Costumes Used in Old Greek Theatre

Written by emily pate
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Costumes Used in Old Greek Theatre
Men's chitons were worn short, while women's reached the ankles. (Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

Until the 19th and 20th centuries, actors wore day-wear, or normal clothes, onstage rather than costumes created or found specifically for their character and the respective time period of the play. Ancient Greece was no exception. Typically, comic costumes were more over the top and exaggerated than tragic counterparts. Members of the Greek chorus had more realistic costumes than heroes and gods.

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Gender-Specific Costumes

Since only male actors graced the Greek amphitheatre stages, costumes had to indicate which gender an actor was playing. Men wore short chitons in the ionic style, a long rectangle wrapped around the wearer and pinned along one arm to connect the front and back of the garment. Actors playing women dressed up in the typical doric chitons, fabric rectangles folded and pinned over the body to form a draped dress, typically with a pin clasped at one or both shoulders.

Comic Costumes

Greek comedies often used costume elements for comedic effect. Chitons were worn much too short for comic effect, and male characters wore progastrida, a phallus, exaggerating the male anatomy. The comic actor wore the phallus with a goatskin loincloth and tail in back. Actors playing female characters wore prosternaid, unrealistic, large fake chests. Slaves and old men also wore exaggerated costumes. Costumes tended to be less realistic as well, with actors portraying birds or animals.

Tragic Costumes

Greek tragedies called for costuming notably different from the comic costumes. Tragic actors wore thick-soled boots called cothurnus and had padding throughout the costume to make the body and limbs appear larger to an audience member sitting far from the stage. Long robes covered all but the soles of their thick boots. Costumes were bold in colour, with plenty of embellishments, not to give clues about a character's personality, but in honour of the festival where the play was being performed. Playwright Euripides went against this convention, putting his heroes in rags, which his contemporaries criticised.

Masks

Greek theatre relied heavily on masks to illustrate a character's features and emotion. Large masks covered the entire face. The only openings in the mask were a small square or round mouthpieces, perhaps for amplifying the actor's voice, and small holes for the eyes. Each actor wore several masks during a performance to play different characters. Comic actors also wore masks with exaggerated elements and less realistic faces. Birds and animals were typical.

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