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Textiles and civil attire
A sort of paradox in designing costume for the theatre is: the greater the restrictions of the scheme imposed on the designer the greater the possibilities of significance in the design. It is, however, more than a mere paradox. For if a producer were to say to his designer, "I want this play dressed all in green", the problem for the designer would, in fact, be reduced, the need for perfect design and careful colour values would be magnified, any line or shape now without significance would become a glaring error in design.
On the other hand, a producer who has no interest in the visual side of the play and leaves his designer unguided is asking for trouble. In such a case it is far more difficult for the designer to help the actors in their parts because he is unaware of any overall scheme, conscious or unconscious. And if a scheme is not expressed in so many words beforehand, it cannot be discovered until the play is ready to go on the stage — and by then it is obviously too late to design costumes.
Let us for a moment suppose that we are designing for the gentleman with the green complex, and he is producing a classic play; where do we go for our necessary ideas? Preferably back to the time of the play's origin, because, by so doing, the shape as a whole and its original significance can be grasped. Whatever process of elimination or dressing up occurs afterwards is the business of the designer, but he has started off with several limitations which should help him to keep within certain bounds and produce simple and direct designs. If, however, his own interest in design is strictly governed by the desire to be different at all costs and to have nothing to do with the period about which the play is written, he is failing to make contact with anyone but himself, and instead of helping the actors or the producer he is creating an atmosphere alien to the play. Unless we are prepared to disregard large passages in any dramatist's work, we must consider for what reason he has introduced detailed descriptions of his own time. It is because he sees it that way. Shakespeare in modern dress has to be pretty heavily cut to make sense. So let us try to discover something of what the dramatist saw in his lifetime and the inspiration that coloured his works.
In the original productions of the fifth century B.C. the playwright was also the producer and the designer, probably the chief actor too; so the result would naturally have been all of a piece. His thoughts must have been directed towards the complete picture or series of pictures which probably crystallized and took shape as the play was written. Now where did these ideas come from? From the writings of Homer, we understand, for Homer was the bible of ancient Greece. These were the golden stories of archaic times; their subject matter the very roots from which sprang the flowers of Greek drama. It was Homer's stirring descriptions of supernatural beings, fabulous monsters, terrifying warriors in flashing armour, beautiful women in fine array and handsome young heroes with the latest style in hairdressing that coloured the dramatist's works. Their clothes and armour were as vividly described as their deeds of valour or their voyages into unheard-of territories. Tragedy, violence and affection were all clothed in their appropriate costume.
The basis of all costume is the material from which it is made, for only with certain materials can certain styles develop. For instance we cannot hope to give a true impression of fifteenth-century costume if we use anything as transparent and flimsy as nylon, because the very essence of fifteenth-century costume is its dignified drapery, weight and swinging lines. We can, on the other hand, adequately use a nylon silk for regency costume because here weight is neither necessary nor desirable. The fabrics that were available to the ancient Greeks were fabrics that they spun and wove themselves from their own supplies of wool or linen. Homer gives specific details of the beauty and simplicity of these fabrics. First he tells us that this elegant craft was carried out in the homes of even the most nobly born — Pallas Athene herself is supposed to have woven her own gown out of fine wool, and both Helen and Andromache, Hector's wife, are pictured as being expert with the loom. The following passages give us some interesting information. Iris bringing news to Helen,
found Helen in her palace, at work on a great purple web of double width into which she was weaving some of the many battles between the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaeans in the war that had been forced upon them for her sake (Iliad, Bk. III).
Helen's gift to Telemachus,
... Helen, meanwhile, went to the chests which contained her embroidered dresses, the work of her own hands, and from them, great lady that she was, she lifted out the longest and most richly decorated robe which had lain underneath all the rest, and now glittered like a star ... (Odyssey, Bk. XV).
Andromache, when the news of Hector's death was brought to her,
... was at work in a corner of her lofty house on a purple web of double width which she was decorating with a floral pattern ...
