Spectacle Home






Costume has played an integral role in the development of theatrical spectacle for the entirety of the theatre's existence. Originally, in the ancient Greek and Roman world, costumes were heavily exaggerated so as to convey each character to those observing the production from as far as 300 feet away. Bright colors and heavily overdone features helped to portray gender and size as well as and most importantly, emotion.

Week One.

Aristophanes' Birds
Meineck, Peter. Aristophanes 1. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998. pg. xxviii, 2-122.


The many of the costumes of Aristophanes’ plays, as well as most of the ancient Greek comedies, were known as phallic costumes. This is because the male characters had huge phalluses made of red leather. The actors were also fitted with grotesque padding of the stomach and rear. They also wore enormous masks for the purpose of helping the audience instantly identify a character from a distance. These comedic costumes were direct descendents of the costumes used in the phallic performances at the festival of Dionysus.

In Birds in particular Aristophanes' comedic hero always wore clothes that made him out to be poor, if not poor then definitely not wealthy. That was a general rule in Old Comedy, a poor hero is funny because he is put in places that he is not accustomed to; be it a wealthy man's house or Cloudcuckooland. Also the bird characters themselves wore giant bird heads and feet and were not padded, but they were still phallic. And each bird had a different costume to represent a different species of bird. In line 94 of Birds, Hoopoe's costume is mocked, "Just look at his plumage and that great triple crest." This was made in reference to the plume worn on the head by the actor as well as the breast of his costume. The Chorus of birds themselves would have all had different plumes and colors to symbolize the different birds. Wings, head-dress, beaks, colors and breast designs of the costumes along with the exaggerated Phallus made up the attire. While the chorus was on stage, singing or speaking their lines, they probably danced and moved about the stage as a bird. Flapping their wings, bobbing the heads, strutting around, etc. This was all done to help with the illusion of the spectacle of the play. An example of the chorus utilizing their costumes is seen in line 345, when they are about to attack Makemedo and Goodhope, "Advance with wings extended, push them back!" The chorus probably extended their wings and flapped them about while moving towards the other two actors.

Below is an ancient image of a scene from Birds. It was found on a piece of pottery from the same period. You will notice the giant phalluses on the bird costumes, the wings and plumes of the head dress, as well as the uncomfortable looking masks. The feet even have wings about the ankles in this particular painting.



Below are some examples of the modern costumes that have been developed for "Birds."


Design by Abd' Elkader Farrah for The Burdies (Edinburgh Festival, 1966)

Yet another extraordinary example of a duel species in prison garb. Photo courtesy of:
http://www apgrd.ox.ac.uk/events/confaristophanes.htm.


An actual costume constructed for a production of "Birds" as performed by the Aquila Theatre Company of London
at Temple University, May 1st and 2nd, 1998. Photo courtesy of Google Images. http://www.temple.edu/classics/birds2.gif


Mr. Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin’s characters use grotesque actions and features such as the huge feet and shoes, the mustache (made from skillfully applying shoe polish), the derby hat, the cane he uses for a walking stick, and the shuffle walk (42).
The makeup and face paint Charlie wore made him appear clown-like so as to heighten the illusion of emotion as well as exaggerate any and all of his many facial expressions. His clothing is old and tattered to instantly place him in the lower class. Just like Aristophanes' comic heroes, Chaplin's character is not of wealthy stock and it is readily apparent through his transient attire. It is this rift between classes that is the catalyst for much of the humor in his movies.

Like the Greek masks of the time, the Tramp's costume makes him very easy to be spotted and instantly identified. If not for his strategically comically oversized shoes, Chaplin would sink in the cess pool of poverty. These shoes are a great symbol of poverty and to quote Dan Buckingham, "The shoes and suit make him look like a dirty clown. But not only his clothing, props and make up; his walk and movement also separate him from the crowd. The props Chaplin's general vagrant character handles, ie. bowler hat and cane, make Charlie Chaplin's aura to appear wanton of the fruits of high class living. However, he utilizes these props contrary to the 'proper' way, thus revealing and again, maintaining his status as that of the lower class tramp. To cite a specific example; in The Count, while in the presence of an exotic dancer, Chaplin seemingly looses control of his sexual appetite, and penetrates a turkey (thankfully broasted) via his cane.

In the first picture of Chaplin, (shown below) we can see the pants that are baggy and too large, the hat that is too small, and a coat that does not fit. This is Chaplin's way of exaggerating the costume. The costumes in ancient Greek plays used padding around the butt and belly. The baggy pants is what Charlie uses instead of actual padding.

Shown below are further examples of Charlie Chaplin's overall costume including clothing as well as makeup.

A picture of Charlie Chaplin portraying his most famous character, the Tramp.
This photo available courtesy of http://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Chaplin.


A close up as an example of Chaplin's exaggerated makeup including his famous, and obviously fake, narrow mustache.
Courtesy of http://analysefilmique.free.fr/analyse/l/lumieres.php



Yet another example of the many facets that are used to complete Charlie Chaplin's visual character.
Courtesy of http://www.netglimse.com/holidays/love/25_all-time_favorite_romantic_movies.shtml.


Week Two.

Menander's Dyskolos
Miller, Norma. Menander Plays and Fragments. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1987. pg. 3-50.

Following our reading of Menander's Dyskolos, It took some consideration to determine what exactly would have been different regarding the use of costume. In comparison to virtually anything Aristophanes would have created with old comedy, Menander's genre of new comedy would have allowed for a drastic change in the area of costuming. No longer did the typical comedy revolve around the Gods of the ancient world or even maintain a worldly perspective. New comedy generally consisted of humor more often revolving around the goings on of the household or that of a smaller community rather than that of an empire. Instead of having mythological characters in need of depiction, the comedy of Menander's time would have called for simpler, more familiar characters. Costumes and masks depicting the rich and the poor or the heavyset and the scrawny seem to be more in line with the comedy of new.

