This week, I am in the early stages of costume design for a Restoration comedy featuring gender-swapping, disguise and the usual tomfoolery that we associate with plays from the era. It has set me thinking about gender portrayal in plays, and the extent to which costume relies on a shared language of social norms to tell a story to the audience.
The concept of theatrical cross-dressing is not new. Every student knows that in Shakespeare’s day the women’s parts were played by men. And yet while we might expect this to have been played for laughs, like panto or drag, this doesn’t come across in the plays themselves, in which female characters – while naturally conforming entirely to a male gaze – are played perfectly straight.
Conversely, you might think that the arrival of actual women on stage in the Restoration would improve female representation, but this was sadly not the case. The early actresses were seen mostly as a source of fresh titillation. Cross-dressing was an excuse to see a woman in doublet and hose expose her legs, and the end-of-play revelation of her true gender usually meant an obligatory flash of her breasts.
Of course things have improved since then, even if theatre is still dominated by the male gaze. In the 21st century, with the exception of some die-hard purists, we have long since embraced a female Hamlet or King Lear, and in response to the contemporary all-male Shakespeare, we now have all-female Shakespeare such as Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy.
But even as we challenge assumptions of gender on stage, costume design is still hard to disentangle from the binary perspective: we still think of women’s characters, men’s characters, women wearing men’s clothes, and vice-versa. We are still in a place where ‘androgyny’ is ‘boyish women in trousers’ but seldom ‘men in dresses’. Despite having drag Feste in Emma Rice’s Twelfth Night and drag Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, we are still seeing the binary in the clothing and therefore in costume design.
So where does that leave me and my Restoration comedy? Well, aside from interrogating the notion that a man wearing women’s clothing is intrinsically hilarious, it has me thinking about the ways in which we make assumptions about people based on their gender or the presentation of that gender.
In the modern world, we are getting better at understanding the fluidity of gender: people having the bravery to live their truth demonstrate that gender as distinct from sexuality as distinct from biology is a many-faceted thing. But trans people are often obliged to present as the most stereotypical version of their gender in ways a cisgendered person does not. They have to tread a fine line between challenging society’s assumptions and conforming to them.
Costume designers rely on the subtle meanings ascribed to certain clothes; we use these unconscious messages to convey character and provide context. To what extent are we reinforcing stereotypes as we do so?
Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek