Decoration in Stage Costume
Decoration on a costume can range from the extravagantly expensive, like Chaliapin's costume for the Coronation scene of Boris Godunov, to ingenious ways of suggesting opulence with inexpensive materials or the unexpected use of, say, industrial substances. Oliver Messel famously used coloured sweet papers, raffia, pipe cleaners and chandelier crystals, while Lila de Nobili mixed antique braids from period dresses with contemporary cheaper trims. Others saw the potential of DIY or technological introductions, as maker Ralph Dyer recalled about Desmond Heeley and the glue gun in the 1970s:
'He used to dribble it out onto a piece of lace, trace around and embellish the lace pattern and then leave it. It came out cream or honey gold. And all those puffings on the costumes … instead of being one long strip and all caught by hand, we made an individual one and then glue gunned it on.'
Nicolas Georgiadis used materials of different types and qualities appliquéd to the base fabric to create rich and sumptuous surface texture. His sumptuous costumes for Les Troyens and Aida at Covent Garden exploited this technique to the full. Philip Prowse, too, created richly extravagant costumes, building up layers of fabrics and braids.
Dyeing and painting costumes is a particularly creative field covering creating or painting fabrics and 'breaking down' costumes - this means distressing the fabrics to make them look faded, worn, damaged, etc. A design will indicate colour, texture and pattern, but textile dyers and painters need highly developed imaginations to decide how to achieve the effects - interpreting rather than translating the design, especially when building up complex surface textures.
To achieve a specific effect, textiles can be dyed, screen printerd stencilled, block printed or free-hand painted; bleach can take out colour. A cheap fabric can be made to look like brocade or leather, and silver-painted knitted string made to look like chain mail.
Once completed, costumes may be broken down or distressed to give the impression of age and wear by tearing, burning, painting or even using a cheese grater to simulate abrasions or dirt. A costume can even be made to look like a natural organic growth, rather than man-made.
For textile painter John Cowell,
'The more processes something goes through, the more interesting it becomes. We dye a velvet and print it with something that takes the colour out, then overdye it, paint into it and maybe overprint again and those textures become multilayered - it's like digging a hole in the earth, like stratas almost … We use screens, stencils, blocks, sponges - things that we pick up off the floor if they'll give the right effect.'
Le Coq d'Or
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his opera Le Coq d'Or as part fantastic fairy tale and part political satire on autocracy, Russian Imperialism and the futility of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Not surprisingly, it was banned after its initial performances in Russia in 1909.
For the 1954 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, designer Loudon Sainthill adopted a fantastic, decorative approach, reminiscent of political caricature or book illustrations. The style was perfectly in keeping with the satirical and folk elements of the opera.
This costume for one of the foolish Princes, is stiffly padded and inflexible, reflecting the bullish stupidity of the character. The main fabric is canvas with felt decorations, again stiff and unyielding fabrics. All decorations on the main body of the costume are painted, resulting in very clean lines and reinforcing the impression of an illustration. The same style is carried through all the major male characters.
Makers use whatever materials and techniques they need to achieve a particular effect. In this costume, the 'drawing' is very precise and executed in paint; on later costumes in the collection, the makers have used new tools, like felt tip pen and marker pens to create the required patterns.View an interactive 360 degree rotation of the Prince Afron costume (requires Flash)
In Trinidad, play mas means carnival. Playwright Mustapha Matura took the phrase as the title of his play produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1974, when the designer was Peter Minshall, himself born in Trinidad.
The glittering lurex and metallic fabrics of this spectacular cloak capture the riotous extravagance of present carnival while linking back to the African tribal past of the Trinidadian people. Its decoration incorporates symbolic images like the dove of peace, alongside a plethora of 'found' objects including coins, buttons, bottle tops, even budgerigar mirrors and bells, which glitter and move alongside the black and gold fringe and hanging bobbles.
Carnival costumes would naturally use such found items, but other costumes around the same period show similar influences, notably Timothy Goodchild's design for Ian McKellen as Richard II from 1968, a heavy ceremonial tabard, glittering with gold fabrics, paint, thread and metallic milk-bottle tops.
