We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu

Reflecting Historical Periods in Stage Costume

Costume for Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s 'The Importance of Being Earnest', London, 1993. Museum no. S.108-1993

Costume for Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s 'The Importance of Being Earnest', London, 1993. Museum no. S.108-1993

Some designers and costumiers can replicate period dress down to the last bone in the corset, while others have a looser approach. Carl Bonn of costume makers Bonn and Mackenzie remarked that one of the first things he would ask a designer was to specify exactly what period the designer was striving to depict. Often the drawings would roughly suggest, say, the 1840s, but agreement would need to be made on whether this should be the early or late 1840s, so that the detail could be accurate and consistent.

Theatre costumes also have to allow for today's different body shapes and ways of moving, for a singer's breathing or a dancer's movement. The theatre is a contemporary art with a contemporary audience with a contemporary eye and must be of its time. So a designer does not create an authentic reconstruction of a historical dress but retains its essential attributes while reinterpreting it for today. Often only in retrospect can a production be seen as a creation of the period in which it is staged - by the way it reflects current fashion, its cut, the selected fabrics and trimmings, make-up and hair.

The integrated production is a 20th-century development. In the 19th century, costume and sets were devised by different craftsmen working independently. This didn't matter while the primary focus was on the performer and realism was the prevailing style, so sets and costumes blended.

The idea of visual unity and a production as a total concept was established in the early 1900s, and the director evolved to fuse the disparate elements - text, concept, performance, design, lighting - into a seamless whole. Sometimes a director imposes a 'house style' on a production or even an entire season - even though not all styles suit all actors. A famous example was a Jacobean Macbeth when the full breeches to below the knee plus the high-crowned brimmed hat made the leading actor look, in the words of one of his fellow actors, like one of Ken Dodd's Diddy Men.


Antony and Cleopatra

Production photograph of Judi Dench as Cleopatra in William Shakespeare’s 'Antony and Cleopatra', London, 1987, photograph by Graham Brandon, Museum no. TM 10226

Production photograph of Judi Dench as Cleopatra in William Shakespeare’s 'Antony and Cleopatra', London, 1987, photograph by Graham Brandon. Museum no. TM 10226

Shakespeare's plays admit an astonishingly wide range of interpretation. This costume, designed by Alison Chitty for Cleopatra in the National Theatre's 1987 production of Antony and Cleopatra, looks nothing like the clichéd idea of ancient Egypt. It avoids obvious 'Egyptian' style and motif by looking back to a time before modern archaeology when Egypt was synonymous with a vague sensuous 'east'. Amid the Roman military uniforms, the Egyptian costumes suggested a more languorous, less restricted attitude to life.

The costume is made of sari silk, which is available in a wide range of shades and is often used instead of natural and artificial silks; these are more subtle in colour and embellishments than the exotic lurex and novelty fabrics often used for theatre costumes in the 1970s. Another advantage is that they come ready decorated, thus saving on expensive beading and embroidery.

Worn beneath the high-waisted coat-dress is what appears to be a full-length skirt. In fact, the garments pants are made of exceptionally wide tubes, stitched onto a hipster band slightly pointed at back and front.

The costume was perfectly suited to Judi Dench's physique, and indeed is very like the style of clothes she wears off stage - elegant, loose, figure skimming, but here given a twist to create a theatrical costume.


Ballet Royal de la Nuit

In 1969, Ballet for All (the Royal Ballet lecture-demonstration group) mounted a programme tracing dance from the French court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) to the birth of the Romantic ballet in the early 19th century. Designer David Walker was extremely knowledgeable about historic costume but also understood about translating it for contemporary audiences. So while his designs drew heavily on contemporary sources, what appeared on stage was far from dry historical reconstruction.

This costume is a 1970s recreation of an 18th-century design for a famous French ballet de cour. It recreates the outline and decoration of the original design and its impression of sumptuous richness while using materials of the 1960s - from the rich chestnut velvet to the furniture motifs and rosettes which are part of the opulent surface encrustations. The beautiful cut and fit and confident square neckline help suggest the elegance and authority of 18th century French aristocracy.

The costume is exceptionally heavy, which helped the dancers recreate the feel of 17th-century Court dances, which were stately and elegant, moving in a dignified manner across and into the ground, without the virtuoso jumps and spins of today's performers. However, like many theatrical period costumes the unseen area under the corselet has been replaced with heavy cotton, to make the costume lighter and more comfortable for the wearer.

