The importance of costume in theatre

Costume in theatre is more than just a prop. It is a method of communicating with the audience. Details such as a character’s personality, status and background are conveyed through costume. It is also a vehicle through which the actor can embody their character. In this blog, we will discuss the importance of costume in theatre. 

The history of costume in theatre 

To look at the history of costume in theatre we must go right back to the sixth century. Village festivals would celebrate the Greek god of wine and revelry, Dionysus. This is said to be the origin of theatrical performance. 

Costume for Greek performances are centred around masks. Masks with exaggerated facial expressions were used for comedic or dramatic effect. These masks also allowed actors’ faces to be hidden so that they could play multiple roles. For comedy, the costumes would often also feature exaggerated body parts. For example padded shoulders and stomachs. 

Costume in theatre

In the Middle Ages in Europe, dramatic Bible enactments became popular. Costumes for these were expected to be as stereotypical of the time period as possible. This is so the characters seem more realistic. 

In the 15th and 16th centuries, costume in theatre became even more important. It was now considered one of the most important visual elements of theatre. The costumes were expensive and created with the finest fabrics. They were mostly based on the fashions of the time unless a specific time period was being portrayed. 

In the 17th century, Baroque theatre was introduced. This was theatre in Europe at its most extravagant. The set designs and costumes were so grandiose that only the rich could partake. The costumes became less relevant to the characters as it became more about outdoing other performers with how lavish they are. 

Between the 1770s and 1870’s, there was an increase in demand for historically accurate costume in theatre. At this time travel had become easier, increasing people’s awareness of other cultures through exhibitions and reports. The public wanted to see a representation on stage of what they were reading about. Shakespeare’s plays are an example of costumes that accurately reflect the time period being played. Their success made this a staple trait of costume theatre that has carried through to today. 

Famous costume designers

Being a designer for costume in theatre is different to other types of costume design. Costume in theatre must convey a message from 20 feet away whereas in film, costumes can be seen from a foot away. The costumes need to be robust; performers wear them for long periods of time and need to move freely in them. These details mean it is not an easy job to do well. 

Below are some examples of famous costume designers:

Irene Sharaff 

When discussing costume in theatre it is rare for Irene Sharaff’s name to not come up. She is universally recognised as one of the most celebrated costume designers of Broadway and Hollywood. Sharaff designed for over 60 shows and 40 films.

William Ivey Long 

William Ivey Long is a costume designer for both stage and screen. He is most notable for Broadway shows such as Hairspray. The Producers, and Young Frankenstein. Long has designed for over 60 Broadway shows and won 6 Tony awards. 

Catherine Zuber 

Catherine Zuber has been referred to as one of theatre’s most sought after costume designers. She has won 6 Tony awards for her work and is particularly known for her eye for colour. 

Costume in theatre

The importance of costume in theatre 

The long history behind costume in theatre has seen many changes. However, the key elements have mostly stayed the same. Costume is a tool to help make the story more believable for the audience. Providing insights into the character and time period that are not necessarily being said out loud. It is a way for actors to transform into their roles, giving the most authentic performance they can. 

Costume in theatre is a part of the overall design of the play. In theatre, everything on stage has to align with each other at all times. Whereas in film one particular frame is shown at a time. This means the costumes must all fit together to create the perfect scene. 

Costume design course 

With how crucial costume in theatre is, you might consider taking part in a costume design course. These can be taken virtually, with many theatre production courses now being held online. 

At iampro, we offer a range of on-demand production courses that you can join. Courses in creative writing and directing explore the art of theatre behind the scenes and emphasise the importance of designer and artistry.

At iampro we are always running live courses and drop-in classes that you can join. Take a look at our membership options.