Practical Hints On Dressing For The Stage
( Originally Published 1928 )
IN the everyday business of dressing most of us give some thought to the suitability of color and form while selecting clothes for the especial hour and its engagements. Different costumes are intended for morning, afternoon, business, travel, sport, or evening wear. True, we behold the order not always observed, but no sane woman would play golf or go on a shopping tour in a dinner gown. The introduction of the ensemble idea has proved a godsend to many who seem born without a sense for color grouping and the appropriate. By reducing the number in a costume to one or two, a woman of poor taste has no excuse to go wrong in choosing hats, stockings, shoes, handbags, hand-kerchiefs, gloves, jewelry—even the inevitable flower is to be had in harmonizing shades; capable saleswomen may advise those who need a guiding hand.
Every one has enough sense of color value to realize that while sky-blue, pink and the like are appropriate for festive events, they are not the correct hues for a funeral. In real life we do not purposely don bright colors for solemn events. Nevertheless, not being able to foresee exigencies, a woman may be dressed in a costume rivaling the plumage of the flamingo or the peacock for brilliance and yet have to face the most tragic, the most heart-rending experience of her whole life. Hilarity is not unknown among those who, following an ancient custom, go robed in black for a certain period out of respect for the dead. Herein lies the chief difference between dressing for the stage or off.
The most important requirement in a theatrical costume is that it should provide an index to the part portrayed, and this is accomplished by considering the psycho-logical effect of color upon an audience. Not only must those selected suit the part, but also the emotions to be emphasized in certain scenes of the play. The player knows ahead what is in store for the audience; the actress understands that it would take a rare artist indeed to wring tears from those in front if a flamingo-colored gown flashed before them; on the other hand, any director will object to dark colors in a comedy, black being considered absolutely deadly.
Another point that needs careful attention is the effect of artificial light on color. Material for stage use should always be selected by electric light with, if possible, colored bulbs placed in the sockets. With clear lighting, which is diffused through straw or lemon-colored gelatine screens, most colors hold their own ; navy blue and dark green, however, appear as black. A suit of the former color, both youthful and cheerful in daylight, develops unexpected sobriety. Brown, which would be classed with these two for street use, becomes much lighter, the yellow in its composition warming up with the play of light. Brown and tan suits are for comedy. Blue is ever tricky; some light shades look gray.
With deep ambers, light yellow is turned to white, orchid frequently to gray, while jade becomes often a dull blue, especially if the material be crepe. Taffeta retains color more successfully. This material, together with satin and any other that reflects light, will always appear brighter; for this reason a black velvet gown is always darker than one of black satin.
When it is the business of the player to choose his own colors and costumes, care should be taken to attain harmony and at the same time supply contrast. It is an old law of the theatre that the leading lady has first choice of color. If you are a beginner, defer not only to her but to the other women of the cast. For many productions the costumes are designed and made under the supervision of some especial director, the player merely going for fittings. A dress rehearsal means just that—all clothes must be ready and worn as though for the first performance. The director then passes on every detail, ordering such changes as he deems necessary.
The costume as far as possible must be cut on lines best suited to the player's figure, which will be silhouetted against the back drop with every curve and every angle in bold relief. A very tall, thin girl should endeavor to widen and shorten hers. All vertical lines in trimming will tend to increase its length, while horizontal effects, like the hoops on a barrel, will broaden and shorten. The wide sleeve so fashionable at present, especially if of a brighter color than the center of the gown, will carry the eye across the figure and accentuate its width; a gaily colored girdle or narrow pelt of a different shade from the gown will give the same result.
The short, plump woman, if her line of business re-quires height, should avoid these things. A belt will cut her figure in two, besides broadening it. If a gown is of two colors, the brighter should always run up and down through its center, and the sleeves be kept dark and, if possible, tight. Darker shades in stockings will give the leg a slimmer outline. High heels will do their bit if the fastening on the shoe is considered Cross strappings which broaden and shorten the foot should be avoided by short, fat women who usually have broad feet, wide heels and large calves. If the shoe is made with an ankle-strap, a lengthwise band like that on the old Egyptian and Grecian sandal should run up the instep from the toe piece, thus narrowing the foot. Bobbed hair should rise in a wave on top and be kept flat at the sides. A pompadour on a man adds greatly to his height. For contrast, part the hair in the middle and plaster it down; almost two inches will apparently disappear.
Clothes must be theatrically effective. Fine stitches, exquisite needlework, tiny French eyelets and the like are thrown away on garments intended for use in the theatre. Basting is imperceptible but, as it is not desirable to drop flounces, sleeves and other parts of the costume while on the stage, strong stitching is advisable. Two or three large hooks and eyes should be placed where most needed, speed and security being indispensable. It may be necessary to dress quickly before a performance; time is always limited between the acts, and all actors are possessed of a mad desire to get out of the theatre as quickly as possible afterward.
