In the final moments of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the Count Orsino says to Viola, newly revealed as a woman,
… Cesario, come—For so you shall be while you are a man,But when in other habits you are seen,Orsino's mistress and his fancy's queen.(5.1.387–90)
The word "habit" here obviously and explicitly refers to garments. Cesario remains Cesario, and a man, while dressed in male garments, but upon assumption of Viola's female clothing, will become a woman who is a suitable love match for the noble Orsino. There is a double meaning in Orsino's turn of phrase, however; habit, of course, also means a pattern of behavior, an ingrained practice, which is repeated to the extent that it becomes routine. What Shakespeare's wordplay calls attention to is the way in which our habits (clothing) influence or even dictate the way we and others understand our habits (tendencies) of behavior. When we dress in a certain manner, we are expected and perhaps expect ourselves to behave in a way that matches our clothing.
When we examine this dynamic of dress from a theatrical perspective, we immediately encounter something that seems almost self-evident, and which costume designers know instinctively and are trained to exploit: the manner in which we costume a character creates audience expectations for that character. The costume provides information to the audience about who the characters are, how they function within the world of the play, and how they might be expected to behave. Costumes also [End Page 5] work to provide information to the actor who assumes a character; I've had more than one actor say to me, "I don't know my character until I have my shoes," or some other costume piece deemed essential to getting into the character's skin. There it is: the costume can work as the character's skin—something to be stepped inside, assumed—and putting it on means putting on not just the garments, but the habits of the character.
Perhaps because of their inescapably intimate relationship to the actor's body, perhaps because fragile materials mean that costumes do not necessarily survive from historical productions, perhaps also because the creation processes of costumes are connected to skills traditionally understood as "women's work," like weaving and sewing, theatrical costume has been under-theorized and under-examined historically. Theatrical design fields and production elements in general tend to be dealt with as craft, so that meaning-making is understood as a process whereby designers manipulate elements and principles of design: line, shape and silhouette, color, symmetry and balance; craftspeople then construct pieces for use onstage based on those designs. Important historical productions receive analysis, but it is of ten focused on just these dynamics of manipulation. Analysis of the ways in which meaning is made via these visual elements often stops at the ways in which designs support and communicate the given circumstances of text or the production's conceptual approach.
This is true across the theatrical design fields, but I often have the sense that it is more true of costume than of other design areas. While there are certainly exceptions (Shakespeare and Costume, edited by Patricia Lennox and Bella Mirabella, for example), theatrical costume is most usually written about in a variety of "how-to" texts, which are focused on practice: how to design for the stage, how to construct costumes. To my mind, some of this has to do with the way the word "costume" is used. A quick Google Books search of the term "historic costume" reveals that most books on the subject are actually focused on historic clothing, not costume, in the way theatre practitioners understand the term. Even in theatre, we often think of costumes as "the clothes the character wears." This is true, of course, but it serves to deemphasize the larger ways in which theatrical costume is a part of the deeply systemic creation of meaning onstage, a process that would benefit from rigorous analysis at every stage.
At work, too, are the divides in theatrical training, which see designers and technicians routed through one...