Friday, January 7, 2011

New Year, Old Shakespeare

Happy New Year to one and all! Here’s to that renewed spirit and energy which comes with each new January, and which may be inspiring you to proclaim, “The day shall not be up so soon as I / To try the fair adventure of tomorrow” (King John, 5.5.21-22). Of course, with the new year also comes the customary resolutions to be healthier, happier, more productive, more successful, smarter, more well-read, etc. etc. But don’t get overwhelmed by such lists. Instead, why not get started on the latter two of those goals, at least, by learning some more about Shakespeare? And don’t be intimidated! You could start with something light and fun, for instance, like clothes.

I’ve lately been writing about the use of costumes in Shakespeare’s plays. One of the most interesting elements of this process has been the discovery that early modern plays were costumed with early modern clothing; there was little attempt to recreate an elaborate look and feel of the past. Instead, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and King John alike all wore fashionable, 16th century garb. This means that, in the process of researching Elizabethan theatrical costumes, I’ve had to learn a lot about everyday Elizabethan dress. One fun way to get the basics of women’s dress of the time is to have a look at Cecily, the Elizabethan online paper doll at, which has a plethora of other interesting info on Renaissance clothing. This is an entertaining way to keep your “farthingales,” “petticoats,” “kirtles,” and “bumrolls,” straight. Try to dress her inaccurately, though, and you’ll get a message like this: “My fitted kirtle looks passing strange when worn over a gathered petticoat; it doth not fit smoothly and evenly over so much petticoat fabric. Remove my petticoat ere dressing me in a kirtle.” This is serious business.

This past summer, I had my own up close and personal experience with early modern clothing, when I volunteered at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Ontario. Their special exhibition at the time was entitled “On a Pedestal: From Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels,” and the stars of the exhibit were several pairs of these wildest of Renaissance shoes. If you think today’s high heels are brutal, imagine wearing a pair of these! They were especially popular in Italy, where women would wear them hidden beneath their gowns to elongate their figures and display their social status. As you might imagine, the women also needed servants to accompany them everywhere they went in order to make sure they didn’t take an embarrassing tumble.

Shakespeare himself provides a testament to just how tall these shoes were in Hamlet, when Hamlet exclaims, “By’r Lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last by the altitude of a chopine” (2.2.424-426). In this case, Hamlet is addressing a member of the troupe of players who have come to Elsinore – a boy whose recent growth spurt is, apparently, equivalent to the height of a chopine (a fact which could prove problematic should he be needed to play a “ladyship”).

And while you may think the clothing of Shakespeare limited to crazy footwear and ridiculous ruffs, there are several ways in which he can still be quite fashion forward today. I recently stumbled across a blog entitled Mad Shakespeare, which offers some possible fashionable ensembles inspired by Shakespeare’s works, including Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, and Othello.

The author of this blog mentioned that she used a site called Polyvore to create these outfits; this piqued my curiosity and inspired me to check out Polyvore myself, where I couldn’t resist creating my own Shakespeare-inspired look.
This one is my visual interpretation of Macbeth, with a distinct nod to the famous lady of that play. It had to, naturally, include some plaid, and I wanted to create a strong, empowered look with the high boots and wide belt. Some fur, in this case on the bag, seemed essential for the wild northern reaches of Scotland. And there was no way I could pass up those knife earrings. So, whether it be through fashion of the 16th or 21st century, the imagery of Shakespeare’s texts may be understood and interpreted in a variety of ways. (I’d love to see some other people’s outfit creations!)

See, you’ve already achieved a New Year’s goal; Shakespeare is a terrific resource for learning all sorts of new things. Now, you should probably make some cookies to celebrate (that whole “healthier” resolution can wait, right?).

Natalie A.

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