Costume party

11th February 2000 at 00:00
In Shakespeare's day, what you wore really did say who you were. Heather Neill uncovers some dress codes.

Life in Elizabethan London was not quite as "merrie" as you might think from the film Shakespeare in Love; in fact it could be downright dangerous. On your way to see a play at the Globe in Southwark you might pass the heads of executed felons on spikes outside the Tower of London.

Playwrights could be imprisoned if their work was regarded as seditious. Even Edmund Tilney, the real-life Master of the Revels, who licensed plays for performance if they were deemed suitable (and who almost ruins the action in the final scenes of Shakespeare in Love by forbidding the performance of Romeo and Juliet) had a cousin who was hanged, drawn and quartered for being implicated in the Babington Plot against Elizabeth.

A playwright would have to be careful and sometimes cunning. Decisions about costume could well be an indication of this. Julius Caesar, for instance, is about the murder of a dictatorial leader who lacks an heir. In 1599 the ageing Elizabeth clung to the throne and seemed unwilling to face the need for a successor. The setting in Ancient Rome might be enough to distance the plot from contemporary politics, but it was as well not to take risks.

Jenny Tiramani, expert on Elizabethan dress and "Master of Clothing and Properties" on the Shakespeare's Globe production of Julius Caesar last year, says that there are more references to dress in the play than any other so far performed at the reconstructed Globe. The cobblers in the first scene talk of shoes (not Roman sandals), there are references to doublets and to the conspirators, when they meet in Brutus' orchard, arriving with "hats plucked about their ears" (Act II, Sc 1), which suggests what Jenny calls "the original cloak-and-dagger look" rather than robes.

But, when Caesar is killed at the Capitol, Brutus exhorts his fellow murderers to "bathe our hands in Caesar's blood Up to the elbows" (Act III, Sc1). Now, this would be difficult to do in Elizabethan dress, with sleeves tight to the wrist. It seems that, at the crucial moment, playwright and actors chose to remind the audience, by adopting togas, that the act of treason had nothing whatsoever to do with late 16th-century England.

There might have been a practical reason, too. Jenny says that "water mustn't be allowed anywhere near the silk doublets" used at the modern Globe and, of course, there was no dry cleaning available to Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Stage blood was even more difficult to remove 400 years ago, so then, as now, washable wool togas would have been a sensible protection for court dress.

The symbolism of clothing was rather different when society was sharply divided by class and many people were ill-educated. There was, for instance, a series of statutes, he Sumptuary Laws, under which particular rules were laid down. The use of gold and purple was restricted to certain noble groups and sometimes the directions were quite specific: a viscountess could wear "cloth of gold or silver tissued" on her kirtle or outer petticoat, but not on her gown. Anyone caught wearing clothing which signified a higher position in society than they had a right to could be severely punished for deception.

An actor was protected as long as he remained onstage; woe betide him if he was spotted in cloth of gold or velvet in the street. But how the groundlings must have enjoyed seeing people like themselves acting out the lives of kings and nobles. In Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Rylance, playing the Queen of Egypt, had a series of sumptuous costumes in the Globe's production. "We tried to make a progression from her image of gypsy whore, when she wore the green embroidered costume, towards the goddess Isis," says Jenny. "Cleopatra asks for her robe of Isis and all her regal paraphernalia when she is preparing for death. In this case, costume charts the growth of a character.

"She wore black when Antony had left Egypt. It's a kind of mourning, but there was no such thing as a plain Elizabethan or Jacobean court dress; even sedate garments were hugely decorative. When she received the messenger (Act III, Sc 3) to hear news of Antony's new wife, Octavia, she wore the black, but added chopines (high, cork-soled clogs), a long veil and head-dress. She was still in mourning, but showed she could look and act like a queen." And a jealous woman; she describes Octavia as "dwarfish".

"After the black dress she wore armour, wanting to look like Minerva. But she didn't understand war, only its trappings, and she wore a gold breastplate."

Costumes were probably held in common, owned by the company. Like the everyday clothes of the upper classes they were worth a good deal of money. And that is still the case at the Globe, where Jenny Tiramani's costumes are so accurate that some of them have been displayed at the Victoria amp; Albert Museum.

Many of the ideas Jenny Tiramani describes are dealt with in greater depth at the new Shakespeare's Globe Exhibition. All aspects of society in Shakespeare's day, of theatre history, of the original staging of the plays - music, costume and effects - and the rebuilding and practices of the modern Globe are displayed both traditionally and with the aid of interactive computer programs. You can even try on a suit of stage armour. Information: 0171 902 1500 The current edition of the magazine "Around the Globe" includes articles about Edmund Tilney, Tudor shoe-making and Shakespeare's language. The next edition, available in April, has a series of articles on "Hamlet" and "The Tempest", both plays in this summer's season. Subscriptions: Lydia Aers 0171 902 1409

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today