Costume worn in private court performance at the Castello di Meleto. Museum no. S.792-1982
Costume worn in private court performance at the Castello di Meleto. Museum no. S.792-1982
Costume for the Duke of York as Victory in the Ballet de cour Ballet Royal de la Nuit, recreated by David Walker for Ballet For All, Swan Theatre, Worcester, 1969. Museum no. S.1658-1982
Costume for the Duke of York as Victory in the ballet de cour 'Ballet Royal de la Nuit', recreated by David Walker for Ballet For All, Swan Theatr'e, Worcester, 1969. Museum no. S.1658-1982
Costume for Prévost worn by Adeline Genée in La Danse, designed by Wilhem, New York, 1912. Museum no. S.1460-1982

Costume for Prévost worn by Adeline Genée in La Danse, designed by Wilhem, New York, 1912. Museum no. S.1460-1982

La Danse

This costume is from La Danse, a ballet tracing dance styles from 1710 to 1845. Adeline Genée appeared as various star dancers from each period, ending with Marie Taglioni. Painstaking research was carried out to ensure that the costumes and music were as authentic as possible.

For her recreation of the great prima ballerina Françoise Prevost (1680-1741) no suitable image could be found. The designer Wilhelm based this costume on a print of Marie de Subligny, a dancer from the 1680s. The dress was immaculately copied, including the scroll work and jewelled stomacher, and shows Wilhelm's skill in transferring a black and white print into a three-dimensional costume. The costume was made by Miss Hastings, using only the highest quality fabrics and trimmings, which doubtless Wilhelm helped to choose. Only the construction of the bodice shows that it was made in the late Edwardian period.

The finished dress is elaborate and heavy, the bodice boned and the sleeves heavily flounced. The weight and detail of the finished dress suggest that Genée was making a serious attempt to recreate the dance style of that period. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, costume restricted the movement of female dancers; boning meant that there was little flexibility in the torso although the arms moved slowly and gracefully; the long skirt meant that intricate footwork and spectacular jumps were impossible. Everything was judged on elegance and grace.

Miss Hastings' invoice describes the costume as: 'Louis XIV. For Miss Genée consisting of:- Green and gold silk Brocade, Bodice and Train lined with shot green silk, trimmed with gold Lace, Jewels of Sapphires, Emralds (sic), Pearls, Gold Tassels, Blue Ninon Scarf printed in gold design. Headdress of Pearls with Feather Mount, Lace Sleeves, Necklace. Sundries, Skirt and Bodice embroidered and jewelled. £35.10.0' (about £2,400 today, in 1910 £35 would have paid a craftsman builder for 107 days' work). Costumes for the whole production cost just over £300 (ca. £20,400 today).


Love for Love

Costumes for Restoration plays (i.e. the late 17th century) are usually heavily pleated and flounced but this coat is slim line, emphasised by the vertical stripes and the back pleats are few and unstiffened (Der Rosenkavalier).

This is in keeping with the uncluttered, minimal look of the 1960s when the costume was made. The only opulent touch is in the richly embroidered cuffs.

When the production was revived in 1985, the costumes had to be cut more generously, as the audience was now used to fashion's fuller, romantic line. To have replicated the slimmer line of the original production, would have made people wonder if the theatre was skimping on fabric.

The subtle ochres and browns of the coat's striped fabric blended in perfectly with the muted tones of the sets. Several critics referred to the cat-like qualities of Olivier's performance and one wonders if that was suggested by this costume or whether Olivier's performance in rehearsal suggested a cat-like quality that de Nobili reflected in the costume.

Beneath the coat, in a typical de Nobili touch, is a waistcoat made of 18th century brocaded silk, far too fragile for the rigours of stage performance, but which is a wonderful contrast to the coat's dull surface. De Nobili was famous for her gleanings from the Paris flea markets, and wondrous antique fabrics and trimmings would be produced from her many bags and incorporated into the costumes, so that, as one critic put it, they 'arrived on stage with past lives.'

Costume for Tattle in William Congreve’s Love for Love, designed by Lila de Nobili, London 1966. Museum no. S.769:1 – 1997
Costume for Tattle in William Congreve’s 'Love for Love', designed by Lila de Nobili, London, 1966. Museum no. S.769:1-1997
Costume for Tattle in William Congreve’s Love for Love, designed by Lila de Nobili, London 1966. Museum no. S.769:1 – 1997
Costume for Tattle in William Congreve’s 'Love for Love', designed by Lila de Nobili, London, 1966. Museum no. S.769:1-1997
Costume for Elizabeth I in Benjamin Britten’s opera 'Gloriana', designed by Alix Stone, worn by Ava June, English National Opera, Coliseum, London, 1975. Museum no. S.15-2004

Costume for Elizabeth I in Benjamin Britten’s opera 'Gloriana', designed by Alix Stone, worn by Ava June, English National Opera, Coliseum, London, 1975. Museum no. S.15-2004

Gloriana

The costume retains all the obvious features of the Elizabethan period - the wide neck, rigid stomacher, elaborate sleeves and the huge farthingale skirt (the large neck ruff is missing). The making, however, is clearly 1970s, especially in the selection of materials. The main fabric is a woven lurex pattern on a background of then-fashionable apricot colour. The elaborate decorations are executed in other materials of the period - gold wired ribbons, gold netting, gold faceted beads and jewellery findings.

