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Costume Design

Despite his numerous plays, Planché is best remembered today for costume design. His early experiences with stage costume were not entirely happy; when his melodrama The Vampire was staged, the theater lessee, Samuel Arnold, insisted on a Scottish setting, partially because Scottish costumes were plentiful in the theater's wardrobe department.  However, illustrations of the play reveal that the costumes were not always appropriate to the characters and their situations.  For instance, in the opening scene, as Lady Margaret, the heroine, lies in "Fingal's Cave," having taken refuge from a storm that blew up during a hunting trip, she wears jewels and a ball gown decorated with a tartan sash, as would be appropriate for a formal occasion  (J. Findlay, found in Kilgarriff 85), Such was typical of the approach to costume of the time--costume had to be instantly recognizable as "Scottish," "Oriental," or "medieval," but did not necessarily resemble what might have been realistically worn.

Planché's research into historical costume, drawing upon portraits, monuments, diaries, coins, and other eclectic sources, began in 1820, when he designed the costumes for John Kemble's production of Shakespeare's King John. Planché published a series of his designs, which were copied to stone for lithographic printing, and colored by hand with water-based paints. Besides King John, over the next four years he designed costumes for all Shakespeare's histories, as well as for Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  These studies led to his being elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1829.  Later he helped found its offshoot, the British Archaeological Association, in 1843.

His approach to costume and set design was almost obsessively historical, for he felt that accurate portrayals of the past were both more interesting and more artistic than either traditional or fanciful costume designs.  Even so, he did not go so far as later nineteenth-century designers would.  For instance, in dressing Hamlet, he chose a date in the eighth century based upon inferences regarding the relation of the Danish court to England, the presence of Christianity in Denmark, and the war between Norway and Poland.  Having done so, he realized a real Danish prince of that time would have dressed in scarlet, rather than Shakespeare's "sable."  Planché lamented the necessity of so dressing the character, but he maintained Shakespeare's concept, unlike some later theatrical personalities, such as Sir Henry Irving, who dressed the prince in historically-accurate (if un-Shakespearean) scarlet with gold trim, omitting the reference to the color of Hamlet's clothing.  Curiously, given his general insistence that costume should reflect character and plot, Planché did not suggest that Hamlet's rejection of the royal color and its attendant prestige could represent the degree of the prince's renunciation of pomp and pleasure.

Planché particularly disliked the traditional approach to costume, which mingled elements of Renaissance dress with later elements for classical drama, and caricatures of eighteenth-century and contemporary costume in "modern" comedy and melodrama.  However, he was willing to accept other visions of costume than his own.  In Recollections and Reflections, he acknowledged that Shakespeare could be effective if performed by actors in contemporary evening dress.  He also poked fun at his own historical costuming in his revue, The Camp at the Olympic (Olympic, 1853), in which the character of Macbeth appears dressed in David Garrick's elegant eighteenth-century court costume, and then in Charles Kemble's contemporary Scottish military uniform, and finally in tenth-century Scottish garb, a yellow knee-length linen tunic with leggings  (305).  (For a discussion of Garrick's costume, see Laver 87.)

Mr. Wigan echoes Hamlet to comment Macbeth looks “More like an antique Rum’un than a Scot.”  Tragedy asks “A Scotchman, and no kilt?”  Mrs. Wigan adds a fanciful justification, “Don’t Macbeth say, ‘We’ve scotch’d the snake, not kilt it!’" in a joking reference to the absence of kilts (not used in the early Middle Ages), even though such clothing was popular due to both stage adaptations of Sir Walter Scott novels and Queen Victoria's interest in Scotland  (see, for instance, Anastasia Nikopoulou). Fancy (Priscilla Horton) also sang a parody of "The Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee":

    Through their habits conventional managers broke ;
    To make old plays go down new habits bespoke ;
    Old-fashioned Scotchmen we no longer see,
    Except as a sign for the sale of rappee.
    So pack up your tartans, whatever your clan,
    And book “ a new garb out of old Gaul,” my man ;
    For the stage in its bonnet has got such a bee,
    It’s all up with “ The Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee.”  (305-06)

The point is obvious; the great actors of the past played Macbeth with strength and artistry regardless of their costume, and even a "correct" costume, in itself, is unimportant without an actor capable of making the character live.

