Ruffs, ruffles, and corsets, oh my! With over-the-top, historical drama ruling the runways at the moment, I can’t help but think about the costumes typically associated with William Shakespeare. I may be a bit biased (you can take the theater kid out of theater school…) but fashion designers and makers have looked to the Bard for inspiration for centuries. In celebration of Pride Month, let’s journey together to discover how Shakespeare’s costumes influenced how modern designers creating gender-free fashion.
While he didn’t invent playing with gender, Shakespeare was one of the best at it. Even a cursory look at the text of plays such as Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals women dressing as men, men dressing as women, and even men transforming into donkeys! In Shakespeare’s world, gender and dress is a playground to explore comedy, drama, and the perils of romance. Add in the fact that queer theorists often look at gender as a performance, and you’ve got a recipe for more than one doctoral thesis! During Shakespeare’s time, only men were allowed to be actors. That’s right; with plays such as Twelfth Night, this means that the character of Viola was a man, pretending to be a woman, who pretends to be a man. Even in the more conservative society of Elizabethan England, however, this type of gender play was very typical of the drama of the time. Keep in mind, the way we see gender and sexuality now varies wildly from what it did four centuries ago.
What does all this mean for fashion? Even before the modern day, men and women swapped roles in Shakespeare’s work. Most famously, Sarah Bernhardt, muse to Alphonse Mucha and other influential Art Nouveau artists, played Hamlet, starting a tradition of women-as-Hamlet that lasts to this day. Similarly, actress Sarah Cushman played men’s roles, including Cardinal Wolsey and Romeo, captivating American audiences in the Victorian Era. Shakespeare’s Globe in London experimented with “Original Practice,” casting all-male and all-female casts, and dressing them in period-accurate, handmade costumes, in order to interpret Shakespeare’s work.
In fashion, designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen effortlessly combined Shakespearian drama and theatrical costumes with fashion runways. A pioneer of punk, Westwood makes no secret of her love for Shakespeare and his work, with ruffs, corsets, wide puff sleeves, and other Elizabethan costume elements featuring heavily. She has even released a performance film, “Letter to the Earth,” which was filmed at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Meanwhile, Alexander McQueen’s work reflected the high drama and violence of Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Macbeth. At least two of his collections wrestled with the history of Scotland, recalling the wild landscapes and blur between fantasy and reality present in Shakespeare’s own work. Additionally, his aesthetic is known for blending high femininity with the masculine tailoring of Savile Row, where he was trained. McQueen often stated that his work reflected his own pain and struggle with living as a gay man. He tattooed a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on his arm, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”
Today, designers are taking cues from Shakespeare’s own work to blur the lines between menswear and womenswear. Men wear structured corsets and ruffled dresses, whereas women wear stylistic pantsuits and armor-like jackets not dissimilar to Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet. Thanks to style pioneers such as Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, fashion is slowly turning into a landscape that celebrates the joyful, comedic, and sometimes painful love (of all genders!) that Shakespeare wrote about.
If you could design costumes for a Shakespeare play, which one would it be? Let us know in the comments down below!