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September 20, 2017

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High cost of Shakespeare costumes reflects Elizabethan vanity

MOULINS, France -- What would Lady Macbeth be without something extravagant in which to sweep on stage or Hamlet without a silk doublet and padded hose?

Costumes — the unsung heroes of Shakespearean theater — are the stars of a new exhibition that reveals the huge effort that goes into dressing the Bard's leading men and women.

From silks woven with gold thread to baroque satin embellished with semi-precious stones, it would be understandable if subsidy-starved theater companies tried to cut back on the cost of Shakespearean costumes.

That they do not is largely down to the vanity of Elizabethans and their obsession with fancy outfits, according to award-winning British costume designer Jenny Tiramani, three of whose costumes feature in the exhibition.

One high-necked ruff collar she made for a 2012 production of "Richard III" at London's Globe theater cost more than US$2,000 alone.

"It was the best we could do, but that price is nothing compared to the ruffs that were worn at the Elizabethan court which in our money would cost 10, 20 or even 100 times that amount," she told AFP.

The most extreme ruffs were over a foot or more wide and needed a wire frame to hold the frills in position around the neck.

"They were so elaborate it could take days for a highly paid laundress to reset your ruff — to wash it, starch it, carefully pin it out on a pillow to get the lace back into shape and then press it, rub it and polish it," Tiramani said.

Gemstones and Silk

Other extreme shapes fashionable in the late 16th century included the wheel farthingale, a hoop-like structure around the waist that supported a voluminous skirt.

For men, the peasecod doublet was a tight-fitting jacket that was padded to create a bulge over the stomach.

The exhibition, which has just opened at the National Centre for Stage Costumes in the central French town of Moulins, brings together scores of costumes from over a century of theatrical productions.

Among the most spectacular is a gold-colored Elizabethan gown designed by French fashion designer Thierry Mugler for a 1985 production of "Macbeth" at the Avignon Festival.

One of three Lady Macbeth costumes in the exhibition, Mugler's signature exaggerated proportions and sculptural style are given full rein in its huge box-like skirt and sleeves shaped like wings.

According to historians, the Elizabethans' love of luxury was partly due to an expanding merchant class which used clothes to signal their new wealth and status.

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