Knemon, the grizzled, reclusive, hermit of an old man in Menander's Dyskolos surely would have possessed the most exaggerated costume of all of the actors on stage. Undoubtedly possessing a large beard and certainly a mop of grayed hair to depict his elder status. Also would Knemon have possessed a face distorted with rage for all who dared come in contact with him. We could also be sure that his clothing would have been anything but immaculate as he was not a wealthy man and by refusing all who offered to help on his farm, he was working continuously and alone.

Characters such as Sostratos and Chaireas, those of a higher monetary status, would have possessed costumes exuding a higher sophistication. Orderly hair and although exaggerated for those in the back, somewhat normal expressions would most likely have adorned their faces. Their clothing surely would have represented those of a wealthier class and played in marvelous contrast with the likes of Knemon and the many servants who are fairly substantial characters in the play. In line 366 of the play, Gorgias, a poor farmer, comments on Sostratos' costume, saying "Then what? Are you going to stand there, in your smart cloak, while we work away?" He does convince Sostratos to help with some of the work, but points out that Sostratos is not dressed properly to be a farmer.


"It Happened One Night"

With regards to the 1934 blockbuster, "It Happened One Night" starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, the topic of costuming is much more subtle. As well it should be considering the fact that film and the use of the motion camera allowed for the close up, and great differences in character and class were able to be conveyed through costumes without nearly the exaggeration and extreme stereotype that ancient theatre called for. Clark Gable's character, Peter Warne, was that of a writer for a New York newspaper. A big-name newspaper writer in 1934 would have been well dressed to a degree, but would not have found himself in the high society silks Claudette Colbert's (Ellen Andrews') upper crust cohorts would have found themselves in.

Along those lines, Miss Colbert appeared immaculate in dress at nearly all times. There were times when her clothes were ruffled but only when she was to appear as someone other than herself. She was clearly of the upper class and her costume exuded it to a T. Clark Gable's character on the other hand, was indeed well dressed, but not nearly to the perfection of Walter Connolly, the man playing Miss Andrews' wealthy father. Like wise, Gables' duds were shabby when compared to Jameson Thomas' (King Wesley's) costume. The first picture shown below, with Gable wearing his hat standing on the side of the road, is a good picture that shows the difference between the two character's outfits. Ellen looks nice, even considering that she has been wearing the same clothes for the entire trip. Peter, wearing a suit, just looks a little more ruff around the edges. The hat adds a lot to this feeling. It almost seems out of place, at least for an upper class citizen like Ellen. The suitcase and coat draped over his arm also help with the impression of each character's social class.

Frank Capra, director of It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, based much of his plot on differences in class, much like Menander. Both of their characters were meant to be instantly told apart by class. This was one of the main responsibilities of their costumes. Since much of their comedy is based on this rift in social classes, drastic differences in costumes was very necessary.

The photos below reveal several of the costumes used to define social status in "It Happened One Night".

A side by side of Mr. Gable and Miss Colbert. A New York newspaper columnist an a sheltered woman of extraordinary wealth. Google Images.

Gable getting ready for bed and taunting Colbert to do the same. Google Images.

Gable, (seated) waits to confront Colbert on her missing of the bus. Google Images.

Another Image revealing Gable, (Peter Warne) to be
somewhat of a ruffian playing opposite the prim and
proper nature of Ellen Andrews. Google Images.


Week Three.

Plautine Comedy
Richlin, Amy. Rome and the Mysterious Orient Three Plays by Plautus. University of California Press, 2005.

The costuming of a Plautine theatrical production would not have been terribly unlike the costumes used by Aristophanes and Menander alike. All of the Roman Comedies take place in a Greek city, so the costumes would have tried to reflect the style of the Greeks (or Carthage).

In the play Iran Man the costumes of the characters would have been rather stock (the lover is your usual lover, the pimp is dressed like a pimp, etc.) accept for the character from Iran. His costume was foreign and generalized; a cloak to his feet, a head wrap, and a very different mask. This, along with his lines, helped to portray him as a foreigner and Plautus as a man with little appreciation for true Arabian culture. A similar foreign costume design is seen in Towelheads. In line 1297, General Popoff makes a reference to the costume of Saddam by saying, "Who is this fellow with the long dress like an alter boy?" Saddam would have been wearing a similar long robe, making him stand out as a foreigner.

The foreign dress or costumes used to show a different background and culture is used quit a bit not only in ancient plays, but in modern films like "Road to Morocco."



Above and below, two examples of Roman theatrical masks and costume.



"Road to Morocco"

In the movie “Road to Morocco”, costumes were utilized to portray exoticism in quite the mocking tone. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby find themselves in Morocco after drifting the Mediterranean upon a raft and hopping a camel into the city. Bob Hope’s character, Turkey Jackson, soon after their arrival finds himself sold as a slave to Princess Shalmar of Karameesh.

The costumes involved in this movie are extraordinarily exotic and seemingly act in the favor of humor placing the American men, especially Turkey, in apparel very much unlike the attire of an American in 1942 until the present. The men find themselves donned with everything from sequins and robes to metallic embroidery and capes; infinitely exotic in comparison to 1940’s American dress.

Much like in Iran Man, the costumes in this movie portrays an ignorance about the culture that the plot is based on. Both productions have an underlying bias against Arabian culture based on ignorance. The costumes also help to accentuate how out of place the characters are. This strategy may also be seen via Saddam's character in Plautus' Iran Man (Persa); quite similar to the method of dress desired for Jeff and Turkey in Road to Morocco.







For questions or comments, please contact John Gruber-Miller