Another great influence on costume design of the period, were John Bloomfield's widely toured costumes for the 1970 award-winning television series 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII,' which borrowed many theatre techniques, using cheap materials and working them with paints, resins (see The Revenger's Tragedy) and screen-printing before drawing on them (see Le Coq d'Or) and decorating them with bottle tops. On screen they looked both rich and authentic.
Homage to the Queen
Oliver Messel was famous for seeing the theatrical potential of the mundane, such as pipe cleaners, raffia and sweet wrappers. This costume for a dancer in the ballet Homage to the Queen shows both his practicality in creating costumes for movement and his use of varied materials.
The ballet was created in homage to the young Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and adopted a form and style reminiscent of an Inigo Jones court masque. The aqua-coloured nylon organza skirt is very light, a period feel created by fan-shaped understructures of buckram at the hips. Over this small pannier and to either side of the bodice, are fin-like areas of crin, one of Messel's favourite materials, painted blue, brown, green and gold. A small area over the hips is left uncovered, to allow a hand-hold for the dancer's partner.
To add movement and sparkle to the costume, the shoulder straps are surmounted by narrow curved petals of moulded clear acetate, from which are suspended crystal bead drops. Messel's most unusual touch comes where the straps join the low back, where two concertina-pleated upright points of crin are edged with the wonder adhesive of its day - Sellotape. This gave the effect of gleaming water that Messel wanted. Unfortunately for future museum conservators, no one then knew that, over the years, Sellotape yellowed and the adhesive left thick sticky deposits. Not that that problem would have, nor should have, concerned Messel, whose aim was to get the best possible effect for the work at the time.
The Wooden Prince
Described as a dancing-play in one act, The Wooden Prince draws on East European folklore. A fairy tries to keep apart a prince and princess, using water, flowers and trees. The Wooden Prince is a lifelike model created by the Fairy to attract the Princess's attention, but she falls in love with it after the Fairy brings it to life. The Fairy eventually intervenes to bring the real Prince and the Princess together.
For the production by English National Ballet for the centenary of Bartòk's birth, choreographer Geoffrey Cauley and designer Philip Prowse adopted the conventions of the Chinese Peking opera, a theatrical form which tells stories through movement, singing and elaborate movement and acrobatics. The form is heavily stereotyped and the costumes indicate character types and roles. The wavy patterns on the Fairy's costume are associated with power and rulers. The four flags at the back are a sign of hard kao armour, and the 'armour' is also indicated by the overlapping scales on the breastplate of the costume.
The costume is superbly authoritative, not just in scale, with its bold headdress and sheer scale, but using bold, primary blue and red with black and metallic fabrics. The variety of fabrics breaks up the surface - black floral lurex, silver woven with tiny silver floral pattern, areas of blue overlaid with waves of black braids and subtle touches of deep red. Given the costume, the role was somewhat static, but the impression of movement was conveyed by the black braid waves and by the lighter fabric used for the flags, which streamed out or moved subtly if the performer was static; the front panels are covered with individually applied 'scales', executed in several different black and gold lurexes, interspersed with the silver floral brocade, which also 'move' as they catch the light. Yet despite its complexity, the costume never feels fussy or blurred; the decoration is so controlled that the overall impression is of clarity.View an interactive 360 degree rotation of the Fairy costume (requires Flash)
The Revenger's Tragedy
In The Revenger's Tragedy, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966, designer Christopher Morley's costumes had to convey the decay and corruption of a 17th-century Italian Court. In the black set his costumes glittered and glowed, turning the actors into shimmering insects, conveying exactly the required effect, using materials and techniques of the 1960s.
The basic fabrics used in The Revenger's Tragey were inexpensive artificial silks and satins on which the designer and makers experimented with creating textures using rubber or the new plastics and adhesives devised in the 1960s - a technique the workshops christened 'gunking'. These were poured over a fabric in patterns and sprinkled with sequins, glitter or flocking powder and left to dry. Sometimes the solution was mixed with dye, bits of plastic, beads or jewels. The effect in The Revenger's Tragedy was reminiscent of an animated Jackson Pollock.
