The Evolution of Costume Design

Theatrical productions have been a major form of entertainment since ancient times. The Mayans, North American Indian tribes, Egyptians, Chinese — peoples all over the world have a culture that incorporates storytelling. Mankind is drawn to the arts and literature as if it is a basic instinct. There has always been a need to pass along the tales of old and entertain the masses. 

Theater evolved as an organized way to express creativity and with it came the evolution of costume design. Without costumes, productions are not nearly as believable or loved by the audience. Costume design had very humble beginnings that have morphed into the astounding creations that are now seen in modern theatrical productions. 

The First Costumes

At some point in history, people began to dress up to tell stories. This is known today as the costume. The first costumes were nothing more than ceremonial robes. The ancients Greeks called their costumes himations. These robes looked very much like those that the priests wore while chanting orals.

Like the Greeks, medieval cultures also mimicked their priests in costume design. Many theater productions were centered on religious beliefs, such as the Japanese Noh, while others were secular and purely entertainment. No matter the motive behind the production, ancient cultures throughout the world began to see a need for setting the actors apart from regular society during a performance.

Distinguishing the Character

Though the costume had been established, the cast members all wore the same, similar ceremonial robes. There was no way to distinguish the different characters in the story, except to pay extremely close attention. Even in the Elizabethan area of England, when the costume evolved into elaborate, regal ceremonial garbs, it was still rare to see the characters given their own identities.

Shakespeare used a method that combined ceremonial robes with common clothing of the period. The Italians contributed significantly to modern costume design by creating pieces that defined each character’s gender, age, occupation and important role within the play.

The Modern Costume

The infant version of the modern costume is not realized until the 18th and 19th centuries. This is when more defining elements were added to design creations. Actors were transformed into their roles and the audience could believe in the setting and focus on the story without having to engage the majority of their imagination. Great thought was put into making costumes that brought the production to life.

Western theater propelled costume design into the 20th century. Theater entertainment was big money, and production companies did everything in their power to pull in large audiences. Top notch actors, contractors, engineers and designers were brought on to join the theater staff. What started as simple, tribal story telling was transformed into a way to take an audience into another world. 

Today, costumes are one of the most important elements of a production. Costume design can make or break a project. You can learn more about what makes a good production by participating in one of Lionheart Theatre Company’s excellent summer camps.

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