“Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,But not express’d in fancy, rich, not gaudy,For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”- Polonius, Hamlet, I.iii.70-72

England’s Elizabethan Age marked a time of fantastic pageantry, elevated living, and high tastes. This fact demonstrated itself notably in both the clothing of the period and, significantly, the way in which that clothing appeared on the early modern stage. For on the stage there was very little effort to present “costumes” as we imagine them today. Instead, actors wore fashions contemporary to their time rather than attempting to recreate the clothing of whatever period in which a play might be set. This was an important part of the theatergoing experience, in that it was a way for an audience of varied social backgrounds to enjoy the spectacle of the brilliant colors and opulent fabrics of the day. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, clothing was an important social indicator and a way for individuals to express personal style – much as it is today – and both men and women would have been equally familiar with the dizzying array of styles, fabrics, decorative techniques, and accessories present on the stage. They would have viewed the players with a knowing eye, admiring the quality of the garments and taking pleasure from good workmanship. Englishman Sir John Harington, in his Treatise on Playe, succinctly encapsulates the Elizabethan attitude toward clothing when he says, “Wee goe brave in apparell that wee may be taken for better men than wee bee; we use much bumbastings and quiltings to seeme better formed, better showlderd, smaller wasted, and fuller thyght then wee are; […] corkt shooes to seeme taller then wee bee.”[1] Such a philosophy could easily be applied to both the average citizen and the theatrical player.

Although little material remains from which to study early modern theatrical costumes, the above drawing provides a glimpse of Shakespeare in performance in the sixteenth century. Most interestingly, it illustrates the eclectic mix of Elizabethan and classical costumes which were featured onstage in a production of this nature. Tamora, queen of the Goths, wears a sophisticated Elizabethan dress and a contemporary crown, while the soldiers on the left carry sixteenth century swords and halberds. Titus, the central figure, wears a slightly more Roman ensemble, although his sword is also Elizabethan in fashion. Another reason for this unique blend is that costumes such as those featured in this sketch were simply more familiar to early modern audiences. They would have read Tamora’s English-style crown symbolically and appreciated that it represented royalty in a way which they understood. Such key symbols of recognition were more important to an audience than historical fidelity to the setting of the play, especially since a large percentage of them would likely not have been able to read the appropriate hierarchy implicit in authentic Roman garb on the stage.[2]

This commonly accepted practice of using sixteenth and seventeenth century dress to costume all early modern plays is often referenced offhandedly by Shakespeare himself. In Julius Caesar, Caesar is offered a “crown” and is spoken of as having “pluck’d […] ope his doublet” (I.ii). Both of these are clearly early modern and not Roman articles. Also, in Antony and Cleopatra, Antony asks Cleopatra, “To flatter Caesar, would you mingle eyes with one that ties his points” (III.xiii.156)? “Points” refers exclusively to an early modern clothing convention and has little to do with anything Caesar might have worn. These statements speak more to the everyday dress of Elizabethans rather than ancient Romans, and the way in which they are casually inserted into Shakespeare’s dialogue would seem to prove that he was not overly concerned, as a playwright, with meticulous attention to historical detail. Instead, he took for granted the type of costumes which would be used to outfit his plays and included images which his audiences would understand. 

he use of contemporary clothing in the theatre did not mean procuring costumes for a play was a simple matter. Rather, a costumer in an early modern theatrical troupe faced many daunting challenges. All outfits of that time were made of a plethora of individual pieces which could be disassembled and rearranged into multiple different ensembles. Narrow waists were highly fashionable, along with broad shoulders and flaring hips, and both men and women wore corsets. Sleeves and doublets were stiff and often reinforced with whalebone, making it difficult to completely straighten the arm. Ruffs, in addition, restricted head movement, as they had to be heavily starched, and some even required a circle of pasteboard and wire to be worn around the neck underneath, in order to retain their distinctive shape. All of these elements, when added together, would have severely limited an actor’s range of movement on the stage and particularly presented an obstacle when it came to the onstage action and strenuous duels which occur often in Shakespeare’s works. Furthermore, women’s undergarments, such as the farthingale and bumroll, a padded roll worn around the waist to accentuate the hips, would have limited how close to each other actors could come. Additionally, any costume changes between scenes added a whole new level of difficulty and would have been incredibly challenging to accomplish in a limited amount of time. Clothes were held on by an intricate system of ties, called points (referenced above in Antony and Cleopatra), which would have taken a long time to do and undo, no matter how adept the hands.[4] 

