The significance of apparel in 17th century drama

Clothing in the 17th century was a crucial part of social and cultural life of British people, as it revealed their position in society. Representatives of the upper class wore sophisticated and expensive clothes made of splendid fabrics, while the lower class wore simpler garments, although they often tried to imitate fashion style of rich people.

Apparel, the costumes that the actors utilised during theatrical performances, was very costly, because it was the expression of the 17th century British fashion, and people attended theatres to watch it. As Jean Howard (1994) puts it, theatrical “spectacles were commodities which the public paid money to see and over which, consequently, they exercised a certain degree of control” (p.4). Thus, during Elizabethan and Jacobean era acting companies put up much money in actors’ apparel, sometimes the costumes exceeded the overall cost of the whole play. Some apparel was taken from the nobility, and the actors usually wore these expensive garments in everyday life.

Such exquisite apparel satisfied audiences’ demands on realism, and costumes for the drama were more extravagant than costumes made for other plays, because they conformed to historical accuracy of events. In this regard, the 17th century drama was especially characterised by the practice of cross-dressing. This can be explained by the fact that the change of clothes reflected people’s wish to overcome a particular social position. However, as the actors in those times were males, their cross-dressing expressed certain underlying reasons. For instance, Moll Cutpurse, the principal character of The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton (1955), constantly cross-dresses throughout the play. This female embodies a real woman Mary Frith who wore male clothes and was known for her criminal behaviour. Therefore, cross-dressing of Moll is of great importance for the drama, as it reveals women’s attempts to rise against their traditional roles and established standards of behaviour. Such wear of male clothes signifies female freedom, but, as Mary Beth Rose (1984) states, it also deprives such women as Moll of the “full social acceptance” (p.386). As boys performed the roles of women, they implicitly reflected the fear of society over the changes in social and sexual positions of females. Contrary to Shakespeare’s plays, cross-dressing of Moll reveals the character’s identity; despite her disguise, her female identity is obvious throughout the play. Moll’s male clothes only intensify her strength and freedom, thus her apparel shows her principles and social position, her attitude towards certain issues and relations with people. As Moll claims, “marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden looses one head, and has a worse ith place” (Dekker & Middleton, 1955 2.2.41-43). Cross-dressing of Moll is utilised to portray the character’s struggle against certain social norms; when she rejects the idea of changing her clothes and the style of behaviour, she wants to point at the equal positions of men and women in society.
Simultaneously, her disguise allows Moll to become a part of various social classes and to observe life from different positions. According to Howard (1994), such behaviour and disguise reveal women’s rejection of the patriarchal system and male domination. The change of apparel was considered as the change of the traditional gender division, and if a woman wore male clothes, she was thought to betray her own nature. Jean Howard (1988) mentions a spinster Dorothy Clayton who was arrested, because “contrary to all honesty and womanhood [she] commonly goes about the City appareled in man’s attire” (p.420). In this context, the 17th century drama reflects that the wear of male clothes was associated with female sexuality. Moll’s male apparel is regarded by people as a sign of her failure, that’s why society condemns this female in various crimes, such as prostitution and theft.
Thus, apparel occupies an important position in the drama of that period, as it allows the playwrights to uncover some social events and relations between genders. In particular, the drama shows that society of the 17th century regarded apparel as a tool that could assert social and gender principles, and, if a person rejected the established norms for clothing, he/she was thought to oppose to other social norms, such as marriage. As Catherine Belsey (1985) puts it, “Marriage becomes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the site of a paradoxical struggle to create a private realm and to take control of it in the interests of a public good" (p.130). As a result, such person was excluded from society, because he/she didn’t follow the appropriate style of life. According to Howard (1991), “[she] doubts that [in the public theatre] only women’s chastity or women’s reputations were at risk… The very practice of playgoing put women in positions potentially unsettling to patriarchal control” (p.72). Pointing at the importance of apparel, Dekker and Middleton (1955) implicitly criticise wrong ideologies of society towards genders. According to the playwrights, changes of apparel demonstrate various social and cultural changes: “Now in the time of spruceness, our plays follow the niceness of our garments” (Dekker & Middleton, 1955 2.6-7). At the beginning of the play Dekker and Middleton (1955) show that Mary Fitzallard, another female character, is “disguised like a sempster” (1.1.16), her simple apparel reveals her belonging to a low class, although Mary’s disguise is aimed at achieving a certain goal. As Mary realises that social norms prevent her from marrying a person she loves, she decides to change her apparel. Each time when Moll and Mary change their clothes, they stress on the significance of apparel in society they live. Their clothing shows their lifestyle and traits of character, simultaneously it uncovers foolishness of those people who are preoccupied with the established fashion standards. Sir Alexander is not able to understand Moll’s wear of male clothes; he considers that such action destroys the traditional division of genders. His opinion of Moll is mainly based on her apparel, he identifies this female character with her clothing, failing to realise her true self.

