The History of Costumes

Behind Franklin’s main stage, the costume storage room houses all costumes used for productions. Photo by Jackson Hartigan.

Halloween is a holiday of traditions. There is the tradition of children going from door to door to collect candy. There is the tradition of saying, “Trick or Treat!” For many there may be the tradition of watching a certain movie, of decorating, of filling up on sweets. However, none of these go as far back as the tradition of dressing up in costume.

A costume is, as Merriam Webster defines it, “An outfit worn to create the appearance characteristic of a particular period, person, place, or thing.” By this definition, the first costumes appeared as masks, as early as 7000 BC. Masks originated in Africa, where they were used in ceremonies to represent spirits of mythological characters, spirits of animals and ancestors, and sometimes moral values or ideas. Masks soon emerged independently in different cultures around the world, serving as religious items, tools for self-protection, and later for entertainment.

The emergence of theatrical costume as we know it now coincided with that of Greek theater, in the sixth century BC. Thespis, a Greek priest, is credited as the first to portray a fictional character on stage—that is, he was the first actor. The modern format of the play developed soon thereafter, and such performances became increasingly prevalent throughout Greece. Both masks and costumes were used in Greek theater. Performances were held in large outdoor amphitheaters, so masks made the emotions of characters easier to read from far away, and some even had a megaphone-like effect of amplifying the actor’s voice. Costumes were often much like everyday clothing, though more elaborate or unique, to better demonstrate attributes of the character, such as social status or profession. Some costumes were more unconventional, particularly those portraying animals, or mythical creatures. Actors occasionally wore deadly lead-based makeup, which was used in that time both on and off-stage. However, it made it difficult for actors to play multiple characters and carried none of the added benefits of using masks.
Halloween has a complex history, with roots stemming from multiple European traditions. The primary one, however, is the Gaelic festival of Samhain, still observed today, which marks the end of the harvest season. A key part of Samhain was the act of guising or mumming, which were essentially early forms of trick-or-treating. Costumes have indeed been a part of Halloween since its creation, and are no less of one now. In fact, it seems that costumes have been given a fairly constant role throughout history. For thousands of years, they have deviated little from their original formula—articles of clothing meant to portray a character. However, in recent years, this may be changing.

Theatrical costume designer Kimberly Smay volunteers for the theater departments at Cleveland and Madison. She has been doing so for quite some time, ever since her own child got involved in theater. She has participated in some professional work, although she prefers working with students. Smay has liked clothing for as long as she can remember. “Clothing tells you so much about a person,” she says. And this is true, both in theater and in film. Smay explains that while building techniques for theatrical costume have indeed changed very little, a new development is working its way deeper and deeper into motion pictures: digital rendering. While use of Computer Generated Images (CGI) in film have existed for decades, they are becoming increasingly prevalent and widely used. They are now not only used for special effects, but also to enhance stunt scenes, to compensate for lack of resources, to edit scenes, and in the case of Logan (2017), to insert Hugh Jackman’s face onto his stuntman’s. At Cleveland, says Smay, students interested can learn the basics of digital rendering. Digital imagery is indeed the future of entertainment, and it does have many perks. Yet, are there any drawbacks? Perhaps we should hesitate before we dawn our digital masks in this new age of acting.

As CGI becomes increasingly prevalent, it is important that traditional costuming practices continue. They are important to many, and an integral part of theatrical tradition.

 

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