Of particular interest at this stage is the fact that the materials might be wide, "of double width", and that they might be embroidered or have a pattern woven into them. Helen's gown that glittered like a star would probably have had gold or silver threads woven through it. We are clearly given to understand that weaving was an art like any other, and those with talent were in the advantageous position of being able to carry out their own designs. Because such fabrics were woven by hand and had such a deal of work and thought woven into them they were never cut, so that a whole garment was worked on the loom, its decoration woven into the texture of the material. After spinning and weaving had been perfected, it was so obviously more convenient to have a firmly woven edge or selvage down either side of the material. Therefore, ways and means of making such a length of material fit conveniently to the body were devised and developed. The Indian sari today is still an example of this and, though it bears no resemblance to the Greek chiton, it forms a perfect analogy. A certain amount of shaping can take place on a loom and no such possibilities seemed to escape the Greeks. Thus a shape in the form of a simple cross could form a tunic if there were an opening left in the weave at the centre of the fabric for the head to go through. Then it had only to be taken from the loom, folded over, the sides sewn together and the tunic was completed. Any sort of decoration on the hems could be done during the actual weaving. The dalmatic as we know it today is an unsewn version of this particular shape.
Two facts at this stage clearly govern the whole scheme of classic costume: first, the limits upon ingenuity set by a hand-loom — for example, weaving a scollop or chevron at one side of the material, or introducing any sort of complex design into the fabric — and second, the manner in which these lengths of material could be made up to give the best effect. The second of these problems is best resolved by consulting the pictures of the time, and then applying such knowledge as we have gained to the arrangement of the varying lengths and widths of the fabrics so that we can find something of the original effect. I shall deal with this side in the next chapter. At the moment we are still concerned with the materials themselves.
Let us consider the colours available and the forms of the designs woven into the fabrics; also the use of other textiles that are not mentioned by Homer but are to be found during the fifth century. Consider the references on the preceding page and see just what can be extracted from them about design and colour. First, Helen's weaving "... the many battles between the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaeans ..." This sentence does not in any way give us a picture of simplicity; it sounds remarkably complicated, more like the Bayeux tapestry than a woven design. Homer's meaning is clear — to give us an extravagant and wondrous effect. For this realism is not necessary; an entirely impressionistic and simplified design would serve the purpose. Horses and horsemen as well as warriors are indicated — roughly, it is true, but quite recognizably — on a few of the patterns visible on vases.
But Andromache's work was intended to be simpler: "She was decorating it with a floral pattern." We are not told if she was weaving this floral pattern or embroidering it. Both could have been possible. There might have been bands of something like woven honeysuckle, for the honeysuckle design was one of the most popular used for floral representation both on garments and in architecture. Perhaps it was a spot pattern with tiny flowerlets sprinkled over the ground at certain intervals; perhaps the flowers were embroidered in gold or silver thread. All these suggestions are possibilities.
We do know that quite complicated designs in weaving were carried out even by the young girls. There is a charming reference to the youthful and faulty efforts of Creusa at weaving in Euripides' Ion. It is one of the few detailed descriptions that we can find among the great dramatists' works of a decoration actually woven into a small garment. When the casket containing Ion's original baby clothes and trinkets is opened, Ion asks Creusa to describe them to him without her first seeing what is in the casket so that she can give him proof that she is his mother. The first thing that we are to understand is that, although they are richly decorated, they are woven. No hint of embroidery occurs in this description.
Creusa: See the robe I wove when still a maid. Ion: What sort of a garment is it? For the loom of the virgin produces various woofs. Creusa: Not yet complete; it seems the work of inexperience. In the front of the garment is the Gorgon's head and the edge is decorated with serpents like the Aegis ... a woof which my virgin shuttle made.
These designs that Euripides had in mind were in no way different from those described by Homer; in fact, this is a direct reference to the Aegis worn by Pallas Athene in the Iliad (see reference to Bk. V, Iliad). We therefore know that these same motifs were used throughout the centuries and, though it seems an unpleasant design to inflict upon a baby, it is completely in accordance with Homeric inspiration, and makes a traditional and dramatic point. The same passage goes on to describe the necklace that Ion had also worn as a baby. Here Euripides clearly indicates that it was because of their divine significance that such emblems were used for both fabrics and jewellery — to protect and influence the child.
These ... golden ornaments ... fashioned in an antique style, with golden-cheeked dragons, Minerva's gift, who bids us rear our children amongst such forms, in imitation of our great Ericthonius ... these, O my son, around his neck the new-born child should wear.
Before us we now have three distinct aspects of design, and all of them can be associated with the weaving of Greek fabrics. First, the fanciful and individually significant "Trojans and bronze-clad Achaeans", used as an expression of a personal problem of Helen's. Second, the floral pattern with which we can associate all the less significant forms, both floral and geometric, as old as Greece and permanently in use. Third, the divine symbols of the gods and goddesses. Roughly, Greek design can be divided into these three groups and the limitations are immediately apparent. And we cannot afford to disregard their dramatic significance.
