I have chosen to research period costume against the modern counterpart of theatre costume.
Fabrics used in period dress were limited and depending on your social status governed what you were able to wear. Penalties were imposed on the lower classes for wearing fabrics exclusively for nobility.
This was enforced by English law by Queen Elizabeth 1574 and was called the Sumptuary Law. Any transgression was punishable by loss of monetary, property, title and in some cases death. The lower classes however were able to use trimmings such as silk, taffeta or velvet.
Peasants clothing was usually more earthy colours, using vegetable and plant dyes, which were readily available. Leather was obtained whilst hunting.
Different colours were worn by nobility and dyes were expensive to produce as they were imported.
Here are examples of the types of colours and the way in which they are made.
|Colour||Source of dye||Worn by||Meaning|
|Indigo||plants and dyes (India)||Nobility||richness or wealth|
|Brown||Madder plant||Peasant (cheap to produce)||poverty and humility|
|Orange||Madder plant||Peasant (cheap to produce)||courage|
|Pink||Madder plant||worn by girls/young women||happiness and joy|
|Red||Madder plant||control and importance||courage|
|Black||very expensive to make||modesty and plainness||authority and control|
|White||very expensive to make||richness and wealth||richness and wealth|
|Gray||rough, coarse wool||nobility/peasant||mourning/regret|
The finer fabrics were worn by the upper classes, whereas the lower classes wore wool (albeit coarser than the wool nobility wore). Period woollens were far superior in quality than today’s counterparts. During the Elizabethan times the economy revolved around the wool trade.
Fabric was not readily available and worn clothing was often recycled, leading to new designs being discovered. (This can be likened to the fad for up cycling today). With the introduction of the revolutionary cotton jenny in 1793 cheaper fabric were produced enabling people to have more than one set of clothing. This led to washing becoming an integral part of life. The cotton could be boiled helping to save countless thousands dying of typhus as this process of cleaning was fatal for the typhus louse. The other advantage was it also prolonged the life of the fabric, as sweat and other bodily fluids were less inclined to stay in the weave of the fabric. However with the progress of the cotton industry it created a lot of employment but this led to sweatshops and child labour.
Printed cottons weren’t generally available until 16th century and when trying to attain a traditional look for a period costume it should be avoided as cotton was previously imported from abroad. Woodblock/stamping and home grown cotton fabrics started to appear around 1660. This was generally one colour on plain background. However simple designs were developed for the British taste.
Polished cottons didn’t exist in the 16th century so when recreating a modern costume it would detract from the period being created.
For a traditional look cotton broadcloth can be used. Heavier cottons should be used for outdoor wear. The rule to remember is the coarser the fabric, the poorer someone would be. Linen was used a lot in 16th century to make smocks, chemises and coifs. Fine linen was commanded by the nobility, coarser weave were reserved for peasants. Linen was used by both classes for garment linings. Heavy linen had a thicker weave was used as outerwear. And due to its durability Linen launders well.
Recreating modern costume with linen isn’t cheap and an alternative substitute could be cotton, again wasn’t traditional!
Modern theatre costumes limitations
When trying to capture the period there are many considerations on how to make authentic looking costume using ‘traditional’ materials. If you could buy the fabric needed, it would be far too expensive.
A lot of research is needed by costume designers today and can be obtained from primary or secondary sources.
Primary sources available can be obtained from illustrations or more often or not paintings. Manuscripts could also be used for reference. The Victoria and Albert museum has an extensive collection of dresses from all over the world that ranges over 5 centuries.
One of many examples of dress in a painting.
e.g. Elizabeth Stuart queen of bohemia 1606 metropolitan museum of art New York
Secondary sources can be from the internet or books
A costume designer has many things to consider. Whether a fabric is authentic for the period or whether the actual pattern was of the period or would detract away from the authenticity of the costume. There is more artistic license for films, although keeping to the traditional feel of the era is a must for a period drama.
