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Costumes

( Originally Published 1916 )



MOST scenic artists acquainted with the " joy of work," are found expressing a preference for " costume " plays, be-cause these afford opportunity for an unusual amount of color; and color here takes precedence over line. Costume thus, in stage parlance, has come to imply color.

Costumes were once devised for most managers by ordinary dressmakers; but now recourse must be had to the expert costumer—even to the couturier, setter of modes. Does not Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, design gowns for a whole " nest " of plays season after season? Did not the eminent Paul Poiret provide a creation de luxe for Winthrop Ames's production of " The Philanderer," at the Little Theater, New York? Of course. But the most elaborate of the new gowns to be seen on the stage are found in ballets, music comedies, and revues, where pretty pictures are at a premium.

THE STAGE AS LEADER OF FASHION

Frequently, at an early performance of a piece where late styles are on exhibition, fully two-thirds of the audience on the orchestra floor are dressmakers in search of ideas. Charles Frohman copyrighted the stage gowns of Julia Sanderson in " The Girl from Utah; " but when it was proposed to Winthrop Ames that he copyright the bevy of Lucile designs in "A Pair of Silk Stockings," he replied that anyone who wanted them was welcome to take them, for he'd have something new when that person came out with copies. That the stage does tend to set the modes is attested by the letter Caroline Bayley, leading lady in " A Pair of Silk Stockings," who wore a striking garment of military cut, wrote to her husband. " It strikes you pink," she said, " to see you always walking ahead of yourself on the avenue."

Gowns like this cost an incredible sum of money, and help to send the aggregate costs of a production skyward. There are other expensive angles, too. In " Prunella," when the gay party returns from its world wanderings, their fine clothes are in tatters. This meant two complete sets of costumes, one in the pink of condition, the other tattered and torn. However, some saving comes in the fact that cheaper stuffs have expensive sheen and gloss under stage lights.

BAKST COSTUMES

Some remarkable facts about the costumes designed by Leon Bakst are that he frequently employs imitation precious stones and metals in them—and even uses the human skin upon which to paint his patterns. The little negro in " Cleopatre," has his skin transfigured by the artist from black to inky blue, and wears silver bracelets for wrist, arm, and ankle, silver earrings, silver tassels and tabs, and beading and breastplate.

SPECIAL REQUIREMENTS

However, the costumier, like every other newer artist brought into the theater, must be informed of the peculiar limitations of the medium. He, or she, must learn to pro-vide costumes new and distinctive in individual examples—not always a fashion-plate by any means, but a garment representative of character; must learn to give a chorus girl a gown that may be changed with dispatch without elaborate buttoning or hooking that would require further payroll expenditure in the form of a personal maid; must learn to " under-dress," or allow for putting one costume on over another for quick change, and so on through a number of details.

Mere " period in dress is not enough, though it must be present. And period does not mean that time in which the particular play was written; in Shakespeare's day, Julius Caesar probably wore Elizabethan ruffles. This fact is more delicately illustrated by greater remoteness of time. Professor Gilbert Murray has remarked, in answer to objections that characters in his translation of "Iphigenia in Tauris " were not dressed by Granville Barker's designer in traditional flowing white robes of the Greeks, that Iphigenia did not belong in period to the day of Sophocles, but to a time considerably earlier, and that costumes of Sophocles's day, which had color and were not all of the statuary order, would be as inappropriate as Garrick's " Macbeth " in wig and court coat of scarlet and gold lace.

Norman Wilkinson, the designer in question, went further. As the action passed in barbaric Tauris, he tried to incorporate a barbaric note in his work. He gave Thoas a flaming red beard because it was a savage custom to dye beards; and, as the scepter of Thoas originally was the branch of a tree, he tried to make it look as much like a tree as possible, and covered it with living birds—a touch that proved a constant source of delight and distraction to the American audience that witnessed the production at the Yale Bowl at New Haven, Connecticut, in 1915. Then the heroine's costume becomes more and more barbaric, the longer she remains under barbaric influences.

