Costume, to the theater of naturalism, is integral to a great performance. A costume can do many things; create character and personality, convey time period, and express social status and class among much, much more. Costume is a language, and they’re just as important as the script.
More Than Clothes
Costume isn’t just made up of clothing, either. While costume has its own department, creating a character’s look and identity is the responsibility of hair and makeup, props, and costume departments together. The Queen of Hearts would be nothing without the character’s iconic crimson hair and powdered-white face. They are integral parts of her character and are part of making her the stoic, cold, and flamboyant person she is, just as much as it’s the performer’s job to do so. Costume brings live theater to life.
As described above, one of the most important aspects of costume is to create character, and not just for the reasons you might think.
Character is for as much for the performer as it is the audience when it comes to naturalistic theater. An integral part of a naturalistic performance is the performer’s ability to empathize with their character. To be great performers in naturalism, performers need to understand a character’s motivations; what made them make the choices that led them to the action taking place on stage; what drives them to make the choices they do during the performance. One of the main ways performers do this is through costume. Costume is a way of embodying a character, and with naturalism, becoming the character is very important. Costume allows performers to physically embody their character, find their mannerisms, live in the clothes that their character does, and find the way they move, all using costume.
Costume is more than just a show for audiences, it helps naturalistic performers deliver convincing performances.
For the Crowd
Having said all of that, costume is just as important for audiences. Just as costume helps performers bring to life characters for themselves, costume also allows visual characterization for audiences.
If one was to take away the costumes of all the characters in a live performance of Alice in Wonderland and replaced them with plain clothes, it would leave audiences with a Mad Hatter without daring clothes and, well, a hat; a nervous rabbit being played by a person hopping about; a caterpillar that’s just a person writhing about on stage; and an army of playing cards, which is actually just an army. Without costumes, the fantasy is taken away from a performance, and while many actors are great enough to convey character without costume, it’s not the same to see Alice without her characteristic blonde locks, like those provided by newigstyle. And wigs are just as much the character as clothes are.
Another, more minor, reason as to why costume is so important for live performance is, in part, to convey time period.
In an era related performance, the costume is so important in conveying time. For example, a live performance of Marry Poppins would make little sense without time relevant costumes. It’s all well and good singing about cleaning chimneys when many houses today don’t have them. Having a chimney brush, soot-covered clothes, and a sooty face is all part of creating a real live performance and making sense while doing so.
Whether it’s to help performers truly embody their characters during a live performance, to help with understanding their character and their actions, to really embody their life; to immersing an audience in the naturalistic world performance is trying to create, making characters really seem alive on stage; or to help with nuances such as time and helping to make a performance make sense, the costume is so important to live theater.