During the Elizabethan era, the populace was subject to English Sumptuary Laws, which limited not only expenditures on clothes but also colours and fabrics. While the aristocracy dressed in silk, velvet and fur, the working classes wore linen, wool and sheepskin. Because the elite attended the theatre, acting troupes enjoyed a get-out clause. Once licensed by a wealthy aristocrat, such as the Earl of Leicester or Lord Strange, these troupes wore the clothes of the aristocracy as costumes for the Renaissance stage.
Theatres, such as the Globe, the Fortune and Blackfriars, produced plays in breakneck time to satisfy the Elizabethan appetite for drama as well as outdo competitors. Since costume-makers had little time to create costumes that suited the setting of every play, actors wore contemporary clothes, which were typically donated by wealthy patrons, for period pieces. For example, in "Julius Caesar," the Roman dictator may have donned a toga while his underlings wore Elizabethan breeches. According to the Elizabethan Era website, working-class audiences embraced the clashing costumes because they were able to see the latest aristocratic fashions on stage.
Due to the Sumptuary Laws, audiences were quick to recognise the status and background of a character by simply looking at his costume. A lavish costume made of silk and velvet immediately conjured a member of the upper class. Theatres also relied on costumes to define a character's function, such as a scholar, a saint, a soldier or a beggar. Because Elizabethan stages operated with minimal props and typically one permanent set, costumes were used to indicate place. The entrance of a jailer signified a prison. A hunter on stage indicated the woods.
The colours and fabrics of costumes revealed a character's status in a play. Sixteenth-century audiences were quick to understand the meaning behind the colours. According to Martin White's "Renaissance Drama in Action: An Introduction to Aspects of Theatre Practice," the predominant colours of the aristocracy were crimson, white, black and gold, complemented with plenty of lace and trimmings. Servants wore blue, a colour achieved via inexpensive dyes made from madder root. Sumptuary Laws permitted all classes to wear green, which signified nature or the renewal of life, and yellow.
Costumes were not only ornate and detailed, but some revealed iconography. Costume-makers painted tongues on fabric to create "Rumour's cloak." They also designed animal costumes, such as the dragon in "Dr. Faustus," and other eccentric garb for special effects. A play's protagonist could wear a costume that was all breech and devoid of body, or vice versa. In addition, actors went to great lengths to create authentic costumes of contemporary figures. For example, actors managed to obtain the Spanish Ambassador Gondomar's suit in order to play the Black Knight.
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- "Renaissance Drama in Action: An Introduction to Aspects of Theatre Practice"; Martin White; 1998
- "Shakespeare's Theatre: A Dictionary of His Stage Context"; Hugh M. Richmond; 2004
- Elizabethan Era: Material & Fabrics Used in Elizabethan Era Clothing
- Elizabethan Era: Elizabethan Costume
- Elizabethan Era: Meaning of Colors