Psychological costumes in all likelihood were known be-fore psychological scenery, probably because they were familiar in real life. The red gown for the " dangerous " woman and the black to signify almost any kind of distress from widowhood to poverty are probably as old as Job's comforter—forgive me that pun; I shall not perpetrate another. A. E. Haigh, in his fine book, " The Attic Theater," tells at length about the stage costumes of the ancient Greeks. In the first place, the characters almost always had some small emblem for ready identification—Apollo with his bow, Hercules with club and lion skin, messengers with crowns of laurel or wild olive, and so forth. The costumes were designed for viewing at distance. Tragic queens wore white mantles with purple borders; persons in exile or misfortune wore garb of mourning—black, dun, gray, yellow, or dirty white." Nowadays actresses are found taking a personal interest in correct costuming. Therefore Maude Adams, Elsie Ferguson, Julia Marlowe, and a host of others whose excellent taste may be relied on, regularly provide themselves with gowns that tell their own stories. Lina Cavalieri, the singer, even insists on " feeling " after a systematic course of study, the traditions of her dress.

THE ARTIST AT WORK

Realizing that it certainly is the duty of the artist aiming for unified effect, to design costumes as well as scenery and decoration, Robert Jones did not hesitate to undertake those in " A Man Who Married a Dumb Wife." One finds this same striving for unity in the De Diaghileff Ballet. When a composer has completed his score for this organization, the various other artists make a study of it; and just how this work is developed may be seen in sketches made by Valentine de Saint-Point for Igor Stravinsky's " Sacre de Printemps." She has copied a bar of music, for instance, and above it has placed the corresponding movements of the coryphée in drawings as delicate as those Meissonier used to place beside the titles of his larger canvases. No more did Jones hesitate actually to paint and dye canvas and draperies with his own hands.

His self-assumed obligation, according to an excellent estimate of his own work in Vogue, early in 1915, kept him going daytimes and a good part of each night for a considerable period, with no stops for Sundays or holidays. He had had little or no experience in designing gowns, but he realized first that each gown must express a character, and then that elaborate trimmings on dresses arrest people's attention too long for the good of a play. Therefore, he reduced each dress to its lowest terms in color and design—a method approved by Reinhardt, but unlike Bakst, who, though his schemes are broad effects, is lavish in costume detail—that the audience could get all in a flash and then concentrate on character. Next, he emulated in practise a theory of Craig's, and set out literally to make his own costumes from the drawings.

Material was selected and bought—in colors that were strong and full of life, but not sharp—with the following questions in mind: What results will it give? Of what treatment will it admit? What will it do under given conditions? What folds will it take? What sheen will the folds have? What will the effect of the color be? What will the person who wears the costume do? And what will be the effect or action on the costume, in bringing it into juxtaposition with another costume, perhaps? For other costumes must be in harmony.

" With some one to stand by to hold pins and scissors, he hung lengths of the material he had selected for the costume upon the actual person who was to wear it. As a rule, he used wide stuffs in long pieces; if the material was narrow, he joined several widths before beginning on the costume." It is very naive and also very interesting And here is his working plan, expressed in his own words : " Wherever it needed a pin, I put a pin. I used hundreds of pins in each dress. Wherever there was a place to be covered up, I just covered it up. Seams go naturally; that is what happened when primitive people made dresses. At last the person stands complete in every detail, but bristling with pins, and asks how I am to get her out of her garment. This is where my smartness comes in! I have left a place—I think of it as I work—and I am going to cut her out of it. I just leave a large fold some-where on each costume. Then I cut away, and out she or he—slips, and all I have to do to complete the costume is to put a stitch in place of each pin."

Americans have Granville Barker to thank for some interesting experiments; but most of all have they to express gratitude first for Robert E. Jones, and then for Royal Cortissoz in capacity as a dramatic critic.

Norman Wilkinson's idea of gilded fairies in " A Mid-summer Night's Dream," Mr. Cortissoz in his review calls " a really unfortunate emphasis. These are ambient, insubstantial creatures if they are anything, but Mr. Wilkinson turns them into statues. The grave error of the gilded fairy folk is an index to what is lacking in the production as a whole—subtlety, depth, enchantment. Without felicity of color, without felicity of atmosphere, this play, that is all poetry and magic, is robbed of half its spell. We freely admit that Mr. Wilkinson is ` different.' We cannot admit that he is right."

What is the character? It is the dominant note of the " new " costuming. And from the stage hand's dusty overalls snatched by Cecil Yapp properly to dress his conception of the crazy Uncle Eph in " Children of Earth," to the filmy creation of the popular modiste, it remains inflexible.



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