Costume, masks and make-up


Jemima Rooper as Medusa in the television series Atlantis
Jemima Rooper as Medusa in Atlantis Credit: BBC/Urban Myth Films

Costume is what the actors wear when performing. Costume can denote character, historical era and the style of the production, eg naturalistic or abstract.

It’s important to consider the type of costume that best suits your work and also how easy it is to change from one costume to the next. You may decide to keep things simple and avoid unnecessary costume changes which can slow the pace of your production. Sometimes the simple addition of a hat can help to communicate character, especially if actors are playing more than one role.

If a play is naturalistic then costume needs to be authentic and appropriate for the character, their status and the play’s setting. This calls for research into the garments, styles, colours and fabrics of the time when the play is set. For example, in Tudor England dyes were expensive, so only the wealthiest citizens would have worn garments of bright colours. Therefore, costume often indicates the social status of a character.

Symbolism in costume

Costume is often used to help communicate a character’s personality. A flamboyant character might wear brightly coloured clothing while a more sombre or serious character would dress in dark coloured clothes. Colour has its own language and can be used symbolically. White may represent innocence and purity, and red may represent danger.

A paper doll style graphic to show the different meanings coloured costumes can have

In Shakespeare’s era an actor playing a king would dress in regal purple, symbolic of holiness, as kings were considered second only to God.

Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar in the film Beowulf, 2007
Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar in Beowulf Credit: Imagemovers/Shangri-La Entertainment/Warner Bros/Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant Archive

Costume can really help an actor to feel the part and has a big impact upon performance. What we wear affects the way we move and in some cases speak, so wearing the right thing can help us to find detail in characterisation. Look at Describing Costume to learn how costume can affect characterisation.

Cast members from The Barbican Theatre's production School for Scandal, 2011
School for Scandal, The Barbican Theatre Credit: Neil Libbert/Barbican Theatre