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  • Dressing the ImageCostumes in Printed Theatrical Advertising
  • David S. Thompson (bio)

An informal survey of passages describing the duties of a costume designer and the functions of a given design in standard introductory theatre textbooks produces recognizable, even predictable, results. The textbooks speak of establishing time and place; indicating social status, occupation, or lifestyle; and reinforcing the mood or tone of the production. The costume design may, somewhat obviously, influence both movement and appearance of the actor. Costumes may be literal or figurative, stem from observation or offer a metaphorical approach. In short, the consulted texts provide a standard list of concepts related to textual analysis, artistic interpretation, theatrical collaboration, and the production of garments.1

While such a cursory literature review reveals many of the concepts that theatre professors might convey to their students, at least one concept emerges as conspicuous by its absence. Not one of the texts includes a mention of advertising or publicity.2 Those who have worked with professional companies, or even larger university or community theatre operations, have probably created press releases that include photographs of actors in costume. It is not unheard of for larger commercial theatres to seek promotional value in eye-catching costumes. One example demonstrating the difficulty of such expectations involves a professor of costume design who worked for a regional theatre that typically wanted four or five costumes for a photo shoot scheduled shortly after the first rehearsal. The result necessitated a battle scene from Henry V or Peron in uniform alongside the iconic white gown from Evita built in five days or less.3 Such an anecdote may produce groans or knowing nods from practitioners.4 [End Page 72] However, it nonetheless emphasizes a gap in the way we might otherwise consider the impact of costumes.

Since marketing campaigns often involve creating an image in the mind of the consumer, a potential audience member in the case of a theatrical production, the question becomes one of consistency. Is the image consistent with the product and is it accurate? Does the advertising image reflect the work of the designer or is the designer working along parallel, yet largely separate, lines? To explore these concepts, I consider some uses of costumes in printed theatrical advertising, eventually narrowing the focus to posters using photographs of costumes.5 Finally, I wish to demonstrate some of the implications of costumes as marketing tools. As times, tastes, and techniques associated with such materials evolve, one may also detect evolutionary shifts in literal depictions and expectations of accuracy. Such shifts raise the question of whether audiences expect (or ever expected) truth in advertising. In turn, this analysis must adopt a bit of fluidity as the variations in posters, as well as the uses of costumes as images within them, require a somewhat variable and contingent engagement with the concept of accuracy.

Posters date to the Middle Ages, when standard bearers, known as vexillators, carried banners to announce guild performances or those of itinerant players. Town criers might announce details of the performance. For those who could read, brief handwritten descriptions were distributed and attached to posts in the area, leading to the use of the term "poster."6 The first printed advertisement in English was created in 1477 by William Caxton, who is generally recognized as having introduced the printing press in England the previous year, and who would also become that country's first retailer of printed books.7

From those simple beginnings, posters would remain almost exclusively text-based for centuries, despite the fact that many could not read them.8 Even a casual student of theatre history has likely seen examples such as handbills excitedly proclaiming a newly restaged Shakespearean performance or the poster listing upcoming attractions at Ford's Theatre including Our American Cousin, the latter image imbued with macabre foreboding for a performance destined for interruption by Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Regardless of the tone associated with these campaigns, the simplicity and convenience of moveable type, combined with the development of multiple typefaces, made the poster an obvious means for promoting a performance. Even after advances in printing technology, often resulting in greater ease in reproducing drawings and...


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pp. 72-87
Launched on MUSE
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