Materials and Colour in Costume Design

Fabric of costume for Richard in William Shakespeare’s 'Richard III', London, 1910. Museum no. S.687 – 1996

Fabric of costume for Richard in William Shakespeare’s 'Richard III', London, 1910. Museum no. S.687-1996

Theatrical costumes do not have to use expensive materials to create the illusion of grandeur. In the 18th century materials were stiffened with paper, and tinsel became decoration. Jewels were glass backed with cardboard. Since the 1930s, makers have used everything from industrial products to household objects.

Famously, Oliver Messel used pipe-cleaners, chandelier drops and raffia. Maori skirts in the 1954 film 'The Seekers' were made of drinking straws. In recent years plasterzote, latex, cable ties, polystyrene and a host of other new materials have found their way onto costumes.

New materials are not always the answer. In 1955 an experimental rubber hump for Olivier in the film Richard III was too heavy and cumbersome and would not stay in place, so the traditional canvas and wadding hump was used. The problem then was to cut the costumes to fit over the protuberance.

Ingenuity is often called for. For Ellen Terry's dress as Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, designer Alice Comyns Carr wanted a steely silver and bronzy gold fabric, rich but sombre; she found a black satin with a feeble meandering silver pattern but the wrong side

"was a sheet of silver - just the right steely silver because it was the wrong side! Mrs Carr then started on another quest for gold ... she found it at last in some gold-lace antimacassars"
Colour is important to highlight a character or suggest a mood, but designers have to allow for the lighting designer, who usually comes late into a production and can destroy carefully worked out colour schemes by over or under lighting.
Costume for King Philip II of Spain in Giuseppe Verdi’s 'Don Carlos', unknown maker, 1950. Museum no. S.2872-1986

Costume for King Philip II of Spain in Giuseppe Verdi’s 'Don Carlos', unknown maker, 1950. Museum no. S.2872-1986

Black and white on stage: Don Carlos

There are several rules in making theatrical costume which can be broken by a skillful designer and costumier. One is not to use either dead black or white on stage. Black can create a flat 'black hole' or can disappear into the shadows, whereas white can flare and draw the eye.

Sometimes, however, black is impossible to avoid. King Philip in Verdi's opera Don Carlos has to wear black and the maker has to find a way to break up an area of unrelieved colour.

The costume made for the great bass singer Boris Christoff as King Philip, is of the highest quality satin and velvet, which play against each other, creating a textural variety under the lights. The satin strips are decorated with a flower pattern executed in black and gold, which would catch the light while breaking up the pattern more effectively than embroidery and giving a lighter effect than heavy goldwork.

Christoff was one of the last major international opera stars who had his own theatrical wardrobe. This meant that his costume could be out of keeping with the production design, but from the 1950s to 1970s operas, such as Don Carlos or Boris Godunov, were traditionally played in the historical dress appropriate to their periods; Christoff's carefully period costumes would therefore fit into most productions in opera houses around the world.

View an interactive 360-degree rotation of the Don Carlos costume (requires Flash)


Black and white on stage: Helen!

Oliver Messel's designs for Helen! in 1932 are a solution to the opposite problem - designing stages in all white. White can flare under stage lights and all white stages can wash out a performer's face. Messel's solution was to use strong textures and shades of off white.

The heavy white wool of the basic costume gives a strength and heaviness, in contrast to the white draperies of Helen's costume and the set for her bedroom. Onto this are stitched in white leather arabesques reminiscent of chased Roman armour, and on the shoulders are papier-maché lion heads. The bold cloak adds shape and weight to the whole costume. Dressing a leading man in white could have made him very undefined and formless, but the fabrics and decoration give weight and shape to the whole.

The costume is also a comment on surviving classical statuary in museums. Messel knew that these statues were originally coloured, but in choosing to create his armour in white, he makes a witty statement about historical perception. He also reflects the vogue for white interior design, a style made fashionable by Syrie Maugham, a leading British interior decorator of the 1920s and 1930s.

Costume for Paris in Jacques Offenbach‘s operetta 'Helen!,' London 1932. Museum no. S.493:1 – 2006
Costume for Paris in Jacques Offenbach‘s operetta 'Helen!', London, 1932. Museum no. S.493:1-2006
Costume for Paris in Jacques Offenbach‘s operetta 'Helen!,' London 1932. Museum no. S.493:1 – 2006
Costume for Paris in Jacques Offenbach‘s operetta 'Helen!', London, 1932. Museum no. S.493:1-2006
Costume for Widow Twankey, John Vickers, about 1980. Museum no. S.2633-1986

Costume for Widow Twankey, John Vickers, about 1980. Museum no. S.2633-1986

Aladdin

Many pantomime dames devised their own costumes and often made them themselves, or they were made by members of their families. This costume for Widow Twankey in Aladdin was devised by John Vicars and worn by his brother, Alan, in the 1970s and 1980s. Most dame costumes are 'sight gag' costumes, creating laughter by their clever design or simply being over-the-top, but they also give information about the character.

Thus, Jack's mother in Jack and the Beanstalk or Mother Goose, who live in the country, would have references to animals or flowers on her dresses, or even an entire vegetable patch; Sara the Cook in Dick Whittington would have cooking implements or food - maybe with a whole cake as a hat. Widow Twankey runs a Chinese laundry, so Vicars concocted his costume out of cleaning materials which can be found in any household - dusters, j cloths and dishcloths; the headdress is built on a mop 'wig' from which rises a wire construction decorated with detergent packets, its horizontal 'washing lines' pegged with dolls' clothes. The costume is a joke in itself but it gained immeasurably in comic effect when worn by the 6' 4" tall Vicars.