Moll’s change of clothes depicts the girl’s wish to destroy these common stereotypes. As Kastan and Stallybrass (1991) point out, “acting itself threatens to reveal the artificial and arbitrary nature of social being” (p.9). Therefore, the change of apparel allows the characters of such dramas as The Roaring Girl and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by Ford (1968) to uncover artificiality of the existing social norms towards various aspects of life. On the other hand, it provides them with an opportunity to conceal their true identity or social positions for a time being. Some characters utilise specific masks, for instance, the characters of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. In this regard, apparel is significant for the 17th century drama, because the costumes of the characters create a unity of an image. In The Tempest apparel uncovers the relations among different characters, their social and economic status, as well as a certain historical period. In particular, forms and lines of costumes in Shakespeare’s play reveal fashion standards of the 17th century, while textures and colours of apparel signify social positions of his characters. As Stephen Orgel (1996) claims, “Clothes make the man, clothes make the woman: the costume is of the essence" (p.104).
Some costumes, like the costumes for Jonson’s play The Masque of Blackness were really expensive and unique, because they were utilised in specific plays (the masques) performed for the members of the royal families and the nobility. Created by a famous designer of those times Inigo Jones, these apparels were characterised by Italian stylish elements and a diversity of symbolic meanings. Every costume for the masques embodies a certain meaning or a symbol, for instance, in The Tempest Shakespeare (1987) utilises the masque and specific apparel to draw a parallel between the grace of the court and the cruelty of events depicted in the play. In The Masque of Blackness Jonson (1995) creates black masks and apparel that symbolise his characters who hope to change their black skin to white skin. As the playwright writes at the beginning of the play, “The attire of the masquers was alike in all… with a scroll and antique dressing of feathers, and jewels interlaced with ropes of pearl. And for the front, ear, neck and wrists, the ornament was of the most choice and orient pearl, best setting off from the black” (Jonson, 1995 p.2). Utilising pearls, Jonson (1995) wants to stress on the fact that these black masquers are even more elegant than white nobility. As censorship was rather strict in both Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, it was impossible to openly express some ideas, that’s why specific apparel was utilised to implicitly reveal the dramatist’s vision of the events. The costumes were the principal tool of expression in the 17th century drama that allowed playwrights to uncover various mysteries. In The Man of Mode Etherege (1989) depicts that apparel helps Harriet to express her personality, to stress on those features of her self that she considers appropriate in her position. In particular, it shows her freedom, but also her chastity that is crucial for society in which she lives.
This female character avoids too sophisticated and excessive clothes, considering that they speak of prudish behaviour. The same regards Annabella from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore; both Harriet and Annabella utilise their apparel as a shield against men and their own feelings, as Harriet claims, “I feel as great a change within, but he shall never know it” (Etherege, 1989 p.158). Thus, apparel enabled people of the 17th century to either maintain their identities or transform them. Such ability was intensified with the appearance of the first female actresses in England since 1660. As Elizabeth Howe (1992) puts it, “The acceptance of women players after 1660 has been related to a profound change in contemporary attitudes to women, female sexuality and theatre among the upper and upper-middle classes” (p.21). These changes contributed much to the significance of apparel, both males and females began to disguise themselves, and the change of apparel reflected the changes in gender roles: females acquired masculine features, while males revealed feminine behaviour. According to Howe (1992), “This change in attitude can be linked to a wider change in how relationships between the sexes were defined” (p.21). As female actresses began to wear male clothes, in particular, trousers, this apparel started to accentuate their sexuality, providing them with the possibility to express their individuality.
Such changes added necessary dramatisation to the play, shaping the characters and their relations with each other. The significance of apparel for the plot’s dramatisation is especially obvious in Marlowe’s play Edward II, where the noble people express their hate to Gaveston, the favourite of Edward, because Gaveston wears expensive and stylish clothes that are not appropriate for his social status: “I have never seen a dapper jack so brisk. / He wears a short Italian hooded cloak, / Larded with pearl, and in his Tuscan cap / A jewel of more value than the crown” (Marlowe, 1995 I.iv.412-419). For them, it is a threat to their existence and their social status: “Thou villain, wherefore talks thou of a king, / That hardly are a gentleman by birth” (Marlowe, 1995 I.iv.28-29). On the one hand, the playwright shows a close connection between apparel and identity of a person, but, on the other hand, he implicitly opposes to this unity.  However, the costumes were still very gorgeous for both actors and actresses of the 17th century drama. According to John Styan (1986), this can be explained by the fact that if one person in the play wears gaudy apparel, it will be rather artificially, but if all actors wear such clothes, then artificiality is decreased. These costumes were more expressive in the drama than any words or actions. In this regard, it was considered in those times that when females wore male costumes, they received more freedom of movement, exposing their legs and destroying some social norms. As Howe (1992) claims, “The breeches role titillated both by the mere fact of a woman’s being boldly and indecorously dressed in male costume and, of course, by the costume suggestively outlining the actress’s hips, buttocks and legs, usually concealed by a skirt” (p.56).  
Thus, analysing the significance of apparel in the 17th century drama on the example of some dramatic plays, the essay suggests that the costumes in Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were crucial for shaping gender, identity and social positions of people. Apparel could provide much information about a person, and the change of clothes simultaneously revealed certain inner changes or changes of social status. The drama of that period was usually characterised by the elements of cross-dressing and hidden identity; costumes were principal for performance, that’s why they were more expressive than other elements of plays. Such importance of apparel in the drama reveals realism of the era that was preoccupied with outward appearance, wealth, social laws and stereotypes.  


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