Kat Hermes (Don Adriano de Armado) on Creating the Costume Design

One of the most common questions I get as a costumer for Pigeon Creek is why, if we are an original practices company, we don’t perform all of our plays in Renaissance dress. It is for the same reason that we don’t play Renaissance music before the show and at intermission; we aren’t seeking to exactly replicate the Early Modern London theater experience, we are emulating the performance conditions for which the play was originally written. This may seem like a fine distinction, but it is an important one. We are not historical re-enactors, and we are not trying to present the plays as living history. We are actors performing a script as the author intended it to be performed (inasmuch as we can glean the author’s intentions over the gulf of 400 years or so).

How does that translate for performing Shakespeare in jeans? Just as the musicians of Shakespeare’s company would have opened and closed the show with the popular music of the day, his actors would have performed in what was, for them, modern dress. The theater conventions of that time had no problem with anachronism, either in the text of the play or the design of the production Whether the setting was medieval Scotland or ancient Rome, Shakespeare’s company performed in doublets and hose. This allowed the audience to “read” the costumes (getting information about a character’s age, status, religion and nationality) as easily as they did the clothing they saw around them everyday. This is not to say that the actors simply wore their street clothes onstage, however. Costumes were one of the biggest expenditures of an early modern theater company, and a major source of visual spectacle in world without electric sound and lighting effects. In addition to the “base” modern costumes the actors wore, they would have added pieces to suggest character and or setting (such as togas for Roman plays).

This style of “eclectic” or “period non-specific” costuming is one that I as a designer am particularly interested in, particularly in the way that juxtaposing modern and period costumes can make the period elements of the costumes seem deconstructed and the modern elements unfinished, which seems particularly apt for a play like Love’s Labour’s Lost.

When looking for a period to work with, I knew I didn’t want to use the Renaissance, since we just used fully-realized Renaissance costumes in our spring production of Romeo and Juliet. I had to find another period in which this play would make sense. With its comedy of manners, emphasis on witty dialogue over plot, and strong commedia dell’arte influences, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play that seems to anticipate the farcical comedies of the 18th and 19th centuries. I decided to locate the play somewhere between the 1790s and 1810s. Rather than focus on detailed historical accuracy, however, I wanted costume pieces that evoked the feel of that era while conveying character more strongly than period.

When designing for an ensemble directed production like this one, I tend to start with a general idea of the look I want for each character and then sit back and let what the actors are doing in rehearsal influence the final product I end up with. In this production, the actors quickly began to establish three distinct worlds; the formal, highly mannered world of the ladies of France, the more natural and laid-back court of the King of Navarre, and the cartoonishly physicalized world of the lower class characters, who’s comedic subplot is a distorted mirror of the main plot. So the costumes for the ladies of France are the most firmly located in the late 18th/early 19th century, the men of Navarre have one foot in and one foot out out of the period, and the lower classes have no distinct temporal location.

In addition to making sure the costumes fit into and helped establish the worlds the actors were creating, I also wanted them to help the audience keep track of sets of characters who belong together. So each of the ladies of France is dressed in the same color as her lord, the page Mote’s costume is a miniature reflection of his master Armado’s, the peasants (Costard, Jaquenetta and the Forester) all wear leather, and Nathaniel and Holofernes wear matching 18th century-style wigs.

Finally, there is the part of costume design that I have the most fun with: using the costumes to illuminate themes and motifs in the text, all those literary ideas that are fun to discuss in English class but difficult to play as an actor in a production. I won’t give away all of my subliminal costume messages in this blog, I’ll give you one hint to think about when you come and see the production: I used color to link characters who are thematically connected as well as those connected by plot.