Costume design often receives short shrift in discussion. Of all of the different design elements like lighting and scenic, it can often be perceived as the most mundane. After all, we all dress ourselves and can imagine it would be the same as dressing someone else. One might imagine it to be just like Halloween or a dress-up party.
Of course, the reality is far from the lark of playing dress up. Costume design is an incredible discipline that enhances a show as no other design element can. Certainly sets, lighting, and projections can be integral to a production, but think for a moment about what information a costume can convey: time period, occupation, and social standing (to name only a few), which can be communicated without words. An integrated design, one where the designer adds unifying aspects to each costume, like the different colors for Sharks and Jets in West Side Story for example, can tell an audience even more.
The ability to communicate without benefit of words or music, ironically, is really important to a show’s success. Could you imagine being in a show where the actors had to tell the audience everything about their character? The play would never get off the ground. The audience would head home before the action even started.
Costumes can even tell us what type of world we’re in on the stage. If the costumes are realistic, the audience can orient itself in a common sense of reality. One of the most striking moments in costume design was in Patricia Zipprodt’s design for the musical Sunday in the Park with George. In that show, centered around the impressionist painter George Seurat, the design starts out looking very realistic and then, as the ingénue Dot models for George, she steps out of her dress and dances around while the dress remains upright and empty. While the scenery is also impressionistic, this moment could only really be accomplished by the ingenious costume design.
When Shakespeare is adapted to other times and places, the costume designer is often most responsible for making that happen. In fact, during Shakespeare’s time, costume was really the only design that could convey information. The Globe Theater, Shakespeare’s home venue for much of his writing career, could not accommodate scenery nor was lighting available. At that time costume was primarily used to indicate status, gender, and occupation. Elizabethan-era costumes did not indicate historical periods. For example, the actors in Julius Caesar did not run around in togas until later productions, but the audience definitely needed costumes to know that Lady Macbeth was a woman as she would have been played by a man.
Costumes can also serve very practical functions. The original costumes in Greek theater were masks with megaphones built in. It would have otherwise been impossible for audiences in the large amphitheaters to hear the actors speak. More recently, the costumes for Cats exemplify this need for utility. In that musical, the performers crawl, dance, sing, and act like cats. They had to do all of that while looking like cats. Designer John Napier originated the iconic design that has been replicated for hundreds of productions around the world. It’s a remarkable example of utility, function, and form.
It is often said that design elements should go unnoticed. If an audience is paying attention to the costumes, the “wisdom” goes, then they’re not paying attention to the story. Sometimes the costume is the story and, ideally the costumes always help tell the story.
Cats is available to stream on BroadwayHD, along with a number of other beautifully costumed shows.