Term Paper: Othello Costumes Designing

Pages: 5 (2379 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Plays  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] There is a pair of leggings-trousers-what? that looks like a polyester panel print, not something woven as fabrics were then. And another pair, tucked into boots, appears to be fabric no better than denim.

The hairdressing of the women is period, however, right down to the pearls. Unfortunately, there are precious few other jewels, and unlike ballet, they could be worn. The men sport no jewelry either, and no cloth of gold to suggest it. The costuming appears to be a poor man's version of Othello, or a trend to the 'natural,' and it doesn't work. Opera is over the top by definition, and, unless one is doing a 'concept' production, the costumes had better match.

Paul Robeson's Othello, NYC, 1943

This version had a longer run than any other Shakespeare production on Broadway up to that time, 280 performances. And it was noted for its contemporary approach to costuming, versus the London production that had used heavy, period costumes. Fortunately, drawings and even fabric swatches from this production survive, proving that "costume designer Robert Edmond Jones devised looser garments that literally as well as figuratively added flexibility to the role." (Folger Library Web site)

The drawing for Robeson's costume shows an almost Roman toga-like appearance. Rather than the leggings and trousers of Shakespeare's times, it is a flowing robe topped with a flowing coat, with wide sleeves. There is a simple sash at the waist to hold a knife. The colors are neutral, greens and tans, and there is virtually no decoration noted. The fabrics appear to be natural, or mainly so. But a photo of Robeson in the role held in the same collection shows a similar silhouette to the drawing, but a much darker hue to the cloth. The fabric also appears to be a richer one, a velvet. And it bears not only rows of buttons and piping, not shown on the original, but medallions.

It is difficult to tell whether the costume worked. Is the more elaborate one a replacement for the original design, pandering more to what the audience would have understood as Elizabethan garb? Perhaps it was enough that Robeson was appearing as Othello, breaking box office records as a black man. Or perhaps the original design was meant to accommodate Robeson's athleticism; he had been an athlete before becoming an actor. It is hard to tell, but it is unlikely the costuming was unsuccessful, considering the length of the run.

Shakespeare Theater's Othello with Patrick Stewart

This is the most unusual of the four productions, having cast Stewart as a white man as the outsider in a black society. This reversal perhaps called for the modern clothing decided upon as costuming. Stewart wears fatigues; the rest of the men in the cast wear fatigues, and cargo pants and camouflage wear. Stewart also has a tattoo on a bicep, and he wears a heavy silver bracelet. Desdemona wears a slip dress, and virtually no jewelry.

The Shakespeare Theatre was not the first to costume Shakespeare that way. "The Aquila Theatre Company's productions are often costumed in modern dress," partly in support of that company's mission to "breathe new life into classical plays." Aquila, however, sticks to the economic status of the charters. In their Othello, in Venice, the men are dressed in formal wear. In Cyprus, the military characters are in desert fatigues, with the officers in dress uniforms. In suggesting climate, in a modern way, the fabrics for Cyprus are light and colorful. (O'Dell, Aquila Theater Web site)


There are several ways costuming can be successful, even if it does not strictly adhere to historical accuracy, as long as it suggests it -- as well as characterization -- while meeting the demands of the art form, as in ballet. On that score, the least successful set of costumes considered here would appear to be those for the English Opera Company's production. They are lifeless, and pay only lip service to historical accuracy when they could have done so much more. Possibly the most successful are those of the San Francisco Ballet: they pleased both a regional arts writer and an arguably more demanding Dance magazine commentator. Robeson's original costume gets the marks for most daring; it was completely unconstructed, and therefore totally modern, especially for 1943. The Shakespeare Theatre production was novel, but more in the reversal of ethnic roles than in the costuming, which had been done -- or at least a version -- by other theaters including the Aquila Theatre Company.

Works Cited

Costume Design page, Opera Atelier Web site, accessed 14 April 2004 at http://www.operaatelier.com/costume.htm

Gladstone, Valerie. "The role of a lifetime. (dancer Desmond Richardson stars in Lar Lubovitch's 'Othello') Dance Magazine, 1 May 1997.

Grimball, Elizabeth B. Costuming a play: Inter-Theatre arts handbook. New York: The Century Co., 1952.

Lewis, Jean Battey. "Leaps and trips on PBS." The Washington Times, 18 June 2003.

O'Dell, Dionne. "An excerpt for the Othello Education Pack."

Aquila Theatre Company Web site, accessed 14 April 2004 at http://www.aquilatheatre.com/aqedcos.html

Othello. The Shakespeare Theatre Web site, accessed 14 April 2004 at http://www.shakespearedc.org/tinfo.html

Paul Robeson/Othello," Folger Library Web site, accessed 14 April 2004 at http://www.folger.edu/shakespeareinamericancommunities/othello.a

Patrick, K.C. "Where have all the tutus gone? (Ballet costume designs)(Editorial),

Dance Magazine, October 2001. [END OF PREVIEW]

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