Royal Shakespeare Company

Style on stage - how fashion through the ages has inspired costume design

Tamsin Greig as Beatrice (2006) by Simon Annand © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

Creating Characters

Costume design is the art of telling a story through the clothes that a character wears on stage. The costume a character appears in, and the way their costume changes during the play, gives the audience information about their personality, attitude and position in the world.

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, 2016 (2015) by Manuel Harlan © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

Designers are often inspired by fashions of the past and present.

Clothing styles can be used to transport audiences to a particular moment in history and trends from different eras can be borrowed and blended together in the same production, to create something new.

From Ancient Rome and the Medieval Period through to the 1980s Punk movement and trends from today’s high street, this exhibition will showcase how fashion has influenced some of the most amazing costumes on our stages.

Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus (1959) by Claire Duncan © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

Ancient Rome

Shakespeare wrote a number of plays set in Ancient Rome: Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. Over the years, designers have looked back to the era to tell these stories in many different ways. Traditional garments such as tunics, togas, military cloaks and armour have been skillfully reinterpreted to reimagine and bring life to Shakespeare's Rome.

Costume worn by Laurence Olivier, Riette Sturge Moore © RSC, 1959, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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Actor Laurence Olivier wore this Roman general’s costume in an iconic production of Coriolanus in 1959, directed by Peter Hall and designed by Riette Struge Moore.

It uses typical 1950s materials. On a leather backing, foil is mounted over felt to create the medallions, with painted detail to create the illusion of shadows.

Detail of a breastplate worn by Laurence Olivier (1959) by Riette Sturge Moore © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

For Coriolanus 1959, Director Peter Hall wanted to create an ‘overall period flavour’, rather than one that was ‘archeologically correct’.

This bold and elaborate costume presented Coriolanus as a powerful and important leader. The colour red has connotations of war, danger and pride and the gold medallions suggest a decorated war hero of high status.

Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus, Angus McBean © RSC, 1959, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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The glamorous 1950s brought Hollywood actors to Stratford-upon-Avon. Sir Laurence Olivier was one of the most famous and his performance of Coriolanus was acclaimed by many as his greatest.

Vivien Leigh as Lavinia, Titus Andronicus (1955) by Angus McBean © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

Actor Vivien Leigh played the character Lavinia in a ground-breaking 1955 production of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies, set during the Roman Empire . The production was directed and designed by Peter Brook.

White dress worn by Vivien Leigh, Peter Brook (with Desmond Heeley) © RSC, 1955, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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The draped white fabric of this dress creates the impression of a traditional stola and palla, worn by women in Ancient Rome. Yet the costume’s skillful, shapely tailoring echoes the glamorous silhouettes popular in the 1950s when the production was made.

Costume design for Vivien Leigh, © Peter Brook, 1955, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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From the same 1955 production, another one of Vivien Leigh’s costumes used scarlet coloured ribbons around her wrists and hands to represent blood flowing from the character Lavinia’s mutilated arms.

Despite Lavinia’s wounded and blood stained appearance, her beautiful bronze and gold dress would have glittered on stage, reminding the audience of her glamourous Hollywood status.

Costume worn by Vivien Leigh, Peter Brook (with Desmond Heeley) © RSC, 1955, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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Rather than being historically accurate, Peter Brook’s ‘Roman’ design for Titus Andronicus appeared to take inspiration from the Rome depicted by Renaissance artists – using a colour palate of gold, green, yellow and blue.

Design details, such as ribbons to represent gushes of blood suggested the horrors of the play, rather than portraying them realistically on stage. Despite the subtle portrayal it was reported that audience members often fainted during the show requiring extra St John Ambulance volunteers to be regularly called in.

Richard Burton as Henry V (1951) by Angus McBean © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

The Middle Ages

During the European Middle Ages or the Medieval Period (5th - 15th Century), looser, draped fabrics were replaced with more fitted clothes tailored to the body. Clothes typically revealed the status of the person wearing them. Most people wore tunics of undyed wool or linen and leather or fur from local sources. Yet the rich could afford to show off their wealth by wearing longer colourful tunics of finer silk or wool adorned with jewellery and fine designs.