It is sad that there are no known real paintings of the time to give us fuller insight into the variety of colours used in the patterns; the necessity to eliminate detail when painting on pottery has led to the designs being reduced to the very simplest. The motifs and running lines of pattern are similar, both in clothes and in architecture, and although in the study of classical architecture there seems to be an almost endless series of designs to remember with the complicated entablatures of the Ionic and Corinthian orders, these are limited very much by the space they have to decorate, and the same can be said of the decoration on clothes.
Most ornament was confined to bands of decoration. When all-over designs appear, they are in the form of spot patterns, squares, discs and ovals, or embroidered flower forms of the very simplest, which strictly eliminate every unnecessary leaf or petal that might confuse the design. Variations of the Greek key or scroll form appear more than anything else, but this might possibly be the fault of the artist whose job it was to decorate a vase freehand; these very simple ornaments were both quicker and safer to execute. Running borders of flower forms are frequently indicated; the famous honeysuckle and marigold and simple versions of the acanthus were the most popular forms of decoration for the garments of kings and queens and other noble persons. The architectural quality of the design is accentuated by the heavy folds of the material which, in so many instances, seem to imitate the fluting of the classic columns. There are examples of the use of animals in the most fascinating series of chain designs, and all the mythological beasts are there. Galloping horsemen, Pegasus, horses' heads, fighting warriors, sphinxes, harpies and sirens and other beasts or characters from the rich mythology of the time proceed in an endless procession around these bands of decoration. The simplicity of their silhouettes makes their subject matter a little difficult to see at first sight, but the effect is one of richness and vitality. The accompanying illustrations show the various ways in which these patterns were used, and the detailed examples of some of the motifs that were introduced should give the designer all possible information about the limitations of these ideas. Nearly all the examples depicted have been taken from the vases of the fifth and early fourth centuries B.C.; at a later date they are not nearly so interesting.
Colour is a comparatively easy subject to discuss, for already we know that there were foreign dyes and fabrics in use. The Egyptian range alone is wide, with all its beautiful earth dyes and the famous lapis-lazuli blue which was worth a king's ransom. The colour range from ancient Crete must still have been in use, for these were mostly the sea dyes; cuttle-fish blue and purple, various seaweeds, and, of course, all the now-familiar vegetable dyes. One point to be born in mind is that the woven woollen or linen fabrics were naturally an off-white colour, so that they would normally take the dyes with a softness similar to shantung and other Chinese silks. Pure white had to be bleached, and it is doubtful if any bleaching process was used for a fabric that was going to be dyed, for this was obviously not necessary. The bleaching process is a very lengthy business without the aid of modern chemicals. As the colours produced were much more sympathetic than modern chemical dyes, some care should be taken in the selection of suitable colours so that brashness does not prevail.
Pollux has left us with a careful annotation of the colours that were used in his time for certain types of characters. We are not at all certain that this is a traditional or entirely acceptable scheme, but it is certainly worth some consideration. It is quite probable that colours had, by Pollux's time, come to signify certain qualities in certain people, but it is very unlikely that dramatists adhered without question to a colour scheme that did not change with the centuries. White occurs frequently in his list, and he tells us that the normal costume for the tragic actor was a white Doric chiton with no seam on the left side. He goes on to say that young men wore purple or red; old men white, as did young women and priestesses. Parasites wore black or grey, old women green or light blue. He is obviously not referring to the Greek drama, for this list includes types characteristic of Roman comedy and not of fifth-century drama.
Of these pastel shades mentioned by Pollux we have some considerable evidence in the wall paintings of the first and second centuries A.D., also in the little pots of ground colours which were taken from the house of the painter at Pompeii and still exist in the Archaeological Museum at Naples. They are pale, smoky shades, rather like a modern powder colour well mixed with white. Certainly the pale blues, pinks and chromes are both varied and soft, and the gorgeous vermilion walls in the House of the Mysteries show a rich purple-madder and a deep chrome, perhaps one of the strongest of colour schemes, yet beautifully dignified and restrained.
Excerpted from Costume in Greek Classic Drama by Iris Brooke. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted July 2, 2014