The costume structure is inbuilt and the stomacher, though quilted and with padded lining to give weight, has sacrificed historical accuracy for practicality, being much looser to allow the singer to breathe correctly.

Another costume for the same character in the Museum collection was made for the 1969 production, and the effects have been achieved very differently. The fabric is less bright in tone and part of the decoration is realised by 'drawing' on the fabric with gold resins, rather than constructing three-dimensional ornamentation.

Costume for Elizabeth I, Costume designed by Alix Stone, London 1975. Museum no. S.15-2004
Costume for Elizabeth I, designed by Alix Stone, London, 1975. Museum no. S.15-2004
Costume for Elizabeth I, Costume designed by Alix Stone, London 1975. Museum no. S.15-2004
Costume for Elizabeth I, designed by Alix Stone, London, 1975. Museum no. S.15-2004
Costume design for Elizabeth I, costume design by Alix Stone, English National Opera, Coliseum, London 1975. Museum no. S.116-2001
Costume design for Elizabeth I, designed by Alix Stone, English National Opera, Coliseum, London, 1975. Museum no. S.116-2001

The Sleeping Beauty

Costume for Princess Aurora in Act I of Marius Petipa’s Ballet 'The Sleeping Beauty', London, 1946. Museum no. S.55-1992

Costume for Princess Aurora in Act I of Marius Petipa’s ballet 'The Sleeping Beauty', London, 1946. Museum no. S.55-1992

The classical ballet tutu, the plate-like skirt standing stiffly from the hips, would seem a unique costume, limited in scope. Yet the origin of this costume for Princess Aurora in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty is a historical source; Velasquez's 1656 painting Las Meninas, depicting the little Spanish Infanta.

Designer Oliver Messel realised that if the long falling skirt was removed from the Infanta's costume, the round farthingale does create a costume very like a classical tutu. Equally, the friends who accompany Aurora in Act I wear costumes very close to the figure in grey on the right of the painting.

Because of the demands of the choreography, Messel had to dress Aurora in a tutu in Act I, but as the scene takes place in the palace gardens on Aurora's 16th birthday, he wanted the idea of a day dress. By retaining the 'collar' around the upper edge and the long sleeves, he created a costume that gives the impression of a dress while remaining a classical tutu.


Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a pastiche, evoking 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.

Costume for Sophie in Richard Strauss’s 'Der Rosenkavalier,' London 1974. Museum no. S.263 - 1999
Costume for Sophie in Richard Strauss’s 'Der Rosenkavalier', London, 1974. Museum no. S.263-1999
Detail of decoration on Costume for Sophie in Richard Strauss’s 'Der Rosenkavalier,' London, 1974. Museum no. S.263 – 1999
Detail of decoration on costume for Sophie in Richard Strauss’s 'Der Rosenkavalier', London, 1974. Museum no. S.263-1999
Costume for Sophie in Richard Strauss’s 'Der Rosenkavalier,' London, 1974. Museum no. S.263 – 1999
Costume for Sophie in Richard Strauss’s 'Der Rosenkavalier', London, 1974. Museum no. S.263-1999
Costume for Mariuccia in Leonide Massine's ballet 'The Good-Humoured Ladies', designed by Leon Bakst, Diaghilev Ballet Russes, 1917. Musem no. S.148-1985

Costume for Mariuccia in Leonide Massine's ballet 'The Good-Humoured Ladies', designed by Leon Bakst, Diaghilev Ballet Russes, 1917. Musem no. S.148-1985

The Good-Humoured Ladies

18th century women's costume was cumbersome, voluminous and restricting, characteristics that make it unsuitable for ballet dancers.

However, this was the task facing Léon Bakst for Leonide Massine's 1917 ballet The Good-Humoured Ladies, a comedy of manners based on a play by the 18th-century Italian dramatist Goldoni.

