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What Do People Wear in the Circus?

Updated February 21, 2017

The modern circus has links back to the Roman era, where soldiers and prisoners demonstrated their skills for an audience. Roman circuses were dangerous, however, and bloody displays of violence were popular. Modern circuses first began to appear in the 1700s, with horse riding displays, clowning and animals. Today, circuses are a regular part of family entertainment and performers wear exciting, bright costumes to remain visible to large audiences.

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The ringmaster of a circus is the central performer who brings acts on stage and leads them off. Most ringmasters are men. The traditional ringmaster costume involves a top hat and stylised tuxedo outfit. This outfit is often decorated with sequins, sparkles and bright colours.


Circus performers often create matching troupe outfits to keep a cohesive look. This will include heavy make-up, keeping performers' features visible no matter how far away an audience member may be. Themed costumes often involve animal prints, fantastical or fairy themes, feathers and sequins. Circus costumes are very gendered, in part to help audiences keep track of performers.


Starting in the 1970s and 80s, new style "cirques" began appearing alongside traditional circuses such as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. These circuses maintained the performance and spectacle aspect of more traditional circuses, but contained updated looks and costumes with bright colours, puppetry and clowning aspects. Many cirque-styled costumes mask the performer's human nature through masks and arm or leg extensions.


Safety in circus costumes is key. Tight costumes are a necessity for gymnasts or those who could have their costumes caught on anything. Fire spinners, jugglers and breathers often wear fire retardant cloth. Performers who must be harnessed have modified costumes to accommodate the safety equipment. Circus costumes must always balance visual appeal and the safety of the performers.

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About the Author

Rebecca Kling is a Chicago-based performer and educator. She's a graduate of Northwestern University's Department of Performance Studies, a theater instructor around town and an independent performance artist. Her written work has been featured in Court Theater's "Review of Classic Theater," "Chicago IRL" issue #1. Kling is also syndicated through the BlogHer network.

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