Designing costumes for Othello, in whatever form -- play, ballet or opera, presents a few problems from the outset. First, of course, is the necessity for the costume to enhance the feeling of paranoia of Othello, a Moor in a Caucasian society. Second, Iago needs to be malevolent without being evil personified; he is, perhaps, simply overly worldly and overly ambitious, as is his wife, Emily. And third, Desdemona has to be understandable in the context of her own time, and of ours. While it may have been usual then for a woman to trust even when reason would tell her not to, it isn't so today.
A look at historical accuracy is necessary to see whether the costumes do their job properly in four very different productions of Othello/Otello: the San Francisco Ballet's production with music by Elliott Goldenthal; the English National Opera production conducted by Mark Elder; the 1943 Shubert Theater (NYC) opera production with Paul Robeson, and; the 1997-1998 production of Othello by the Shakespeare Theatre with Patrick Stewart as Othello.
Period dress, Shakespeare's own era
The modern costume designer's task was made more difficult by some of the technological and commercial developments of the 16th century. Among those was the increased trade, a factor that, of course, contributed the possibility of a Moor in the setting Shakespeare created for the character. But it also allowed the characters to be of the class what would have adopted the rich fabrics, jewels (especially pearls) and laces that were available all over Europe and extremely popular. "Lace ruffles, collars, cuffs and edgings on caps which replaced the large headdresses of the preceding period were exceedingly popular." (Grimball, 88)
In women's clothing, bodices were no longer simply form-fitting, but also made rigid with stays and long stomachers extending below the waist to make the dipped waistline possible, even if the wearer's stomach was not flat naturally. In costuming the look, it is vital to be correct as to the pinched waist and bouffant hips, as well as conveying "steel-like stiffness." Floor-length full skirts were often held away from the body with hoops.
Men's clothing was also made of very rich materials, with the trousers full and knee-length, sometimes with insets. Coats came to the knees, and had full sleeves, also often with insets. Coats were worn over a doublet secured with a narrow belt. Shirts had narrow ruffles around the neck, and men often wore jewelry in the form of pendants, gold chains, gold rings and gold buttons. (Grimball, 88)
In the latter part of the century, trousers became shorter, not much more than trunks stuffed to make them stand out full, but still with insets, usually of a different color. With pants so short, of course tights had to be worn. Coats shrank down to tight-fitting jackets with tight sleeves. Ruffles of linen were still won at the collar, and a new fashion element was the short cape, often flung over only one shoulder. Hats were smaller than before, but still bearing plumes and fancy trimmings. Hair for both sexes was relatively simply arranged, often with jewels in it; women also wore caps of linen or lace with a peak over the forehead. (Grimball, 88)
Fabrics, as noted, were rich, with silk and silk velvet paramount. After all, the Merchant(s) of Venice were responsible for trade in silk, situated as the city was on the East-West silk route from the Orient.
Colors that were used then can be derived from the paintings (Opera Atelier Web site); a look reveals that deep hues of russet and mahogany, deep blue (which was affordable only to the wealthy) and scarlet, vermilion, brown and black were prevalent.
Knowledge of these fashions is so prevalent, due to their being painted by Holbein and Durer, that a costume designer who ignores the conventions will almost certainly be found out by the audience. And yet, of course, the costumes have to also work for the action and the performers.
This should be relatively straightforward in terms of demands for the designer of a theatrical production. When Othello becomes an opera, there are other historical necessities to consider.
Opera was created for the entertainment of aristocrats; there had, recall, been 'groundlings' at theatres for the populace in Shakespeare's England. In opera, women would perform in beautiful gowns, lavishly decorated with the feathers and gems beloved of the Renaissance. They also used flowers, leaves, shells and appliques to represent character. Fashion on opera stages would, however, follow then-current fashion silhouettes; this it does not ordinarily do today, but rather follows the silhouettes in vogue when opera was born, or possibly some historic period in between.
Historically, opera costume designers took their palette of color from the painters Fragonard, Boucher, Watteau and Lancret, which meant the colors that were prevalent were pastels -- gray, citron, pistachio and peach, although the coppery brown-maroon-purple palette of Tiepolo was also used. (Opera Atelier Web site)
In theatre and opera, there are words and realistic actions to help define character and place; not so in ballet. Here, the costumes have even greater work to do and greater physical demands made on them. "Costumes help define character and establish setting. PureMovement's Rome and Jewels may not have an onstage ingenue, but there's no doubt that it's an in-your-face street version in combat boots that takes place at a very different time and place than Shakespeare's portrait of an Italian city state or New York City's 1950s West Side." (Patrick, 2001)
As ballet became more athletic, it also became less desirable to use long, full skirts for dancers that showed only an elegant ankle; fortunately, "the advent of machine-knitted jerseys and, later, synthetic stretch fabrics allowed modern dancers to emphasize line and shape with costume, and floor work became another acceptable level of movement." (Patrick, 2001) This trend toward athleticism and the availability of very stretchable fabrics had suddenly to be reconciled by the costume designer with historic necessities.
San Francisco Ballet's Othello
At first glance, these form-fitting costumes are not very historically accurate. And even a Moor would not have gone around barelegged as does this Othello. The colors are a bit over-the-top at first glance. But then the other realities of ballet begin to make their needs felt. Ballet has no words; color is going to have to do the bulk of the work, especially as the silhouette cannot, given the athleticism of modern choreography mentioned above, be accurate. And, while costume details are important, they are only seen clearly by the first dozen rows or so, and so must be both extravagant to make any impact, and 'battened down' so they won't be torn loose. Here we have a wonderful blending of necessity with historical accuracy, to a point, and the narrative demands. For example, Desdemona appears to be jewel-bedecked. In fact, only her headdress is of pearls. The appearance of 'jewels' on her skirt is created by appliqued gold cloth in 'jewelry' patterns. The shape? It might have been more period of a formal tulle long ballet skirt had been designed. As it is, however, the drape of the form-fitting skirt suggests the form of the historic skirt in its slight peplum.
Othello's costuming is equally true to the spirit of the times. His purple tunic is clearly a soldier's, except that the 'bandolier' is actually sewed on, and the epaulets are not freestanding, but also part of the costume. The fringes are 'faux leather,' with attached beading, and ribbon shot with gold is used for other details to suggest jewels and wealth.
As proof that the design worked for the audience, Jean Battey Lewis, writing about it for The Washington Times, noted that "In contrast to the late-20th-century aesthetic of design and music (the ballet was premiered by the San Francisco Ballet in 1998), the costumes are thoroughly and splendidly traditional, especially the handsome ones for the principals." (2003)
However, a more critical dance writer's eye was also pleased. Dance magazine's Valerie Gladstone wrote:
To complement the concept of transparency, designer Ann Hould-Ward's wedding costumes will be made of chiffon, worn over unitards of burnt orange, salmon pink, light blue, and burnt gold. The islanders of Cyprus will wear natural fabrics in a mesh weave that suggests fishing nets. Fiery silk scarves will be worn during the tarantella that represents Othello's growing rage. Purplish blues dominate the final scenes. (1997)
Gladstone also quoted the designer as saying "The bruised quality of Francis Bacon's paintings inspired me."
English National Opera Otello
This production's costumes are classic in many ways, but possibly too low key to be as operatic in feeling as the audience might expect. The color palette appears unexciting, neither Francis Bacon nor Fragonard, but perhaps a blend of both. And, while the men's jackets are classically of the period with slashed sleeves and ruffed collars, the treatment of the trousers is also nondescript, except in a couple of instances when it…