UCI Libraries’ Thursday night gala, “Costuming the Leading Ladies of Shakespeare,” celebrated the women and men who played and decorated theater’s most iconic female characters in palettes representative of the nuanced moods and histories of Shakespeare’s worlds. The exhibit, currently on display in the lobby of Langson Library, highlights the costumes of esteemed 19th century actress and costume designer Helena Modjeska and delves into an even deeper discussion on the costumes designed and used in UCI’s Shakespeare productions throughout its history.
Marcy Froehlich, assistant professor of costume design at UCI, who has credits as a designer for Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera” and an Emmy nomination for Disney’s “Geppetto” among many other productions, described the evolution of women’s costumes for Shakespeare’s plays as a constant battle, from their origins in the 16th and 17th centuries until now. “Costumes were very important,” said Froehlich. At the time, Froelich said, there was a need to impress theatergoers with the opulence of the production, and even outdo patrons, who were typically of the noble class, with their opulent wardrobe. “Often, the costumes were of more value than the theater building itself,” she said.
The mid-19th century saw realist conceptions of Shakespeare take hold; the historical accuracy of a piece became much more important to both viewers, players and costume designers. To that end, women would design their own costumes, the most opulent and symbolic of which Helena Modjeska was known for. Modjeska experimented with colors, straying from traditional conceptions of women in Shakespeare; she was the first to dress Ophelia in deep green rather than the traditional white, symbolizing her veracity in life and foreshadowing her death. This stuck in UC Irvine’s production of Hamlet, with greens and browns extending to add to the disheveled appearance of a gold and white-lace dress worn by Ophelia in the second half of the production.
Nowadays, the struggle for those costuming actors is how to be accurate and appeal to a modern audience with the spectacle of a production. In the New Swan Theatre’s summer 2017 production of “The Tempest,” the spirits were dressed in brown rags reminiscent of leaves, and their faces decorated in exotic patterns that accentuated their ethereal qualities presented in Shakespeare’s play, especially in Ariel’s costume. Miranda, on the other hand, was played and costumed to appeal to modern audiences, dressed in a tattered brown frock with dark brown pants and boots fit for tromping through the undergrowth of a heavily forested island. The look matched her character’s boldness and strength, yet accentuated Miranda’s wonder and innocence, as the muted colors of the costume brought focus on to her reactions to the brighter mystical objects and events around her.
“We are always trying to find balance between the words and the spectacle.” said Froehlich. “The art may change, but the why remains the same, how best to illuminate the great bard’s words.”