Theatre is all about the successful creation of illusion – and costumes have always been an integral part of that process. In Shakespeare’s day, actors usually took to the stage in contemporary Elizabethan dress. At the same time, wealthy persons would often leave their clothes to their servants when they died, and the servants would then sell these clothes to actors for use as costumes. In this way, costumes in Shakespeare’s day were either quite basic or very elaborate – but either way, they helped create the world of the play.
For our purposes today, thrift stores are a great place to find costumes. Old dresses and blouses can be made to appear wonderfully Elizabethan with puffy sleeves and empire waists; white shirts with elaborate collars and other items rich in design can readily become “such stuff as dreams are made on.” But be creative! For example: for one performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, our Shakespeare troupe opted for somewhat traditional costuming; but in still another production, the children wanted to emphasize the excitement and fantasy of the enchanted forest. We found an abundance of glamorous old evening gowns in parents’ and teachers’ wardrobes, and we decided to make our Fairies “Disco Fairies”!
Costuming provides ideal opportunities for imaginative thinking, whether a student wants to be on-stage or is happier in a tech-team behind the scenes. When you first begin talking about the plays, have the children sketch out how they think their characters should appear. Whether or not these designs are used in the final production, such activities allow every child to feel included. As ever – and especially with costumes – keep it simple.