A contrast of color such as a vivid lining in a cloak or hanging sleeves has theatrical value. Feather fans and brilliant beads are effective. Jade, fuchsia, tangerine, rose, violet, etc., are all telling shades. Fine beads, and those that catch light are always preferable to the dull variety, are lost unless the gown affords a background of a deeper or lighter shade, or is of another color. Jet is invaluable for the stage ; so are sequins. Directors have admired spangled tunics, which are purchasable in all department stores, ready made, while in their eyes expensive but not striking dresses sometimes pass unnoticed.
White chalk beads, if sewn on black materials in clusters representing bunches of grapes or flowers, appear as white muslin cut out and appliqued. The same beads on white resemble machine-made embroidery. One of the most remarkable "flops" in costume was an imported gown fashioned of steel beads sewn in solid formation to bands which hung from the neckline to the hem around the entire' dress ; from the auditorium these looked as though made of gray ribbon.
Real lace requires a background—black on white or colors, and the reverse. By playing violet lights beneath lace skirts, the pattern was shown up in the ballet "Lace-land," a number in a past edition of the "Follies."
Some dresses of fine material fail utterly, while one bought for twenty dollars may look like a gown costing two hundred. The stuff must drape easily, be of a certain richness of color, or catch light.
For the many materials mentioned in this history, certain modern substitutes may be used, and to offset expense the amateur, by using dyes and colored lights, can achieve some stunning results with unbleached muslin—which, however, must be dipped in a cotton dye before a basic, or aniline dye, procurable in exquisite shades, can be used. Obtain some cotton and aniline dyes and, by following directions as to the materials best suited to each, experiment by varying the quantities of water and dye; one color may be applied over another after the first has dried; irregularity in the dipping also gives good results.
In the decoration and accessories of the costume, the psychological effect on the audience must again be considered. Frivolous trimming such as ruffles and flying rib-bons create a light, happy mood, whereas swinging ear-rings, bobbing curls and waving plumes may keep an audience from sobbing when sadness is the effect aimed at. The bold, bad lady of the play can be subtle ; she need not be loaded with birds of paradise, gorgeous brocades and blazing jewels.
The actress who is to wear a train should rehearse in this until she becomes accustomed to it and free from the necessity of kicking it aside, or awkwardly stepping on it. If the actual gown intended for the performance is used, the train should be protected from dirt during rehearsal by stitching muslin around the bottom, both inside and out, to a depth of two or three feet. An actor should practice handling a drape. There is a trick of sitting down when wearing a bustle or a hoop skirt; the former should be pushed sideways by a movement of the body, but, it goes without saying, never by the hands ; the latter must be given a slight upward lift at the back to prevent the entire front from rising. In a tearful part an actress should be provided with a handkerchief to dry her eyes and nose, unless, of course, where the character is of a certain type, an apron, shawl or sleeve is used.
There are many little things that go to make stage style. An actress not only considers her dress, but also what she wears under it. This need be very little, but it must be smooth ; no fancy lace ruffles, no ribbon loops or silk flowers should adorn it, as these cause lumps and shadows to appear on the gown. Underwear should never be suggested; above all, it must never show. Even a shoulder strap will do it. In fact, there is no practical reason at all for the shoulder strap. At a recent amateur affair one of the performers unknowingly presented a dowdy appearance by permitting the audience to glimpse, through the black chiffon yoke of her dinner gown, variously colored shoulder straps belonging to several totally unneeded "undies"; furthermore, the lace-edged, pink ribbon-run slip climbed a diagonal path from her right armpit to her left shoulder.
For a slight girl, a brassiere firmly supporting, but not flattening the bust may be worn accompanied by bloomers, and the latter should, preferably, be of the gown's color; a slip may also be worn if the dress is transparent or fashioned of a material which clings when walking. A slip will also be found necessary if, in the course of a play, the actress stands in an open doorway up stage with strong "spots" playing on an outdoor scene beyond. The slip, again, should match the gown in color and be so adjusted that it does not reach the bottom of the skirt's hem. If the gown is of georgette or other thin material, it must extend below the top of this hem, otherwise an inch or so of transparent shadow will play there and through it garters and legs will be visible. Once a slip is properly hung, anchor it with a pin before it shifts and shows below the skirt. Petticoats are never worn except in plays of a rural type, which call for starched calico dresses. They should be secured by large safety pins, not draw strings. Dropping a petticoat on the stage is embarrassing, to say the least. Never wear a white petticoat with a dark skirt, for it will show when seated.
Supplementing a brassiere, women who are in the slightest degree fleshy should wear a hip corset ; one that pushes up in front, causing a bulge or bad break in the costume, must be avoided.
