Costume and Narrative: Narrative and Clothing

David Wilcox
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this short talk on narrative and costume. I am going to begin with a little bit of storytelling.
She was dressed in rich materials—satins, and lace, and silks—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on—the other was on the table near her hand—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a Prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.
It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.
These are the words of Charles Dickens, the nineteenth-century English novelist, taken from his book Great Expectations. The narrator at this point is the young boy called Pip, the book’s central character, and he is describing the dread-inspiring figure of Miss Havisham, a woman who was jilted on her wedding day. Since that time her life has been frozen in the moment of her youth, though her body continues to age.
At this point in the story, Dickens slows the narrative right down, diverting from the action and dialogue in the scene to a description of Pip’s impressions on first seeing Miss Havisham. The reader, too, is made to share this impression by the detail in the description of the faded bridal dress, and the poignancy and vulnerability of the old woman seemingly caught in the act of dressing and about to put on her shoe – the poignancy of the slipper laying on the dressing table. But Miss Havisham is trapped in the moment when the bad news broke and for her time stands still: she will never put on the other slipper.
These two paragraphs of text effectively sum up the character through appearance and dress and make a memorable impact on the reader. The descriptions, however, are not so detailed that we could pinpoint the bridal dress’s design and date. Dickens doesn’t overstep the mark – his purpose is to impress us, not bore us – but is enough to give any costume designer a generous handful of clues on how Miss Havisham might appear in any dramatisation of the novel. The wedding dress also plays a fateful part in the character narrative as, later in the story, it contributes directly to Miss Havisham’s death.
But consider the following. This is a passage of dialogue taken from a playscript 1  of Richard Milward’s book Apples. This play was recently performed at the Traverse Theatre during the 2010 Edinburgh Festival.
In this scene from Apples, Adam is talking to his mate, Burny.
‘What’s up with you?’
‘Hear about me and Debbie?
Split up, didn’t we?’
‘She’s sniffing round you, isn’t she?’
We’re just mates’
(offering him a cigarette)
‘No thanks’
I tried not to get all his crap in my eyes
I’d had it with smoking
after all I’d never seen Eve do it
My world still revolved around her 
despite Debbie’s party
I couldn’t wait to catch her in full consciousness
‘I heard Debbie was all over you’
‘Naw, naw   
I’ve been… 
Well, I thought I was… getting somewhere with Eve’
‘You and Eve?
Fucking slag, isn’t she?’
‘Shut up Burney, you don’t even know her’
‘Well she’s on drugs isn’t she? 
Fucking baghead
She’s probably been shagged about twenty times since Christmas’
The worst thing was
I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not
That’s when my heart shrank to the size of a Smartie
I had to go to the toilet
and slam my head on the door seven times
or else I’d die alone
I felt like utter shit
From this bare dialogue, with no description of any kind, the director, the actors and the costume designer must develop a coherent set of characters in which the audience can believe. Here the work of costume or clothing is to support the narrative of both the characters and the play’s unfolding over time. What does the actor require to wear for us to believe in him or her? In the case of Apples, we are looking at sixteen-year-olds from northeast England, desperate to wolf down new experiences and, generally, have as ecstatic a time as possible, although Adam nearly always ends up having a bad time – feeling sick or getting his face punched in.
The clothes, here, are required to support the play’s narrative arc and support each character’s personal clothes narrative. Where do they shop, how much do they spend on clothes, how do they wear them, do they dress like their friends, how much jewellery do they wear and is it real or fake? It is the work of the costume designer to make all this as invisible as possible to the audience – the actor can then enter the character role with confidence, feeling that the selection of clothes is a good fit in both senses of the word. We, the audience, are simply not aware of any of this, if the designer has done a good job. We enter the world of the characters and believe in them for the course of the performance. In a drama lasting perhaps only 90 minutes, it is important to establish as quickly as possible a sense of each character’s identity in the narrative. The clothes we read from our experience, scanning them for information based on our own prior knowledge – a tacit knowledge, the kind practiced every day when looking at the way people dress – that dress came from New Look, he got that shirt from Top Man, she got those shoes down the local market. We may bring our prejudices to the process but nonetheless the clothes signal subtle messages about social position, income, self-esteem. In this way, they help the actor and the audience enters quickly into the world of the performance, gently supporting the character and the individual narrative and the larger story arc of the performance. In costuming a play like Apples, it would be necessary to do some observational research, sourcing clothes and discussing their suitability with the performers.
