Special event and theatrical clothing in Late Period
The Shakespearean Theater Costume Project Part 1: The Cleopatra Gown: c 1605-07
This gown will be the first one completed in a series of thirteen due to be completed by January 2021.
I am planning a large party based on the board game CLUE to take place at the Pennsic War (which happens in August every year) and I knew immediately that I wanted to create costumes based on a collection of Shakespeare’s characters.
Because the Shakespearean characters correlate to the characters from the game, (Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum etc.) each design will have a monochromatic color scheme.
This series is being created as part of a more comprehensive exploration of how I think Shakespearean Theatrical Costuming was likely approached within the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras based on recent research I’ve been doing.
I wanted the finished piece to give an idea of how she might have been represented on stage when Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” debuted in 1606-7.
In 1606-7 James I’s reign was anything but stable. The country was still wary of a Scots King with a Danish wife. The main thing James had going for him was the fact that he and his wife were Protestants and already possessed an heir upon their arrival, thus assuring the line of succession.
Into this tense social atmosphere Shakespeare launched his Antony and Cleopatra. Predictably, the play is a thinly veiled examination of the decline of Elizabeth I with James I allegorically represented by Octavian, the mighty Roman Emperor come to save Egypt from it’s imminent collapse.
I drew on research into Shakespeare’s writing process, the theater’s presentation methodology, and information pertaining to the likely actors for the roles.
I also looked at sketches of theatrical costumes from the same era and its contemporary fashions.
Considering that Cleopatra is used here to portray Elizabeth I, it seemed an easy next step to choose one of her last officially accepted portraits as the main source to draw from for visual references.
The Rainbow Portrait, painted by Isaac Oliver in 1600, was an entirely allegorical portrait. Elizabeth was 67 years old when it was painted and portrays a woman in her early 30’s. This made it seem all the better to me. It was as much theatrics on canvas as Cleopatra is an allegorical portrait of her on stage.
Design and Styling
As far as the actual styling of the dress I looked to the work of Inigo Jones, a tailor who worked extensively creating costumes and settings for stage plays and court masques in the reign of James I.
After looking through a selection of Jones’s sketches it became clear to me that the Elizabethan/Jacobean audience would have been expecting a fair amount of fantasy and spectacle in the way historical characters were represented on stage.
I endeavored to pack my design with as much storytelling detail as possible so that an uneducated, illiterate audience member in the pit at the Globe would immediately recognize Cleopatra’s status and backstory.
In general I tried to avoid being too cliche in my representation of Egyptian styling for the gown. The average audience member seeing Antony and Cleopatra for the first time in Shakespeare’s lifetime would have no real clue what Egyptian art or style was like in the time of Cleopatra.
To them, she would have needed to look regal, exotic, and foreign. I did slide into a bit of my own allegory with the eagle wings on the hanging sleeve, but because this is for a modern SCA audience who all have no doubt seen Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, I couldn’t resist a slight inside joke that tipped my hat to her portrayal.
I wanted to draw from clothing styles that would have been prevalent when they play premiered as those would have naturally formed the foundation of her costume, however, the actor portraying her might have chosen to customize the look.
There were no set or costume designers for Shakespeare’s plays, the actors were responsible for their own costumes.
Therefore, I drew on “Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns Vol 1&2” (edited by Susan North and Jenny Tiramani) to find the base patterns for the foundation garments.
I found a half size replica of a robe and gown in Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns Book 2 (p 33) featuring a pattern created by Melanie Braun. It was based on extant examples and a Spanish tailoring manual of the period.
In the design, the robe is worn over a wheel farthingale style dress, a style still favored by Queen Anne of Denmark at court, all of which seemed a good base to for Cleopatra design.
The flat collar and supportasse framing Cleopatra’s face are both drawn from Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns Vol 2.
The base material used for this dress was cotton broadcloth for two main reasons.
First and foremost, was the need for saturated color. As we are using the game CLUE as our inspiration, and therefore each character will be monochromatic, I want them all to have a uniform level of color saturation so they recognizably tie back to the game.
If I were to use a variety of period appropriate fabrics for these designs, the saturation level of the color may or may not match up when you look at them as an assembled group. In terms of price and availability, cotton broadcloth was easily the winner.
The second reason was cost. I am making 13 ensembles. Buying 8 yards of fabric for 13 gowns adds a lot of cost and cotton broadcloth is inexpensive. I plan to use smaller quantities of finer fabrics and plenty of beads, trims, etc. to embellish each of the planned dresses.
I used the sections of Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns Vols. 1 & 2 that include all the basic construction and embellishment stitches frequently used in period garments as the guide for my hand sewing. I used a sewing machine to do the longer, more repetitive construction seams.
I relied a lot on tailoring and shaping techniques I picked up while taking Master Jose’s Modern Maker in person seminar. His emphasis on pad stitching to create structure and shaping was particularly useful.
The embellishments themselves employ a mix of techniques commonly used in the period.
The main motif on the stomacher is lifted directly from the sleeve embellishment in the Rainbow Portrait and enlarged. The detailed view of the portrait clearly shows embroidery, applique and beading.
I used several embroidery stitches, couched cording, applique, and beading to decorate the stomacher.
I liked the snake as a motif for visually linking Elizabeth I and Cleopatra since it was regularly used to allegorically represent Elizabeth and it is such a strong plot element for the character Cleopatra.
When recreating the gown in the Rainbow Portrait, the Seamstresses and Historians of Historic Royal Palaces concluded that the orange mantle Elizabeth wears was decorated with painted eyes and ears rather than embroidered motifs. That is how they decided to execute their version of the dress.
The portrait of Elizabeth I in a very busy silk petticoat covered in all manner of plants and animals was examined by Janet Arnold for Elizabeth’s Wardrobe unlocked. Arnold lists that petticoat as being of painted silk, rather than embroidered so I felt confident using both embroidery and fabric painting to create different representations of the snake on this dress.