All garters should be as inconspicuous as possible. Never let loops of ribbon and flowers hang from a round one. A garter rolled above the knee is likely to cause a bulge in the gown when seated. The exhibition of hosiery these days, particularly free to the public gaze when the wearer is ascending stairs, is too often an affront to the fastidious eye; seams winding diagonally about the leg suggest nothing so much as the stripes on a barber's pole. For the stage, the seam must run exactly in the back of the leg, or a bow-legged effect will be produced. Clocks should be vertical. Not a wrinkle must be left about the ankle, for the tiniest fold will take shadow from the strong lights and create an impression of slovenliness, or of a thin ankle in a loose fitting stocking. And this rule applies to the entire costume. Wrinkles or bulges caused by undergarments catch definite shadows and also give the idea of a poor fit. Draw the stocking up tightly and secure it; men should do the same with socks. Tights must never show the slightest wrinkle. If possible, wear suspenders, gathering any looseness about the straps above the buttons and securing with safety pins. Silk stockings should not be worn if the character is one who, logically, could not afford them. If the person portrayed is in mourning and black stockings are demanded, those of the chiffon variety should not be selected because, when worn on the stage, the skin is certain to show through and produce anything but a somber effect.
Stockings and shoes must harmonize, or afford contrast, both being chosen with due consideration for the colors of the gown.
Long vamps on shoes are ugly, while short ones tend to diminish the length of the foot. Be careful in the arrangement of colored leathers. Light shades stand out and, unless well placed, may widen or foreshorten the foot in an ugly manner. The tall, small-boned girl with a long narrow foot running in A widths, can use crossstrappings and wide-color designs with perfect confidence. Large calves do not accompany slim feet, therefore she may indulge in stockings of the lightest shades.
Many beginners are under the impression that their feet will be inconspicuous on the stage; on the contrary, there is no place in the world where they are more in evidence. Men should always see that their shoes are freshly polished; before leaving the dressing room flip a cloth about them, as powder may have settled on the shine.
When playing a gentleman, be very careful about all the little niceties of dress. The coat should lie smooth against the collar; the sleeves must allow a glimpse of linen; but then, again, the wrists will have an awkward appearance if the sleeves are too short; and the legs, too, if the trousers are worn the least bit too high. When wearing a vest, be sure that the audience does not get occasional glimpses of a belt. See that every detail of costume is correct for the time of day, and for the suit worn. Do everything to convey the impression of being well groomed.
A woman's skirt should hang well and never be shorter in front than behind. Particular attention should be paid to the neckline. If the material is allowed to bulge across the chest, dark shadows will appear, causing the neck to look thin. Have the front edge absolutely flat against the skin from shoulder to shoulder. All costumes of opaque materials made with set-in sleeves should be provided with dress shields, for patent lotions cannot be relied upon. When the play calls for the wearing of a nightgown, tight, flesh-colored trunks, such as are used by dancers, are worn with a smooth gauze vest over them. Nothing like underclothes must break the lines of the body.
When a young girl is attempting to play a middle-aged or elderly woman, a large-sized corselet with a layer or so of wadding sewn to its entire inner surface will enlarge the figure and yet permit the gown to fit without grotesque lumping.
For an extremely old woman a shawl can be pulled up in folds about the shoulders and back of the neck, thus creating a humped appearance. Padding can be stitched in a high-necked waist to form a rounded back.
When playing in gowns of the seventies, eighties and nineties, the figures of most girls of today do not look well without a high, boned corset. The waist must be small and the basque should fit without a wrinkle. As these corsets are very hard to find, a fitted underbodice, heavily boned, will help—provided the figure is first laced about the waist line by modern stays as high as can be obtained.
Picture hats should be tilted on the side that will be most shown to the audience. The small, tight hats often throw the eyes into shadow. Everything possible should be done to avoid this. On the stage, a hat can be worn a little farther back on the head and at an angle which, if attempted on the street, would be ridiculous.
In choosing colors, an actress should not "kill" ner own. Pastel shades are always pleasing and should be used by blondes, whose delicate tinting must never be lost. Brunettes may indulge in the vivid hues without fear, al-ways provided that these do not clash with others on the stage.
Red, the color of fire and heat, should not be worn by a red-headed girl, whose glorious locks radiate warmth. She will look better in blue, a cold and, therefore, neutralizing color, if her eyes match. Green is more effective with brown, or greenish eyes.
All blue-eyed women with white skins look well in blue or green, but those of dark or sallow complexions should avoid these colors; they will find both trying, and the green will often prove disastrous. However, as all eyes appear dark at a short distance from the stage, this advice is not of superlative theatrical value.
A costume, with all its accessories, should be rehearsed in, so' that no difficulty will later be encountered in sitting, walking or gesturing. On the first night it must be put out of mind, for all illusion will inevitably be lost if the audience senses that an actress is conscious of her clothes. If every detail has been considered, and the whole judged by some competent person, she may rest assured of being a picture at all moments.
An actress, as a rule, innately carries this idea into private life, always appearing with her hair in place and her clothes in good taste for the occasion, for she realizes that a dowdy, careless appearance will not win her advancement. Competition is very strong, and charm in her ensemble may attract the attention of agent, author, director, or manager, with a resultant engagement. The good word may even be passed along as in the old song about "a friend of an intimate friend of an intimate friend of Frohman's."