Shakespeare costumes’ cost reflects Elizabethan vanity

Shakespeare costumes’ cost reflects Elizabethan vanity

MOULINS, France – Agenc France-Presse
Shakespeare costumes’ cost reflects Elizabethan vanity

Mark Rylance as Olivia (R) and Stephen Fry as Malvolio perform in William Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night.’

What would Lady Macbeth be without something extravagant in which to sweep on stage or Hamlet without a silk doublet and padded hose?       

Costumes -- the unsung heroes of Shakespearean theatre -- are the stars of a new exhibition that reveals the huge effort that goes into dressing the Bard’s leading men and women. From silks woven with gold thread to baroque satin embellished with semi-precious stones, it would be understandable if subsidy-starved theater companies tried to cut back on the cost of Shakespearean costumes.

That they do not is largely down to the vanity of Elizabethans and their obsession with fancy outfits, according to award-winning British costume designer Jenny Tiramani, three of whose costumes feature in the exhibition.

One high-necked ruff collar she made for a 2012 production of “Richard III” at London’s Globe theatre cost more than $2,000 alone. “It was the best we could do, but that price is nothing compared to the ruffs that were worn at the Elizabethan court which in our money would cost 10, 20 or even 100 times that amount,” she told AFP.

Holding the frills

The most extreme ruffs were over a foot or more wide and needed a wire frame to hold the frills in position around the neck.

“They were so elaborate it could take days for a highly-paid laundress to reset your ruff -- to wash it, starch it, carefully pin it out on a pillow to get the lace back into shape and then press it, rub it and polish it,” Tiramani said.

Other extreme shapes fashionable in the late 16th century included the wheel farthingale, a hoop-like structure around the waist that supported a voluminous skirt. For men, the peasecod doublet was a tight-fitting jacket that was padded to create a bulge over the stomach.

According to historians, the Elizabethans’ love of luxury was partly due to an expanding merchant class which used clothes to signal their new wealth and status.

Their sartorial excess eventually became such a challenge to the existing social order that Queen Elizabeth I stepped in to try and curb it. Concerned that it was no longer possible to identify the nobility by their clothing alone, parliament took action by updating the country’s sumptuary laws.
Under the laws, individual expenditure on clothing was limited and restrictions placed on the colors and fabrics a person could wear in line with their social class.

Purple silk was strictly for royalty while dukes and earls could use it only on certain items such as a doublet, a buttoned jacket, or hose, later called stockings.