View an interactive 360-degree rotation of the Widow Twankey costume (requires Flash)

Un Ballo in Maschera

Costume for a member of the chorus in Giuseppe Verdi’s 'Un Ballo in Maschera', designed by Jurgen Rose, Royal Opera House, London, 1975. Museum no. S.67-2003

Costume for a member of the chorus in Giuseppe Verdi’s 'Un Ballo in Maschera', designed by Jurgen Rose, Royal Opera House, London, 1975. Museum no. S.67-2003

If the fabric of this costume is reminiscent of 1970s curtains, that is because it is made from 1970s curtain fabric.

Theatre designers and makers rarely use conventional dressmaking fabrics, which are too insubstantial and not decorated boldly enough for the stage. This is especially true in opera, which is usually performed on a large stage with a huge auditorium and costumes have to be extremely strong to register equally from the stalls and from the back of the gallery.

Upholstery fabrics - brocades, velvets, linens, glazed heavy cottons - are often a good source for costume makers; they are weighty, hard-wearing and often strongly patterned. Few could have been as bold as this Chinoiserie design on a coral ground and, unlike brocades or plain fabrics, it is easily dateable to the 1970s.

The German designer Jurgen Rose chose this fabric for a costume in Un Ballo in Maschera for the Royal Opera House in 1974. It was used for one of the dresses at the masked ball, with which the opera ends. The costume follows the general outline of late 18th century costumes, though the fabric now seems completely at odds with the 1790s setting of the opera. Isolated, it looks more outstanding than it would have done on stage, amid dozens of other extravagant costumes and under stage lights.


Don Giovanni

Costume for a peasant in Mozart’s 'Don Giovanni', London, 1973. Museum no. S.57:1-2003

Costume for a peasant in Mozart’s 'Don Giovanni', costume designed by Stefanos Lazaridis, English National Opera, Coliseum, London, 1973. Museum no. S.57:1-2003

Divorced from its context, few would recognise this riot of colour, trimmings and pattern as a costume for a poor man; in fact it is the costume worn by the peasant Masetto in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, for his marriage to Zerlina.

All the peasants wore similarly multicoloured and braided costumes. It was designed by Stefanos Lazaridis for the 1973 production at the Royal Opera House and he possibly had in mind the bright colours and 'ribbons' of traditional gypsy dress within the overall production style of 16th century Spain and ornate Spanish art.

Like the dress for Un Ballo in Maschera, this costume is made of recognisably 1970s furnishing fabric, mixing the patterned fabrics with toning plain fabrics and encrustations of gold braid. Close up, the mix of patterns and fabrics seem visually confusing, but the costume was meant to be seen on a large stage and to stand out amid a crowd of people. Designers often create exaggerated costumes for opera, partly because of the size of the theatres, partly because the characters are often larger-than-life.

However, suggestions of 16th century Spain were at odds with the very contemporary abstract set of shiny scaffolding. This contrast of abstraction and realism went down badly with the audience and there was booing on the first night - though whether this was objection to the production or a generalised, organised protest against Royal Opera House policy has never been resolved.


Costume for Viola in Twelfth Night, Norman Wilkinson, 1912. Museum no. S.1357-1984

Costume for Viola in Twelfth Night, Norman Wilkinson, 1912. Museum no. S.1357-1984

Twelfth Night

This costume for Viola in Twelfth Night comes from one of the most famous stagings of the play in the 20th century.  Harley Granville Barker’s production of the play in 1912 helped sweep away the clutter and unimaginative detail that so often characterised late Victorian productions, in favour of a more decorative and imaginative approach. The costume has the simplicity and ‘blocked’ colour of contemporary book illustrations - indeed, in an era when there were no trained stage designers, directors often called on well-known illustrators to design productions.

The favoured colours of the Edwardian period were biscuits, beiges and black, although the success of Léon Bakst’s Scheherazade in 1910 had brought intense colours back into fashion. This costume has a subtly rich simplicity and an equally  striking use of colour for the date. The historically correct approach would have been to slash the black top fabric of this costume to show the white or cream linen beneath (the purpose of slashing was to show that the wearer could afford fine underlinen as well as expensive outer clothing), but Wilkinson chose an intense emerald green.  Equally surprising is the superb silver brocade coat, which is lined with a brilliant silk that one is tempted to call Schiaparelli pink, except that that colour was not devised until the 1930s.  The contrast between the costume and surcoat serves to enhance both, giving an impression of simplicity but richness. 

View an interactive 360-degree rotation of the Viola costume (requires Flash)


Bay Harrington

Costume for Bay Harrington as 'Prince Charming', production and date unknown. Museum no. S.238:1-2002

Costume for Bay Harrington as 'Prince Charming', production and date unknown. Museum no. S.238:1-2002

Bay Harrington was a well-known variety performer and pantomime principal boy in the 1920s and 1930s. She wore this costume as the Prince in the pantomime Cinderella. The straight tunic dates it to the 1920s, by which time the 19th century 'hour-glass' principal boy figure with exaggerated padded thighs had become an unstructured tube in keeping with current fashion.

However, the 19th century tradition of stressing the legs survives; the tights were silk jersey, which gave a sheen to thigh, calf and ankle. The asymmetric cloak, with its pale pink lining, provides a perfect frame for a shapely limb.

At this time, when most women and girls would learn how to sew, many variety and pantomime performers made their own costumes, sometimes with the help of their families. Bay Harrington's family were tailors, hence her smart and elegantly flattering stage clothes.

The material for this costume is particularly interesting. The tunic and cloak are not cut from a single length of fabric, but 'patched' together and there is a discrepancy between the quality of the sequins edging the cloak and tunic and those used for the flower decoration. The satin and the workmanship of the sequin and rhinestone ornamentation are of a very high quality and the fabric probably came from a very grand Edwardian evening dress.

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