It will be clear that the more contemporary the play and characters, and the closer we are to the play or drama in cultural terms, the more keenly we will notice whether the clothes or costumes seem ‘true’ or authentic to the narrative. And the further back the narrative time period slips, the less certain we are about authenticity and only if we had lived through that time period would we know whether the clothes presented an authentic image. This would also be true of dramas set in contemporary cultures of which we have little knowledge. With very distant time periods and cultures, only a costume historian could say with any certainty whether the clothes were representative of those characters and their times. The rest of us would see something less precise and determined and could only assume that the clothes were true to the period and the narrative.
But not all performances have these kinds of nineteenth-century narrative structures, although they are perennially popular through television, drama and cinema and, indeed, form the vast majority of the industry’s output. But increasingly, newer forms of theatrical experience are being explored – this is work that is devised by the performers, is often non-linear in its narrative strategies, may have several co-existing narrative strands only a few of which the spectator or participating audience member may be able to experience. The company Punchdrunk specialises in this kind of performance, where the audience member must construct his or her experience of the event, choosing what to see from the many scenarios available during the performance. Such immersive works are often site specific, devised for particular venues.
A feature many of these theatrical or performance forms share is the reduction of the audience size. In many cases, small parties of spectators are led around an environment or are allowed to explore it in their own time. Some performances have reduced the interaction to extreme intimacy – there is a single performer giving a bespoke performance to an audience of one. In many of these cases, the performers still adopt a persona that requires a costume and its design and supporting role in the performer’s narrative can often be established along traditional lines, but elsewhere the costume may itself be performative – go through some kind of transformation and be the result of much practical experimentation. Here, the performances shade into performance art and may even be installations where clothes are part of a hidden narrative (the clothes found in installations by Louise Bourgeois, for example, are anything but neutral). With some artists, the clothing may be shamanistic (Marcus Coates) or seemingly amateurish (Spartacus Chetwynd).
In other areas, such as contemporary dance, the athleticism of the body has become paramount and dance clothes have been reduced from their nineteenth-century opulence to something more suited to an athlete – close fitted garments that do not clutter the outlines of the dancers. I am thinking here especially of the ballets devised by Wayne McGregor. It is perhaps in this area that costume is at its most minimal and its least expressive of narrative. It is the dancer’s athletic body and its highly controlled and rehearsed movements that provide the true narrative here. But in case anyone wonders at the value or role of costume in performance, they should imagine their favourite films completely remade with the actors performing in their rehearsal clothes – jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts – to understand the contribution they make to narrative and character. Some films and TV productions might survive this but our pleasure and our ability to enter these imagined worlds will almost certainly be reduced. So much for artifice.
I would like to turn things around now, moving away from costume, selected and devised for performance narratives to the narratives of clothing drawn from people’s lives. In recent years I have been looking at a number of clothing narratives as part of my research into the history of European men’s fashion. One such narrative is that of the Georgian banker Thomas Coutts, who lived between 1735 and 1822. He died in his 87th year. After his death, his wardrobe of clothing was put into storage by his relatively young and very rich widow. Coutts had caused a scandal in his lifetime by marrying for a second time very late in life to a young actress. At the time of their first meeting she was 28 years old and he was 70 years. They carried on a relationship in secret until their marriage, which was held only a few days after the death of Coutts’ first wife.
In the case of Coutts, his clothes lay under wraps for about 100 years before a descendant, his great-grandson, offered his clothes to the then newly built Victoria and Albert museum. The clothes provide a narrative of a very old man, of extreme conservatism in dress on account of his profession, a banker – one who needs to offer an appearance of stability, sobriety and discretion. And Coutts seems to have been a very safe pair of hands in the banking world of his day, handling with great discretion the often considerable debts of the aristocracy.  The number of his clothes is reasonably typical of his merchant class origins, but do not reflect his great wealth. He could have afforded much richer clothing, so clearly he was not ostentatious.
