History of Western Theatre: Greeks to Elizabethans/Costumes

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Traditionally in Greek theatre Comedic performers wore the everyday garments of the Greeks. This included a body stocking, an under tunic, a draped woolen garment called a chiton, and possibly a form of draped outerwear called a himation.

The body stocking was used to insert padding materials to exaggerate the stomach and the rump, known as the progastrida / progastreda. It also created a space for the female breast plates called prosterniad / prosterneda. These were used by male actor portraying a female character since women were not generally allowed to act. This also could be a place where a comedic leather phallus could be worn.

There were two large variations of the chiton that were popular in Greek theatre, the Doric and the Ionic. The Doric chiton (or also referred to as peplos) was six feet wide and two and a half feet longer than the shoulder height of the wearer. This chiton was wrapped once around the figure with excess material folded over the top and doubly covering the bodice. The cloth was tied around the waist and then pinned at the shoulders (sometimes with brooches) leaving the arms bare. The Ionic chiton later replaced the Doric, and has the wrapping style primarily associated with ancient Greek theater. It was a much wider garment but fitted to the exact height of the wearer so there was no excess fabric at the neck, thus creating more opportunity for displaying jewelry. During the Hellenistic period, with the growth of trade and mercantilism, linen and Asian silks eventually replaced wool as the fabric of choice. Variations on the Ionic chiton and accessories also existed. For example, it was acceptable for a chiton to be clasped over the left shoulder instead of both.

There were also extremely popular garments which were wrapped around one or both shoulders called Himations, which also became an important costume piece. Most knowledge of the grecian style of dress comes from remnants of sculptures and pottery. Due to discoloration and a loss of paint pigments the garments appear to be white. A common misconception of Greek clothing is that they were lacking in color, but in actuality Greek clothing took on various colors, sizes, and levels of ornateness.They were dyed many colors, and even if the fabrics were plain white they often had borders. Expensive, bold threads, intricate borders, and tightly woven fabrics such as fine linen and silk showed high status on as well as off of the stage. The length of the chiton was also a good representation of status. Regardless of the actors age, a knee-length tunic would depict a young man, a long tunic would represent an old man, and an extremely short tunic would be insignia of a soldier. Women, regardless of status, always wore full length chitons on stage.

The padding and phallus were conventions of comedic costuming that coincided with the era of Old Comedy, which lasted roughly a century. With the advent of the era of New Comedy, came the increasing realism of costumes. The phallus and padding were lost in favor of more pedestrian, normal shapes, allowing more freedom of movement for the actors.

Another theatrical costume piece was a heeled wooden shoe, kothornoi / cothurnus / cothornous, or sometimes called a buskin. This platformed shoe gave actors on stage more height and better visibility to their audience as well as offsetting the grandeur of the masks they wore. The thick shoe was later replaced by Soccus, thin soled leather shoe, in keeping with the general move towards realism in that new era.

Later, Tragic costuming pushed in opposition of the short-statured and padded protrusions of the comedic figures. Tragic figures were known for height and esteem. On stage, this effect was achieved by wearing high kothornoi and elongating the forehead of the mask. Height of the characters was directly proportional to the importance which eventually lead tragedy to be the more respected form of drama. As far as dress is concerned, both tragic and comedic actors bore the traditional greek dress of chitons, tunics, and himations. Since tragic figures could not rely on height alone to denotate importance, more attention to fine fabrics an ornate detailing was put into distinguishing the gods and upper-class from more common citizens. It was not uncommon, however, to have a hero enter dressed in rags and later in fine clothes to show status progression.

Tragic costumes were strictly formal in nature and no more meant to depict real costumes than the set was meant to depict a real place. So there was an accepted suspension of disbelief in the visual aspects of Greek Tragedy. The masks and formal wear of the tragic theater were meant to depersonalize the the actors.

The chitons of tragic costumes were most likely all purpose garments, designed so that simple alterations could represent a whole variety of characters. This variable design was very important for the actors of the age because, as with modern stock companies, actors were expected to provide there own wardrobe. If, as an actor, you owned a few multipurpose costume garments they would be precious property and essential tools in your acting arsenal.

There was a definite level of uniformity to all tragic costuming. Color symbolism,in addition to height distinction, was heavily employed. Royalty was in purple, priests wore white, and young maids in yellow. Thusly an early tendency toward stock characters was fostered. Death was depicted as an actor with black wings and a large sword. Specific hair colors, attached to masks, held symbolic value. Golden hair was called for on specific characters, white for the elderly, and cut short or "cropped" for slaves and characters in mourning. Foreigners may have been distinguished by lavish, more exotic garb. Any character that was supposedly from an oriental nation likely wore uniform non-distinct Eastern dress.

Distinctions of rank or function were indicated by carry-on props. Homer and Aristophanes show us motifs of tragic kings invariably carrying scepters with a single eagle carved in the top, and warriors with double throwing spears. Many more play writes call for heralds with wreaths and travelers with wide-brimmed hats.


Costuming Episode of Sherman and Dr. P.Scottie

Come join us as the daring duo of Sherman and Dr. P.Scottie once again travel time in search of fun facts and adventures. In this Episode Sherman and P.Scottie find themselves transported thousands of years onto the stage of a Greek Festival. Mistaking it for a masquerade they begin to dance with actors, when suddenly the locals turn on them. P.Scottie realizes that they stick out like a sore thumb in their futuristic garb. So they set out to find some ancient Greek wear to assimilate themselves into the culture for further investigastions.

Problems arise when the two dress themselves but have no idea the social significance of ancient Greek garments. They try on slave-wear, soldier-garb, and they even try on womens clothes before they realize what to wear to be hifalutin.