Costume worn by Richard Burton, Tanya Moiseiwitsch © RSC, 1951, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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In 1951, Actor Richard Burton played King Henry V in a production of Henry V directed by Antony Quayle and designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. The overall costume design appeared closely medieval in style which helped to tell the story of Henry V onstage.

Burton’s dyed red and orange floor length tunic matched those worn by the wealthy in the Middle Ages and established his status as monarch to the audience. The elaborate gold beading, piped edges and buckles also firmly placed him as the wealthy King.

Costume design for Richard Burton, © Tanya Moiseiwitsch, 1951, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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Burton’s costumes also included other popular elements from the Middle Ages: woolen hose, ankle length leather boots, padded chest, stand collar and a scalloped edge or ‘dagged’ design to the sleeves.

Costume design for soldiers, © Tanya Moiseiwitsch, 1951, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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Costume design for English Soldiers, © Tanya Moiseiwitsch, 1951, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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Designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch usually designed both set and costumes giving a strong sense of visual unity in her productions. Similar colour schemes run through all her designs. On many of the designs, dye and paint were used to give the impression of wear and tear and long use.

Dress worn by Margaret Leighton (1952) by Kenneth Rowell © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

This dress was worn by Actor Margaret Leighton as Lady Macbeth in Director John Gielgud’s production of Macbeth in 1952. The costume was designed by Kenneth Rowell. The construction of this costume is typical of materials used in the 1950s – with a focus on natural materials. In the case of this dress the material is cotton.

Costume design for Margaret Leighton (1952) by © Kenneth RowellRoyal Shakespeare Company

Designer Kenneth Rowell gave this costume many features of the clothing typically worn by women in Medieval times.

His design suggests long flared sleeves with a wide opening, a slung hip belt with decorative pendants, a long train and an underdress or chemise.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1962 (1952) by Tom Holte © Shakespeare Birthplace TrustRoyal Shakespeare Company

Elizabethan England

In Elizabethan England (1558 - 1603), the upper classes wore luxurious clothing made of velvet, satin and silk. Fashions for women usually consisted of gowns, underclothing, corsets, hats, ruffs, collars and shoes.

Dress worn by Diana Rigg (1952) by Lila de Nobili © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

This dress was worn by Actor Dianna Rigg as Helena in Director Peter Hall’s 1962 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Designed by Lila de Nobili, this costume is typically Elizabethan in style, with a large, heavy bodice and quilted skirt complete with ruff.

Elizabethan gowns were often geometrically shaped rather than tailored to follow the natural shape of the body. Padding, quilting and whalebone were often used to create this structure.

Costume design for Diana Rigg (1952) by © Lila de NobiliRoyal Shakespeare Company

Designer Lila de Nobili was an acclaimed Italian stage designer and fashion illustrator, who worked across ballet, opera and theatre. Her fashion illustrations frequently appeared in the pages of Vogue magazine.

Costume design for Olivia and Viola (1958) by © Lila de NobiliRoyal Shakespeare Company

Lila de Nobili also worked with Peter Hall on a 1958 production of Twelfth Night, for which she created this costume design for the characters Olivia and Viola.

This impressionistic style of illustration was typical of Lila de Nobili’s work, both across her theatre design and her fashion illustrations.

Costume design for Gertrude (1961) by © Leslie HurryRoyal Shakespeare Company

This dress was designed by Leslie Hurry for the character Gertrude in a 1961 production of Hamlet, directed by Peter Wood.

It shows an Elizabethan style gown with an overskirt attached to a bodice, split in the middle to reveal the front panel of the kirtle - a type of tunic.

Designer Leslie Hurry was a set designer for ballet, theatre and opera and one of Britain’s most famous surrealist artists. His designs have been described as giving costume makers information about the character’s emotions, as well as the visual and physical detail.