The clothes also point to a narrative of decline – for example, his many pairs of knitted wristbands, and kneebands, which were worn to ease his rheumatic body. Some of his flannel vests, which were worn under his shirts, and his knitted stockings point to another narrative – the calculating attention of the mother of Harriot Mellon, Coutts’ young wife. Like her daughter, she had wanted to be an actress, but lacking the talent became a wardrobe mistress for theatres and travelling bands of musicians. It was she who mended his clothes, knitted comforters and stockings and she who stitched together flannel vests for him and by this attention, helped support his interest in her daughter.
But some items in Coutts’ wardrobe show the acceleration towards death at the end of his life. Several of his nightshirts – the nightclothes he would have worn in bed – have been fashioned so that they thread together by a series of narrow ribbon tapes. These enable the easy dressing and undressing of the wearer, without the need of much movement. They imply the need for a carer, someone who could thread together and unthread the garment, over Thomas Coutts’ person. Why should this be? In the last year of his life Coutts had a very serious fall, breaking three ribs and it is likely that it is from this injury that the need for the doctored nightshirts arose. There is another, possibly significant, nightshirt which seems to tell its own, seemingly painful, story – it had been cut open all the way down the front.
But the style of Coutts’ day clothes – he habitually wore a black tailcoat, a black waistcoat and black kneebreeches – reflect the narrative of form and the narrative of technology. One of the simplest pieces of technology – the measuring tape – emerges from the late eighteenth century and the tailor’s inch-marked tape from around 1800. The scientific men of the Enlightenment had specialist measuring tapes made for recording geological features and it may be from this trend that they originate. This simple invention however led to the development of pattern-cutting systems based on number relationships and the idealised form of modern tailoring was established. But equally the narrative of men’s clothing forms and styles of dress took their cues from the eighteenth century revival of interest in the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. Along with neo-classical architecture, there developed an interest in dressing the body like a classical figure (a piece of antique statuary). Thus the clothes of the period, the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, became very body conscious for both men and women. Women’s dress became relatively unstructured and simplified – a kind of freedom of women’s dress that would not be seen again until the 1920s – while men’s clothing became closely shaped to the body. So Coutts’ wardrobe represents a sample – a valuable sample – part of the dense narrative of male fashion as it evolves the ever more tailored and shapely forms of the mid-nineteenth century.
Now, while a traceable narrative could be established for Thomas Coutts, another area of my research has been into the clothes recovered from peat bogs in Scotland and Ireland. These are relatively rare finds but they illustrate the narrative of dress – and its reality – away from elites and fashion ideals. How does a body end up being part of a peat bog? Usually through misadventure. In cases where there appears to be no physical attack, it is possible that a traveller died from exposure and slowly merged with the peat bog as plant material rotted and sedimented on top of his decaying body. This may have been the case with a body found at Gunnister in Shetland. But in other cases there is evidence that the figure was killed by an assailant and the body abandoned – the body found on the Barrock Estate near Wick in the northeast of Scotland shows sign of a heavy blow to the head. Sometimes, there is a suggestion of a makeshift burial.
Again the clothes and, most valuably, the assemblage of clothes worn by the dead reveal how they were worn in everyday life (frozen in time like Miss Havisham) and this can challenge or disrupt our ideas of the fashion narrative associated with a particular period of history. The clothes of elites have survived very well, they have been protected from the cycle of wear and recycling, protected from the second-hand clothes market, protected from ending up as the clothing of the poor, and protected from their final disintegration to rags – all this they have escaped to supply our museums with their costume collections and it is these examples that have tended to dominate the fashion narrative constructed over time. Evidence from bog bodies provides a corrective to this dominant narrative.