Two examples costume interpretation
Glenn Close in Hamlet
Helena Bonham-Carter Alice in Wonderland – is a good example of interpreting Elizabethan costume with a twist. Here artistic license comes into play.
However, for modern re-enactors, there are some people who loosely adhere to authenticity where as progressive re-enactors are stringent on their costumes and have to have authentic reproduction (where possible). This does come at a high cost, as these costumes, are made as traditionally as possible, eg no zips or Velcro, no matter what you are trying to create, if you want an authentic result, then close attention to the period is needed for what you are trying to represent.
This online shop is one of a few select places where authentic fabric is made for historical re-enactment. These are made by the traditional methods. The cost of the fabrics is high due to the limited market.
I have some examples of these. It would be impossible to have fabric from the Elizabethan period, but this would be the nearest thing to material as it was.
Solid colour wool is the best choice for making medieval costume, couture wool is expensive and a cheaper option would be a wool/acrylic blend. Social class again determined the quality of the coarseness of the weave. This applies to linen as well.
Historically silk would have only been worn by the upper classes. Elizabethan silks were a combination of silk/wool and silk/linen, however these are incredibly hard to find today and would probably come at a cost.
In modern theatre costume considerations, Shantung or Noil silk shouldn’t be used. China silk could be used as is fine. To be authentic you could you silk broadcloth or silk blends.
Traditionally Nobility only wore velvet, as it was incredibly expensive. In the 16th century there were various types of velvet. Cut velvet/uncut velvet/cisele/pile on pile/polychrome and brocade. The realm of Venice is a good source for modern re-enactment.
Stretch velvet is not authentic for a period production. Rayon velvet would be a better choice however it is difficult to sew, so the seamstress should be proficient. When designing a costume, cotton velvet has advantages as it has weight in it which is good for heavy dress design. It is machine washable, and easier to iron.
When designing a play, there are many things to consider and these are not just about the fabrics used.
The period in which it is set is important and needs to be historically accurate, however sometimes artistic license is used where needed. The season in which it is the play is set and the geography of the period needs to be conveyed. But also determining what the social status of the person was and how they are portrayed. Modern body shape is different to the people of the 16th century and therefore period costume has to be adapted for Health and Safety.
Important factors can be whether the costume allows for breathing or dancing. For example, Madonna recently went on stage after a problem with a cape tied too tight so it didn’t fall off. Another consideration is the lighting, where costume can either work or not work due to colours of the fabrics. One of the most important factors is the cost of the materials and embellishments needed. This can be hugely expensive. For example, the film Elizabeth 1998 cost $50 to 60 million to produce, but only received $74,237,563 at the box office.
I recently visited Sudeley castle where there was an exhibition The Threads of Time with over 400 years of textile techniques.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to take any photographs. It was such a shame because some of the embroidery was so fine. This was due to copyright protection. There were hundreds of samplers, which was an important part of a girl’s education, which showed varying techniques, thread or colour combination and was a stitch reference for future work. In the past there was nothing to refer to, apart from samplers from family members or religious embroidery. The samples also showed regional craftwork. There was also commemorative work, indicating births or such events. Samplers usually took two forms in the 16th century, random placing of embroidery and then more ordered design. Initialled work was commonplace, but rarely full names. There were many examples of this work. There were various base fabrics, silk, linen, or cotton.
One piece that was exquisite was the expulsion of paradise
There were many examples of embroidered clothing, from christening gowns to wedding dresses. All demonstrated varied stitch work. There were various collections of ecclesiastical work, where gold work is dominant. This showed how influential the church was at this time. Other gold work pieces were from the royal household.
An example of royal embroidery was one lace piece thought to have been made by Anne Boleyn for the christening of Elizabeth 1, called the Boleyn Falcon (unable to load the picture)
Another example of medieval embroidery was a Charles II 17th century stump work casket.