Gunking was actually invented by the Royal Shakespeare Company for The Wars of the Roses in 1963, not to create dazzling effects but to give the effect of costumes and boots caked with mud. No one at the time knew the long-term effects of gunking on materials, but The Revenger's Tragedy was not intended to have a long life. After forty years, the gunking has set like concrete, damaging the light-weight fabric, and the adhesives and paints are cracking.View an interactive 360 degree rotation of the Vendice costume (requires Flash)
A ballet based on the First World War almost seems a contradiction in terms, but Kenneth MacMillan's Gloria in 1980 was inspired by his reading about the War. The ballet was no recreation of the actuality of war. Andy Klunder's costumes had to immediately convey to the audience that the men had been soldiers.
The dancers rise from the trench at the back of the stage and return to it at the end. Their body tights are sprayed terracotta and grey to suggest dust, mud, clay and soil, the decay and destruction symbolised by caught-back incisions which brilliantly and economically suggest the idea of split, peeling and rotting flesh. Down the costumes ran lines like veins or exposed nerves. The costumes link their bodies to the earth from which they emerge and return.
Audiences need very little information to imagine a period or time - it is a question of finding the essential symbol. Here, it was a version of the tin hat, made in soft fabrics to match the costume. It was enough to establish the figures as dead soldiers.
The costumes do not merely reflect the obvious externals, but comment on and extend the meaning of the work. The body tights convey the minimum of detail, but in performance, they evoke the whole world of the war poets, the lost generation, and the distilled emotion of an era.
My Fair Lady
Eliza's costumes for the London production of My Fair Lady were made by theatrical costumiers Berman's. The ball dress hinted at, rather than stated, the Edwardian period in which the production was set; it was a timeless dress rather than a historical reconstruction, although Julie Andrews's short hairstyle clearly dates the production to the 1950s.
To execute the decoration on the dress, the designer and makers decided on beading, which is a costly and time-consuming process. The dress took 40 yards of satin and chiffon and took several workers a month to complete. The embroidery on the overskirt consists of 36 rows of hand-stitched bugle beading, and there is complicated beading on the bodice and on the front hanging panel. The chiffon is an interesting choice for the front panel, as the weight of the beading could easily strain and tear the delicate fabric. In fact, the whole dress looks simple and light but is surprisingly heavy, which would have helped Julie Andrews move with the right authority and bearing. To retain the freshness of the costume, it was remade every six months during the New York run.
Beading patterns often involve both machine embroidery and hand beading techniques. Machine embroidery is completed before any hand beading.
Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a pastiche, evoking a the golden age of 18th-century Vienna, and the designer has to suggest, often on a limited budget, the richness and opulence of the period and the aristocratic world in which the characters move.
David Walker's costumes for English National Opera in 1974 were an imaginative and visually stunning adaptation of 18th century fashion. As singers need as little restriction as possible over the upper body, correct period corseting is out of the question, and the key objective is to maintain the impression of a period shape.
The costume is a fantasy dress for a pure young girl. The volume of the skirt and the boldness of the decoration are exaggerated. The effect of delicacy is achieved by building up layers of fabrics and nets, woven with metallic threads and trimmed with laces and flowers, rather than using a single solid fabric. The top surface is then encrusted with laces and braids to give the wonderful texture. While the period feel is maintained, the costumiers have used fabrics of the 1970s such as lurex, and the flowers trimming the lace are plastic. From the audience, the effect is very convincing.
Faced with a design, the costumier has to decide how to execute the decoration. In these costumes made from the same design but some years apart, the different makers have come up with different solutions to recreating the costume. In one, the petticoat decoration is machine embroidered in delicate colours using chain stitch; in the other, the decoration is appliquéd, using black and red American cloth, a glazed or waterproofed cotton giving a similar effect to today's PVC.
Using what was a new fabric in the 1930s, it gave the costume an up-to-date feel quite different from the more delicate embroidery of the earlier version. The embroidery is the subtler solution and is more in keeping with the idea of a porcelain figurine as seen in Sheringham's original design, while the American cloth appliqué makes a bold statement. Despite the different interpretations of the petticoat decoration, on both overskirts the pattern is embroidered in chain stitch.
Costumes for Phyllis's partner Strephon show similar interpretations. The earlier of the two coats is embroidered while the later is again executed in appliqués of American cloth. Both costumes have similar waistcoats with the pattern embroidered in chain stitch.