Sometimes, the clothes recovered from these bog bodies can provide evidence of the untruth of a narrative that has grown up around a particular peat bog find. I was involved in a case with Glasgow Museums where one such body, found at Cambusnethan in Lanarkshire, was associated with the Covenanters of seventeenth-century Scotland. Covenanters were those pledged to Presbyterianism as the religion of Scotland and were in opposition to Charles I’s attempts to introduce a new liturgy to Scotland. The seventeenth century saw a long period of religious conflict. The body and clothing found at Cambusnethan was thought by some to be from this period and this Covenanter story was perpetuated in local mythology.
But, by examining the clothing and mapping it out to look at its cut and construction I was able to show that the clothes were those of a man of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century and the Covenanter story could not be true of this man. Consequently, Glasgow Museums were able to resist the demands of local history groups to have the body returned to the spot where it was found and given due ceremony and burial. However, once this was established, Glasgow Museums seemed to lack the imagination to take this further and have the remains analysed forensically to establish a new narrative. The body was significantly well preserved as I discovered by accident when I went to examine the surviving clothing. I opened the wrong box, discovering the remains of the body and the head – the top of the head only remained like the top of an egg sliced through and was still covered by the thick dark hair of a young man, still glossy with its natural oils. There was much material here for analysis to discover the diet, the health and possible causes of death of this individual.
Another case I was asked to resolve came from an industrial history museum. This was a museum built on the site of an old ironworks which had its heyday in the nineteenth century. The ironworks opened in 1836 and closed 90 years later in 1926. In the museum’s collection, there were pieces of leather, which were believed to be part of a garment worn by one of the ironwork’s furnace workers. The belief was that this must have been some protective garment since the garment sections had been recovered from a dig on the site of the original ironworks. However, one of the museum’s curators felt this story should be questioned and asked me to examine the finds.
At first, I was excited by some of the pieces which I thought could be part of an early nineteenth-century leather coat. The pieces were blackened with age and were distorted by time and water. All the original stitching had dissolved away. However, working systematically, I measured and photographed all the pieces to scale. I was then able to manipulate the pieces to see where they might belong, how they might have been joined together – and something unexpected emerged – yes, the garment did seem to be a coat, but it was a woman’s coat, and the cut was that of the period 1930 to 1935. It was only in this period that women began wearing leather coats as fashionable garments. I showed the pieces to another costume historian and she came to the same conclusion. So this placed the garment outside the active working life of the ironworks which had closed in 1926. Clearly, there was another narrative here, but one that was not related to the original story presented by the museum.
There is one final area I’d like to talk about in relation to my research and narrative. In the last few years I began to consider the role of military and naval uniform and their relationship to civilian fashions and how the two constantly interact. Out of this, somehow, emerged a side project on which I am working with a photographer towards the re-presentation of uniform that has the marks of conflict damage. Sometimes this can be quite dramatic – a sleeve cut off from a uniform jacket to allow a field-surgeon quick access to a wounded area. I have been researching surviving examples of military uniform of this kind to be found in war and regimental museums. We have been looking for uniforms that can be associated with a known individual, a time a place and an incident which brought about the damage.
What emerges from this is a kind of narrative across time of lives caught up in battle and of Britain’s often imperialist interventions. Some articles quickly become symbolic of larger and very complex historical narratives; for example one of the earliest pieces I have found is a bloodstained piece of lace said to be from the clothing of William of Orange at the battle of the Boyne in Ireland in 1680 – a battle that contributed to the dominance of Protestant forces in Ireland for centuries – and at the other end of the timescale, from the 1980s, a paratrooper’s smock worn by a British Army chaplain. It is marked by paint splatters created when a woman hurled a can of white paint in protest at the continued occupation of Belfast by British troops. From these items of conflict-damaged uniform, personal narratives will emerge. Occasionally, these clothes represent the end of a life or a near death escape. But they are inseparably linked with larger historical narratives that have shaped our present. We hope to create images that allow meditation on these intersecting narratives.


(1)  John Retallack, Apples, an adaptation of the novel by Richard Milward
(London: Oberon Books, 2010), pp. 72-3.
Costume and Narrative: Narrative and Clothing
David Wilcox
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