, or the white-clad bride. Subtler clues about financial status are provided by fabric quality and cut.
In many plays, especially those historical, status differences are essential to the conflict – servants against masters, the poor against the rich, the rebel against the king. Audience members need to distinguish the classes, and sometimes distinguish between the factions within the same classes. The servants of the two warring families in Romeo and Juliet need to be instantly recognizable to the audience and to each other, as do warring armies, as do battling soccer teams. Colour helps to distinguish rank and faction, as do accessories like medals, jewelry, weaponry, hats and shoes. The Medieval courtier whose shoes are so elongated that the toes curl up and fasten to the leg makes many statements, but one is certainly “I do not do manual work.”
How do costumes help describe the character’s journey through the play?
Plays tend to reflect heightened situations and moments of crisis, and so characters are in for rapidly changing circumstances. Fortunes are overturned, disguises may be necessary, love hits and sometimes runs, battles are fought and crowns change hands. In Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, a costume designer would certainly reflect Willy’s decline in terms of his visual appearance. The action of a play changes a character in many ways – age, mental and physical health, and status – and costume becomes an important marker of these transitions.