From Runway to Broadway: The Evolution of Fashion for Characterisation

Sarah Johnston examines the parallels between the clothing of high fashion and musical theatre, and how they tell stories

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What does what we wear tell others about us? I don’t know about you but I don’t consider myself a fashionable person. I have a strong function-over-fashion mentality and I’m more likely to be found in some leggings and a hoodie than in anything designer. My outfits probably give away nothing other than my love for baggy jumpers. However, there are people whose job it is to create outfits that could tell you everything you possibly need to know about someone.


In my mind, the world of high fashion and theatre are quite distinct entities, but when it comes down to it, both fashion designers and theatre costumers are both just trying to create beautiful pieces that express character and send a message. Creating outfits for the sake of being displayed is truly an art form: hours of work will go into it, and subtle choices made by designers are often overlooked by audiences, whether at New York Fashion Week or opening night of a play. Designers deserve more credit for their contributions to characterization, on the runway, and on the stage.


The musical ‘Hamilton’ received glowing reviews for a wide range of areas: the diverse casting, the vocal quality of the performers, the excellent execution of staging, but its costumes were heavily overlooked. Hamilton broke down the story of ‘Alexander Hamilton’, and for the first time, portrayed the founding fathers and associated acquaintances as ethnically diverse. Its landmark presentation of a non-white set of founding fathers sparked discussion across the media and the show used its platform to promote the Black Lives Matter movement. In Hamilton, every member of the cast in a role, regardless of the colour of their skin, wears the same costume: the costumes weren’t designed to show the performers as a diverse, multicultural group, they were costumed as normal people to highlight that a variety of ethnicities was normal and not exceptional. Any other perception comes from ‘whitewashing’ or similar cultural biases.


In a similar vein, the Valentino Spring 2019 Couture Collection was designed to recapture a diverse history. All the designs were based on an iconic photo from 1948 by Charles James of an all-white cast of models in ball gowns, and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s vision was to recreate the fashions of that time but on a cast of mostly black models. His idea was that the beauty of uber-exclusive haute couture was for everyone, not just the predominantly white upper echelons of society who had ownership of it for so long.


Although executed in very different ways, both Pierpaolo and Paul Tazewell, who costumed Hamilton, were trying to highlight inclusivity and equality and express that their models or performers should be equals, not exceptions.


However, costuming is not just used to highlight messages from shows, but also to highlight key aspects of the characters themselves. Julie Taymor won two Tony Awards for directing and costuming ‘The Lion King’, and when you analyse the complexity of the staging and costuming, it's clear she deserved them.


Lion King is known for its unique masks and puppets that go along with all the characters, but more than just being aesthetically pleasing and adding to the setting of the show, the costumes were designed to represent their characters. Mufasa’s mask has a circular halo of brush reeds in it, representing the Sun. This is meant to symbolize the symmetry and balance of Mufasa’s character, and the warmth which he radiates to his family and subjects. Similarly, Simba’s mask is designed with a halo, but this time with an oblong shape instead of the circle of Mufasa’s mask. This represents his potential to achieve balance and his importance in keeping the kingdom in balance, but the fact that he is not quite ready. Nala’s mask is similarly oblong to compliment Simba’s but features an iconic crack that represents her own faults and her role in ‘fixing’ Simba. A comparable technique is used in the for the puppets: Timon’s puppet is loosely attached to its puppeteer because he’s skittish, Pumba’s puppet has only a large head and very little body because of his association with food, and the puppeteer for Zazu being dressed in a bowler hat and tailcoat representing his role as a servant to Simba.


Similarly, in fashion, designers seek to create pieces that represent something about the character they are designed for. In his 1999 Spring/Summer show, Alexander McQueen famously showcased a dress which was spray-painted by robots live on stage. The show thus far had showcased lighter, plainer, and less sensual designs compared to McQueen’s usual and closed out with Shalom Harlow entering in a strapless dress as two robots – designed for painting cars – whirred to life and painted the dress as she spun. This represented the individuality of everyone who wears fashion – that although the clothes they wear could be the same, they were each distinct individuals.


Similarly, Dior’s 2019 Fall Collection was inspired by feminism and the role of unique women in the art world. Models sported some of the most seminal feminist outfits, inspired by the World War II Land Girls, men’s Edwardian clothing, and non-sexual sportswear paired with bejeweled kitten heels, ballgowns, and bustiers. The contrast of this collection highlighted that women cannot be contained in a societal box as they may have been in the past.

The highlight of the show was the iconic off-the-shoulder navy ‘ballgown’, which was actually made of separate functional pieces that could be used for casual wear, business apparel, or black-tie events. This drew attention to the idea that women don’t only want to spend money on fashion, and need fashion which is adaptable, suitable, and fits their work and home life requirements.


Costuming is a powerful tool to express character, both for actual characters and for real people. Designers use clothing to express themes, political messages, or give insight into a character. Next time you see a performance, whether it be a fashion show, a play, or just a TV show, think about what the character is wearing. Is it something that fits their character or something out of the box for them? Does it fit the theme of the show? Would you wear it? Why or why not? What does this outfit tell you or more importantly not tell you?


I’m not saying you have to start putting meticulous effort into every outfit you wear to best showcase your own character, but next time you happen to be at the theatre or are watching a fashion show, take a moment to consider how the performers are dressed. Ultimately, our outward appearance is only one small facet of a much more complicated person inside, but costumers deserve credit for the amazing work they put into their pieces which represent many parts of the person wearing them.