Picture courtesy of Sudeley castle website
The christening gown above was found at Sudeley castle in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. It was worn by Elizabeth 1 and has been authenticated by the V & A museum and is on display at the castle.
There was an exhibition of Henry VIII and his 6 wives at the castle. The costumes were replicas not period fashion. It gave an indication of fabrics and surface design used. The costumes came from the TV series by Dr David Starkey ‘The six wives of Henry VIII’ and designed by John Bloomfield, costume designer and actor.
The rest of the house had original period furnishings, from various eras of history. Some were ornate and some were simpler designs, but all historically important.
This is a replica lace bonnet from the Tudor times I bought from Sudeley.
I find it difficult getting to some exhibitions, also at this time of year a lot of the historical houses is closed. So have decided to research online exhibitions, hving recently come across Threads of feeling, and was so touched by the reason behind the 17th century collection.
Like with many babies in years gone by, they were ‘abandoned’ for one reason or another. Either couldn’t afford to look after them, or social stigma. For whatever reason during 1741 and 1760, mothers would leave their baby in the care of the Foundling Hospital. However they either left a token of fabric or nurses cut the fabric from the child’s clothing to identify the child, should the mother be in a position to collect them.
These were in turn attached to any records regarding the child and stored away. Some mothers did return for their children when they were in a position to care for them, but sadly many did not.
Examples of fabrics taken from mothers and childs clothing
It is the biggest collection surviving from 18th century Britain of textiles used by everyday folk.
The textiles give an insight into the lives of the mothers, whether they were rich or poor. How women used worn fabrics to make children’s clothing.
Some of the fabrics had descriptions of the mothers; others had prayers, all very personal and quite heartrending.
There are a number of modern fashion designers that draw their influence from the Elizabethan period.
Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Gareth Pugh to name but a few.
There are fewer constraints on fabric design today with the availability of endless materials, designs, colours and textures to work with today. There is still a difference in the cost of low end fashion and Haute Couture.
The high end fashion today, seems to go to the extreme on the cat walk with impractical fashion for the everyday person. One example of the models having trouble with the clothes was a collection by Corrie Nielson inspired by the Elizabethan era. The dress was so voluminous that it hampered the movement of the model. These fashions dictate what the ordinary person would wear. Some of the less extreme fashions trickle onto the high street, but otherwise designers ‘tailor’ for the general public.
Alexander McQueen is heavily influenced by the Elizabethan period. The designs focus around crisp white linen, with lace and heavily jewelled giving an air of power. McQueen changed the virginal quality with the introduction of black for a bondage twist.
In the 80s, Zandra Rhodes used the Elizabethan era and to a certain extent the Royal wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Diana influence to produce the renaissance gold collection (separates).
Gareth Pugh is another designer that uses the power dressing of the time to portray his powerful designs. His idea that people copied the Elizabethan queens fashion, where permitted which then permeated down the ranks, similar to the influence of fashion today. His belief is that ‘it’s more about an idea, an alternative reality’. He draws the influence of the triangular shape much favoured in the Elizabethan court.
Fashion influences at the moment for the coming year, are varied. There is inspiration from various decades. The batwing makes a revival from the 80’s, with short flirty skirts. The elegant power dressing of the 50’s returns to the sophisticated look emphasising the female form. Hippie styles used with tailored, which seems to be the emphasis, even with denim (although embellished). Flares are brightly coloured. And military uniform are still a hit on the high street. The other surprising thing is the white long outercoat is still extremely fashionable.
The things I like to collect vary immensely from fancy dress (either shop bought or vintage) costume jewellery, lace and many other things. I don’t tend to collect lace as such, just pick up interesting pieces admiring the work involved and wonder who made and for whom. Various techniques are apparent, such as crochet, or tatting (which is incredibly difficult to do, I tried).
In summing up, my thoughts are Fashion, textiles or anything for that matter comes from our cultural past. Adapted for the ever changing cycles of history. Without history, we would not have the inspiration to draw from.