A lot of times the contribution of costumes to the overall experience of any performance, from ballet to cinema, is overlooked. Most spectators take what they see for granted, as if the characters are supposed to look that way without any other variations. That means the costumes have been created very well. The art of costume-making is to present the viewer with an illusion of a realistic scene when they are actually watching something staged. What is more, costumes are intrinsic when it comes to shaping the general atmosphere of the performance and add a lot to how the actors manage to embody their characters.
In terms of history, just like the theatre itself, theatrical costumes have their roots in the Ancient Greece. Back in the 5th century B.C., a Greek playwright Aeschylus started designing costumes that would complement the staging of his tragedies. However, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages and especially the Renaissance that the costumes gained prominence and significance; playwrights and people responsible for staging plays started paying more and more attention to how the characters look, adding intricate details to their garments and introducing symbolic meanings by using certain attributes. However, one important aspect of the time was that regardless of the period which the play was supposed to represent, the characters were dressed in costumes that matched the contemporary traditions. In other words, there was little to no cohesive understanding of what a theatre costume was supposed to accomplish.
Together with commedia dell’arte (traveling theatre troupes), the concept of stock character costumes was introduced. This eased the job of the director quite significantly since the audiences had no issue distinguishing characters and what they are supposed to stand for just from looking at how they are dressed.
From there, the costumes slowly developed to support the script. It does not necessarily mean that they are always designed to match the time period of the play but instead to complement the message envisioned by the writer and the director. They are usually created with complete disregard for current fashion trends for two main reasons. First, the theatre has little possibility to influence the fashion industry – while films are seen by millions over a long period of time, theatre plays reach a significantly lower number of spectators. Second, staging is supposed to be timeless, meaning that plays will continue to be showed on stage for a while, so the priorities can be different.
There many technicalities when it comes to designing costumes for theatre. The fact that someone is great at sewing and has an eye for detail does not mean they can design theatre costumes off the bat. One aspect that requires exceptional attention is movement; theatre costumes must be created with movement in mind. Such adjustments entail cutting the armholes higher than usual to allow the actors raise their arms without the entire garment lifting up as well as cutting crotches higher to allow kicks. The costumes must be strong; they have to endure many performances. They also have to be versatile, meaning it should not be difficult to adjust them to an actor or actress with slightly different body shape or lose them in situation where a quick change is needed.