The final result of all this effort is described by Thomas Platter in his sixteenth century account of a visit to London, which also provides an insight into how acting troupes came into possession of some of their costumes: “The actors are most expensively and elaborately costumed; for it is the English usage for eminent lords or knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them then for sale for a small sum to the actors.”[5]

Costumes often accounted for a large part of any company’s financial accounts. A successful theatrical company was able to keep a stock of costumes in storage which they drew from year to year for productions, repairing and altering them as needed. The diary of theatre manager Philip Henslowe and its accompanying documents are littered with references to costumes. There are a multitude of records relating to various expenditures in acquiring costumes and having them made. Also, a variety of inventories provide a glimpse of the range and quality of costumes used by playing companies. For instance, under the heading “Gownes” are listed seventeen different pieces of clothing, including “a blak velvett gowne with wight fure” and “a crimosin Robe strypt with gould fact with ermin.” Under “Antik sutes” are listed another fourteen pieces, under “Jerkings and dublets” seventeen, under “frenchose” eleven, and under “venetians” eight.[6] In addition, under the costume inventories for 1598, items of clothing described include satin doublets of peach, ash, white, and orange, as well as cloaks embellished with red, silver, black, and gold lace along with “spangles” and “frenge,” velvet robes with or without sleeves, silk hose with panes of lace, and also specific suites for Robin Hood, Henry V, and Tamburlaine, separate gowns for women, and even a “freyers gowne of graye.”[7] Costumes like these were some of the most important – and plenteous – items which a company could own.

Among all the elements which were essential to putting on a production, costumes played an especially significant role in early modern theatre. On a stage which was sparse in scenery and sets, costumes were a critical way to make a visual impact. Certain articles of clothing could act as signposts for what was happening, similar to props. Nightclothes or riding gear helped to unmistakably set a scene, and the quality of a costume was an immediate indicator of the social status of a character. Scholar Russ McDonald suggests that the Prince in Romeo and Juliet would likely have worn rich robes of velvet trimmed in fur such as fox or rabbit, and a doublet embroidered in silver or gold.[8] Through their clothing, players also could provide key information about their characters. Hamlet’s “inky cloak” and “customary suits of solemn black” are external manifestations of his internal mood (Hamlet, I.ii.77-78). The same could be said of when he appears before Ophelia with his “doublet all unbraced,/ No hat upon his head, his stockins fouled,/ Ungart’red, and down-gyved to his ankle” (II.i.75-77). To a society which valued constricting clothing, neatly arranged and tightly buttoned and laced, the message in this image would have been impossible to miss. Costumes were one of the most prominent material presences on the early modern stage and certainly the most glamorous. Although expensive, they were a worthwhile investment for any company, and one which brought value and excitement to a production.

Links to the ASC

The style and variety of costumes used at the American Shakespeare Center has evolved greatly since its genesis in 1988. The very first productions used only a basic costume of jeans and high tops. This is a marked difference from today, when elaborate Elizabethan and Jacobean dress is often present on the Blackfriars stage. A notable example of this is the 2002-03 production of Twelfth Night, which was costumed entirely in authentic “original” dress. (One of these meticulously crafted costumes may be viewed in the upper lobby of the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton.) Like its predecessors, though, the ASC has been known to experiment with contemporary clothing styles on the stage. And, in truth, this is in keeping with the staging practices of Shakespeare’s own troupe, when, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, contemporary clothing was seen far more often than historic. The one strict guideline in this matter, however, is that an effort must always be made to keep the weaponry demands in mind (i.e. a play requiring swords is never staged in a period in which swords would be incongruous). An outline of basic production principles on the ASC website has this to say about costuming: “[A]s they do now, costumes helped an audience ‘read’ the play quickly by showing them at a glance who was rich or poor, royalty or peasantry, priest or cobbler, ready for bed or ready to party, "in" or "out." Costumes are important to the ASC in the same way. […] That's why we use costumes that speak to our audiences in the most familiar language possible while staying consistent with the words in the play.”

[1] Sir John Harington, Nugae Antiquae: Being a Miscellaneous Collection of Papers in Prose and Verse, ed. Henry Harington (London, UK: 1804), 209.

[2] Tiffany Stern, Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), 102-103.

[3] From the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, .

[4]Marchette Chute,  Shakespeare of London (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949), 163-166.

[5] Thomas Platter, “A Swiss Tourist in London” (From: The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Norton Topics Online), .

[6] Philip Henslowe, Henslowe’s Diary: Second Edition, ed. R.A. Foakes (Cambridge: UK, Cambridge University Press, 2002), 291-294.

[7] Henslowe, 321-323.[8] Russ McDonald, The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001), 111-112.