Despite use of cotton broadcloth, as much as possible, I am using period appropriate pattering techniques, assembly methodology, embellishment techniques, as well as period portrait references to make each character recognizable to an Elizabethan theater-goer.
Ultimately I am happy with where Cleopatra is ending up. There are some final bits of finish work needed to complete her but I needed to take a break from yellow on yellow on yellow sewing for a bit.
The color saturation and abundance of shiny and sparkly bits were chosen specifically because this is one of a series of ensembles being created for a party where they will be seen by flickering torch or candle light. This can significantly dull the intensity of color.
I wanted this gown to have maximum impact even in that low lighting atmosphere, so I increased the intensity of both color saturation and amount of reflective embellishments. This makes them very bright under regular daylight/room lighting.
Owing to the present quarantine/social distancing requirements, I ended up letting myself pack a bit more detail into the dress than I originally intended because I had the time but I am pleased with the result.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the approach and methodology of my ongoing project and behind the creation of the Cleopatra design. I look forward to fielding questions in the comments!
Cleopatra Gown Gallery
I recently did an online class based on the overall project called “All the World’s a Stage”. You can view it here:
- Elizabeth & Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics by Sarah Gristwood
- The Life And Times Of Elizabeth I by Neville Williams (General Editor: Antonia Fraser)
- Dictionary Of The Elizabethan World (Britain, Ireland, Europe, America) by John Wagner
- Shakespeare For All Time by Stanley Wells
- Feast For The eyes (Evocative Recipes &Surprising tales inspired by paintings in the national gallery) by Gillian Riley
- To The Queen’s Taste (Elizabethan Feasts And Recipes adapted for modern cooking) by Lorna Sass
- Renaissance Theater Costume by Stella Mary Newton
- Splendour At Court, Renaissance Spectacle And Illusion by Roy Strong
- Princely Feasts (Five Centuries Of Pageantry and Spectacle) by Bryan Holme
Heraldic Gown: aka “My Cheap-a$$-dress”
In January 2019, I completed and debuted a completely hand-sewn suit of men’s clothing from 1585. The ensemble used period appropriate materials and stitches. I learned a great deal from its creation, I am very happy with the way it turned out, and the compliments I received about it were very lovely. However, it didn’t quite make the impact on my wider community that I had hoped.
In fact, its reception sparked some uncomfortable thoughts.
To begin with, I feel that the excessive attention it got broadcasts the message that unless you can afford the significantly more expensive price tag of period appropriate materials, your work is not going to be taken seriously no matter how historically correct your patterning and construction techniques might be.
The second uncomfortable though I had was that the attention it received inadvertently sends the message that people whose work relies significantly on machine construction is somehow of lesser value or interest because it isn’t entirely hand sewn.
I kept a tally of both the material cost of the ensemble of men’s clothing as well as a tally of hours spent in hand sewing so I could assign a labor value to it in addition to the materials.
The suit of men’s clothing would have cost about $1500 in materials and an additional $3500 in labor at a rate of $20/hour. That is exorbitantly expensive by anyone’s estimation.
As a result of these thoughts and reactions I set myself two goals.
To make an ensemble spending no more than $100 in new materials using the most humble fabrics and to use historically accurate techniques to pattern and construct a special occasion dress proving that you can be fabulous on a minimal budget.
Making use of scraps left over from old projects was allowed to help keep to the budget.
Design and Styling
I had wanted to make a heraldic-themed late period outfit for some time and this was the perfect opportunity to attack that head on.
My first task was to take my heraldry and break it up into an heraldic design:
Having arrived at a concept I then set about drafting the pattern. I quickly spotted an error in my planning.
My sketch utilized the more conical Spanish Farthingale shape, which is easy to make work when manipulating the design on the page, but creates wedge shaped skirt panels. This creates aesthetic problems with a checkerboard pattern when one panel meets another.
Concept sketch 1580-90
So I switched gears and opted to create the dress over my already existing drum-farthingale so the skirt could just be a big rectangle cartridge pleated onto a waistband.
I needed to create a template for the hem band where I intended to put text. My first concept made it only about 4 inches tall, and the text was illegible at that small size so I bumped it up until the text became readily readable. At 10” tall, it was going to take 9 1/2 yards to fit the entire text for the Litany Against Fear:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.Frank Herbert
Construction & Embellishment
The gold suns were painted onto the doublet and then couched with gold cording. The cording on the sun bursts of the bodice was applied by hand, the lining was installed by hand, and the sleeves were set by hand.
Once the planning phase was complete, embellishing the various squares that would be assembled into yardage or full pattern pieces began.
I painted the gold suns onto the skirt squares. The appliquéd heraldic roses were couched with gold cording. The sun bursts would be undulating in and out of the folds of the skirt enough that I opted not to go to the extra effort of doing cording on them.
About 80% of this project was constructed using machine sewing to cut down on assembly time.
There was a slightly higher labor cost associated with this project than for the entirely hand sewn project, but that’s a direct result of making so much yardage of checkerboard fabric.
Had I just used flat field of a single color that I embellished with a band of trim at the bottom, I could have zipped through this MUCH faster and at a hugely reduced labor cost.
All told, I went over my goal of $100 slightly.
My final cost ended up being $107.55 because I opted for a stiffer smooth taffeta to line the skirt with so that it would move better and not cause friction against any kirtle I might wear under it. The taffeta was a bit more expensive per yard than the cotton broadcloth I initially budgeted for.
Even going over budget by $7.55, I still feel proud of the accomplishment I feel I achieved — demonstrating that a truly fabulous ensemble is absolutely attainable using period patterning and construction techniques, using the humblest of fabrics.