Costuming Within Stage and Theater History

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*Brief History of costumes and costume design, along with cosmetics, used from the Medieval Age (circa. 1082 AD) on through modern times*

Submitted: April 16, 2016

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Submitted: April 16, 2016



Dan Zuniga


Musical Theatre


Costumes of Theatre (From the Medieval Period on…)


Around the time of the first ages of castles and keeps came the fascination of the stage that had first taken ahold of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. News of this form of entertainment spread in and around the other civilizations, where it began to take new shapes. Since each nation had its own particular history, then therefore each way that it took to the stage was unique. One such way that this change was seen was the use of costumes, which were often modeled after the attire of the day. Since many performances of the time were held for the upper and royal courts of society, the costumes worn were often that of royalty as well. Oftentimes, they were reflections of the noblemen and knights, along with the kings, queens, squires, and barons. As the upper classes, the wear of the actors was very elegant and made of the finest materials, such as silk, threaded cloth, furs, mink, and jewels. The wear of the knights and noblemen were differed on the extent from which they were apart from the upper class, as many were seen in more barbarically-wrought attire, with materials such as steel, copper, iron and leather. Yet the effect of the costumes was still the same, and captured the age of feudalism and royalty that echoed for a millennium of acting.

 Sometime near the end of the Medieval Period was birthed the Renaissance, which was a period where art and architecture thrived, producing tremendous playwrights and astonishing plays in the realm of acting. The costuming of actors saw a noticeable shift towards that of a more rugged appeal, all the while still retaining the charm and elegance of the Medieval Age. Such costuming would be reflective of artisans and particularly those of the working-class; along with the introduction of the Camicia, a type of clothed neck-bracer, was the beret, headwear that add much artistic appeal to an outfit. In addition, the chemise, a typical inner-lining dress that was mostly exclusive to female actors, became a popular wear coupled with a bodice, a midriff up to neck piece of clothing.

The Elizabethan Period would see the return of the glitz and glamour seen in the Medieval Period and up it by a factor of ten. Using far more intricate costume designs, and expanding their theatre program, improving the plays, the sets, and the theatres, along with the new age of brilliant playwrights to this period, the Elizabethan Age would see much prosperity. In particular, the costumes saw an enormous shift. The styles of men on the stage were redone with jewels and layers of fine silk, wool, polyester, and cloth. The costumes were a reflection of the Medieval and Renaissance Periods, with attention brought to the slick bulkiness of the actors’ costumes. Additionally, this age brought the allowance so that females could act, or simply procure larger roles on the stage. These ladies were often dressed extravagantly, with overbearing features in and around the head, such as ornate jeweled headdresses and thrice-ruffed neck bracers. The makeup of this time period of staging was also unlike any other, as characters were given the ability to highlight more features and bring attention to seemingly unnatural and unimportant facets. Finally, the Elizabethan period saw an expansion of props that included daggers, pipes, and pouches of money to reflect the upper class, along with larger, more intricately designed sets with them.

After the Theatre System was reformed around the early 1700’s to allow the growth and expansion of it after nearly 30 years of hibernation, the staging, plays and costumes were reworked towards something of a simpler theme as theatre became the predominant form of all entertainment at the time. The change of stage was the primary focus of this Period, as before, the Puritans, a religious group, had deemed such an act as a reliving of events or a tale to be unholy and unjust. The costuming would see the removal of the ruffs and laces, and the fine and fancy to something that grasped the working class; leather cut-offs, fleece undershirts, tricorne hats, and wool socks. While a touch of elegance remained in the upper class of society, the stage would see the wear of the majority take ahold of it. This period of the shifting of power would be marked by several actual world events, like the American Revolutionary War, which pitted the commoners against the fancied British, which was remarkably similar from the shift of sophistication of costumes to something simpler and more easily relatable to the common play-goer.

The most recent age of Theatre had been American Theatre, which has taken on a unique contrast to the other periods. Unlike the others, American Theatre has been able to produce a suavity within its own originally-produced plays, along with adding interesting twists to plays of the previous ages. As such, the costuming on the American Stage differs vastly from others. Slicker materials, such as leather, beaded silk, thin cloth lining, foamed linen, cashmere, and furs have made the costumes what they are. Additionally, the styles and themes of these costumes can be separated into different sub-periods which expand on the current events of that time, as many plays were written in such a fashion. An exemplary comparison are the plays Death of a Salesman and Grease the Musical. The fashion and styles of Salesman were often suits and ties with a briefcase, as, at this time in history, commerce and the art of trade were at its prime, and the United States had been very white collar. This was also a period of conformity, and therefore it made sense that many men wore suits every day. Alternately, the fashion of Grease, set some 30 years after Salesman, was oriented differently. At the time, there was a higher rate of blue collar and working class citizens, and their attire was an accurate representation of their income and social status. The Greasers, for example, came from working class families, and were also from an apparent, “rough city” background. This explained their styles of black leather jackets, tights jeans, rustic engineer boots, and the like. As the most recent period we have been able to explore, the history of American Theatre is rich with  unique, attributed styles and acclaimed playwrights, each with a story to tell on the stage.

One of the longest periods of theatre that has existed today is Eastern Theatre, or anything centered around Asia. For nearly two thousand years, plays have been produced from the Far East to document tales, empires, adventures, sorrows, plagues and many more. The independent, original styles have inspired other ages of Theatre, such as the Greeks and Romans, such as the style of the plays, the intricate details, and so forth. One such unique style in opera houses is the use of over-sized masks. These masks are given large, hollow holes, intended to amplify the voices of the actor; additionally, the color of the masks can determine a character's alignment, which is an interesting way to categorize actors for the role they play. For example, someone with a white mask is shown to be spirit, often evil, who serves as the main antagonist, while a mask like blue is shown for that character to demonstrate their dedication to another, and be the epitome of selfless obedience.  Other styles of Eastern Theatre feature the use of lifelike and miniature puppets, live, trained animals, and colorful, expansive patterns.

Indeed, as we have seen, each period has brought its own unique take on how the stage should be commanded, the costumes it uses, the points it highlights, and what parts of history deserve to be played out. Never has there been an art that has been recreated time and time again to allow the facts and opinions of human history to be played out, again and again. Truly, it is a god-given, god-granted gift.


© Copyright 2018 Dan Zuniga. All rights reserved.

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