Adolph Bolm's ballet Sadko is based on an episode from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, when the Sea Princess becomes enamoured of the great musician Sadko and weds him in the kingdom of the Sea-King.
Natalia Gontcharova had to create a costume for a believable underwater being but one capable of human emotion. The decorative patterns mix the idea of the sea with elements of Russian folk design (folklorique). The stylised traditional Russian headdress, the kokoshnik, here becomes a crown, executed in silver tissue, with long plaits (another traditional Russian feature) in raffia. The underwater associations are hinted at in the 'fish-tail' cut off the back of the dress, the silver sequin crescents, which suggest fish scales and the use of silver tissue, which catches the light and suggests the sparkle of sun on water. Otherwise, the decorative appliqués of stylized flowers and leaves are in the folklorique tradition for which Gontcharova was famous. The bold shapes and bright colours which characterise the folklorique style recall children's story book design and indeed nostalgia for Russia and her traditions was very strong among the Russian exiles who formed the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, cut off from their country by war and, within a year, revolution.
Unusually, the Theatre Collections have two costumes from the same Bakst design, both made for the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, but made by two different costumiers. They were designed for the pas de deux L'Oiseau d'Or, (originally known as L'Oiseau de Feu, and later as La Princesse Enchantée) which is, in fact, a revised version of the Bluebird pas de deux from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty; in this version the man becomes an oriental prince in pursuit of an exotic bird.
A comparison of the costumes shows how, given the same design, two makers will produce a costume true to the original design, but creating different impressions.
The 1909 costume was probably made in Russia. The embroidered circles are in gold metal strip, and the execution is bolder, giving an impression of barbarism. The later costume probably dates from after Nijinsky had left Diaghilev to set up his own company and may have been made in Paris. The embroidered circles are now executed in a dull gold thread and the overall impression is of a more elegant and streamlined costume, more restrained than the earlier costume's freer execution.
Both are surprisingly heavy, considering that the Bluebird solo is famous for its jumps and exhausting technical demands; the usual costume is tights and a close-fitting tunic. The heavier costumes suggest that the role was considerably modified from the original choreography.
Pantomime Dame costumes were sometimes designed, sometimes devised by the performer and the costume maker. Many are 'sight gag' costumes, creating laughter by their clever design or simply being over-the-top, but they have to hit a balance between being clothes that the performer can use and funny costumes that dominate the wearer.
This costume is a double gag; there is the smart version in which Sarah the Cook sets out on a sea voyage and a distressed version worn after she is caught in a shipwreck. The costume makes an effect on its own, but is even funnier when worn. It is bold so that the audience can take in the jokes at a glance. The fabrics and colours are all a little more than normal yet not enough to be over the top. The impression is half sailor uniform and half child's sailor suit. The horizontal striped tights are complete fantasy, designed to emphasise Dainty's legs and the eccentric movement that was a highlight of his performance.
The shipwrecked costume has so much bold detail that it takes several seconds to see all the jokes, allowing the laughter to build. The fun lies in the stylization of the damage - the formal serrations of the collar, skirt and bloomers, rubber seaweed, the 'holes' filled with net to strengthen them and the delicate positioning of the 'real' lobster and crab. The perky, curly wig with its smart sailor hat has become bedraggled, straightened hair, with the cap bobble hanging on a long thread, its movement a gift to any comedian.
Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera Greek, based on Steven Berkoff's original play, set the Oedipus myth in 1980s London. It was a scathing parable of the greed, poverty and intolerance of Thatcherite Britain, the plague of Sophocles' original becoming the urban decay of the 1980s.
Costumes for Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera Greek had to convey a bleak contemporary world. As opposed to costumes using decoration which transforms everyday objects such as plastic flowers, pipe cleaners, raffia or sellotape, into magic, David Blight's costume for one of the down and outs uses found materials as themselves to suggest the depths of existence.
The costume is all about decoration. A raincoat is completely covered with 'found' objects associated with living rough on the streets - layers of torn newspaper, bin-bags, plastic and rubber tubing, hypodermic syringes, rubber gloves, rope, shapeless pieces of knitting, trails of rope and other kinds of litter and urban detritus.
Although the result looks random, such thrown together effects rely on careful placing of the objects, so that the effect does not become an overpowering muddle.