Bakst adapted period dress taking into account the particular style of the choreography. His solution in the costume for Mariuccia was to shorten the skirt - which was in keeping with her character as a servant - and sleeves, so that Massine's very detailed footwork and hand movements would be clear. The shape was kept light and clear. The internal structure kept the fabric away from the legs, and fabric and frills were minimised; the decoration was appliquéd onto the costume using silver chain stitch.

The clarity of outline and the brilliant yellow, purple, green and blue - all most un-18th century colours - help make the costume feel modern and fresh.

The ballet was extremely popular and often revived. In the remaking, the detail became eroded and the expensive appliqué was replaced by a stencilled design.


Costume for Berta in Act III of Frederick Ashton's ballet 'Ondine', designed by Lila de Nobili, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1958. Museum no. S.1643-1982

Costume for Berta in Act III of Frederick Ashton's ballet 'Ondine', designed by Lila de Nobili, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1958. Museum no. S.1643-1982

Ondine

The inspiration for the Court costumes in Ondine came from the dresses designed by Jean Baptiste Isabey for the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor in Paris in 1804.

From these, de Nobili adapted the high-waisted Empire line and the low neck-line with its serrated stand-up 'collar'. The fabric is a grey-silver metal gauze woven with shadowy floral motifs, overlaid onto a black net base, which shimmered under the stage lights; this is encrusted with silver braids, sequins and contrasting amethyst 'jewels,' sewn onto flesh-coloured net at the neck.

In contrast, the sleeve puffs are made from a contemporary fabric, reminiscent of bubble-wrap, with the 'bubbles' of narrow strips of cellophane caught in a net base.

The train is made of the same fabric as the sleeve puffs, and is very light. Its cut is simple, involving two pieces of fabric sewn together up the length and then, at a right angle, across the width. Once the corner is inverted, it provides the necessary weight to the light-weight fabric, ensuring that it falls correctly and gives the requisite 'drag' to the costume.

The costume shows de Nobili's flair for selecting and juxtaposing extraordinary textures and seemingly dissimilar fabrics, yet retaining the correct period feel.

Costume for Berta in Act III Frederick Ashton's ballet ''Ondine', London, 1958. Museum no. S.1643 - 1982
Costume for Berta in Act III of Frederick Ashton's ballet ''Ondine', London, 1958. Museum no. S.1643-1982
Production Photograph of Fredrick Ashtons ballet 'Ondine,' Covent Garden, London, 1958. Photograph by Houston Rogers
Production photograph of Fredrick Ashton's ballet 'Ondine,' Covent Garden, London, 1958. Photograph by Houston Rogers

The Importance of Being Earnest

Stage costumes always reflect, consciously or unconsciously, the age in which they are created. However, there were many similarities between clothes in the 1890s, when Wilde's play is set, and the 1990s, when Bob Crowley designed this costume for Maggie Smith as Lady Bracknell. The tailored jacket, 'bustle' and leg-of-mutton sleeves balanced by the width of the skirt, the exaggerated shoulders, emphasised by the width of the sleeves and wide lapels are all characteristic of the 1890s. Crowley has maintained the monumental feel, which the diagonal waist stripes do nothing to mitigate. The upright posture implies confidence and self-possession - both notable traits of Lady Bracknell - and in fact, the severe tailored jacket fashion of the 1890s, did give contemporary women a more confident air, reflecting a stronger sense of self.

The 1980s and early 1990s were the era of power dressing, although it may be fanciful to see the inspiration as Mrs Thatcher - is the dark grey satin a reference to the 'Iron Lady'? The high plumed hat is again in keeping with the period, but is also part of the building of the character - to wear it correctly means that the performer has to stand with back straight and unbending, adding to the impression of iron will and determination that are part of Lady Bracknell's formidable character.

The hems are weighted to produce the correct drag of the costume and keep its shape in movement. This could have been achieved in several ways - here the maker has chosen a broad band of buckram. The structure does not come from the underpinnings but from the cut, notably the jacket's back panels sticking out over the fullness of the back skirt; the bustle had essentially disappeared by 1895, and the sharp uncompromising shape of Crowley's costume are an indication of character rather than period.

Costume for Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, London 1993. Museum no. S.108 – 1993
Costume for Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s 'The Importance of Being Earnest', London, 1993. Museum no. S.108-1993
Costume for Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, London 1993. Museum no. S.108 – 1993
Costume for Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s 'The Importance of Being Earnest', London, 1993. Museum no. S.108-1993

Private Group Tours & Talks

We offer a wide range of tours to meet your group requirements. Whether a group has a special area of interest, wishes to explore a particular gallery or just get an overview of the Museum's collection the Groups Team can help.

View our Private Group Tours & Talks