Still, many of Planché's proudest moments came when critics and audiences acknowledged his creation. When the curtain went up on Kemble's King John, the audience gave a standing ovation to the costumes and armor on the assembled characters, which recalled what they had seen on old monuments.  It was largely owing to the popularity of these Shakespearean productions that Samuel Arnold had to acknowledge the public interest in costume when staging Heinrich Märschner's Der Vampyr in 1827.

Such interest in costume was more important to drama and melodrama than to most musical comic forms, but it still became a Planché trademark.  A major part of the appeal of classical burlesques was the introduction of accurate period costumes.  When Planché staged his first burlesque, Olympic Revels, veteran comedian John Liston opposed the introduction of historically-accurate costumes for the classical characters:

    Liston thought to the last that Prometheus, instead of the Phrygian cap, tunic, and trousers,
    should have been dressed like a great lubberly boy in a red jacket and nankeens, with a
    pinafore all besmeared with lollipop !  (Recollections 1, 180)

However, a multitude of toy theater sheets attest to the popularity of the classical costumes in this first "Olympic game," as the critics called the burlesques.  (For an example, see Williams 90.)

Although extravaganzas, for the most part, relied upon costuming of the time of the French fairy romancers, there were a few notable exceptions.  When staging Blue Beard (Olympic, 1839) with a Flemish setting (like many modern scholars, at the time he identified Bluebeard with the Maréchal de Raïz), Planché pleased reviewers who found the medieval costumes picturesque.  (For a discussion of his later opinions as to Bluebeard's antecedents, see Recollections 2, 162.) Up until that time, stagings of Bluebeard were usually set as "Oriental" pieces (such as the late eighteenth-century opera by George Colman, Senior, Blue Beard; or, Fatal Curiosity), the actors dressed in grotesque caricatures of Turkish and Arab costumes.

On the other hand, concessions had to be made to popular demands.  One practice common to comic opera, pantomime, and burlesque was that of dressing comely young women in close-fitting versions of male costume; usually that of some portion of the eighteenth century.  This had long occurred in comedy and farce; Vestris had acheived considerable notoriety from her portrayal of Macheath in The Beggar's Opera, the controversy over which was mocked in a street ballad and discussed in the papers.  (For a discussion of her reception and of the ballad, see J. W. Robinson  63-64).  In many cases, the reason for such portrayals was frankly sexual, both because of the titillation provided by the revelation of an attractive performer's figure, and also for the potential excitement of seeing women behave in ways they normally would not.

On the other hand, such portrayals were popular with many others because of the fantastic aura it gave the characters.  The prince or swain was often played by a woman who was obviously female, and yet who played the character as a male, without highlighting irony or sexuality.  Illustrations of such roles suggest the rather dainty princes and knights who people d'Aulnoy's tales and many others in the Charles-Joseph de Mayer edition of Le Cabinet des Fées, et autres contes merveilleuses. The sense of Versailles make-believe is strong in such appearances, and the audiences as a whole enjoyed the portrayal of the delicate figures in silks and satins and patent leather, both mirroring the real world of history, and at the same time, removed from it.  (For a discussion of  this very complex issue, see Friedman-Rowell and Tracy Davis.)  This practice, by the way, led to the use of the cross-dressing in pantomimes, as David Mayer III explains  (319).

Another concession regarded the striking inaccuracy of the costumes of Ali’s harem in Ali Pacha—all of whom boast Empire waistlines, the typical décolletage of period ballet costumes, tight jackets, and crescent-moon ornaments atop tiaras, presumably to remind the viewers that they are Muslims  (Hodgson plate 2).  Although the costumes of men and Greek women are treated with relative accuracy, the women of Ali’s harem had to be alluring, fitting with “Oriental” exoticism and the widely-held stereotype of Turks as lascivious  (discussed in Chaudhuri  497).

Eventually, Planché's fame for research led members of society's higher echelons to consult him on such matters as costume for some of Victoria's "bals masqués" and historical authorities to request his help in arranging collections of armor and artifacts.  He conferred with such painters as Sir Charles Eastlake, and it is clear from his Recollections and Reflections that he respected most those artistic studies of historical events which attempted to show the accurate costume and artifacts.  The culmination of his antiquarianism came at the end of his dramatic career, when he was appointed Somerset Herald in recognition of his historical researches.  He published several books based on his studies, most notably A History of British Costume.

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