Harriet Walter as Helena (1981) by Joe Cocks © Shakespeare Birthplace TrustRoyal Shakespeare Company

Victorian Times

During the Victorian Period (1837 - 1901), fashion for women was often characterised by exaggerated proportions, with oversized full skirts and small waists. The corset was a staple throughout the 19th century, giving women status, respectability and an idealised figure.

Dress worn by Harriet Walter (1981) by Maria Björnson © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

This dress was worn by Actor Harriet Walter in a 1981 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Ron Daniels and designed by Maria Björnson.

The production was set in late Victorian times, with dresses very typical of the period with crinoline and hoops used to create a large, voluminous skirt.

Sometimes called hoop-skirts, Crinolines were very constraining to wear. Combined with a tight corset, they created the illusion of an hourglass silhouette by narrowing the waist and accentuating the hips.

Dress worn by Harriet Walter (1981) by Maria Björnson © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

Victorian clothing is often associated with modesty, with buttons done up, long skirts and high necklines covering up the person wearing them. So there was a contrast between the restraint of Victorian fashion and the amorous plot of the 1981 production.

In the words of Actor Harriet Walter: 'We were presented as these Victorian doll-like, beautifully dressed creatures. You know, I had a wig of lovely blonde curls and we looked very sort of demure and sweet... I think what the joke was that actually it’s a very raunchy play and, you know, underneath all that people are just wanting to rip one another’s clothes off.'

Tamsin Greig as Beatrice (2006) by Simon Annand © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company


The 1950s saw the rise of 'ready to wear' fashion with clothing becoming mass produced, and more variety becoming available. Fashionable silhouettes for women were the nipped in or 'wasp' waist with full skirt or a slim fitting pencil skirt. It was a popular and glamorous look following the austerity of the wartime 1940s.

Costume worn by Tamsin Greig (2006) by Lez Brotherson © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

This costume was worn by Actor Tamsin Grieg playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing in 2006, directed by Marianne Elliot and designed by Lez Brotherson.

Set in early 1950s Cuba, her fitted olive green satin dress and tailored matching jacket, gave her character a smart, glamourous appearance.

Being set in Cuba in the early 1950s just before the revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, reflected the play’s 'hot blood and macho honour code.'

Brotherson’s stage design used multi-coloured lights strung across the auditorium and the audience entered a Cuban nightclub alive with salsa music and cigar smoke.

Costume design for Harriet Walter (2006) by © Lez BrothersonRoyal Shakespeare Company

Speaking about the costume design, Designer Lez Brotherson said 'When I first showed Tamsin the costume design she said it was lovely but that she didn't think that she had the body that I thought she had. She thought that she had a boyish train and I had designed something for someone much curvier with a much more period shape.... I had to explain that even in the 50s nobody really had that shape. The silhouette was achieved with constructed underwear. Hip padding and bust padding and corsetry was much more prevalent then that it is perhaps now.'

Judi Dench as Adriana, The Comedy of Errors (1976) by Joe Cocks © Shakespeare Birthplace TrustRoyal Shakespeare Company


Freedom and individuality defined fashion in the 1970s. Styles and trends changed dramatically throughout the decade, often mixed and matched with subcultures blended together. From colourful bell bottoms and tie-dye to glam rock glitter and disco hot pants, fashion was fun and eclectic.

Dress worn by Judi Dench (1976) by John Napier © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

This dress was worn by Actor Judi Dench as the character Adriana in a 1976 production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Trevor Nunn and designed by John Napier.

Its long, flowing shape, bright colours and butterfly motif is classic 'hippie chic', a style characterised in women by floaty fabric, tie dye, kaftans, bare feet and long flowing hair.

Dress worn by Judi Dench (1976) by John Napier © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

This production was set on a modern-day Mediterranean tourist trap island, with the stage festooned with fairy-lights and flanked by cafes and overflowing tourist stalls.

Judi Dench’s costume evoked a sense of ‘seaside holiday’, with its sunny orange and yellow fabric and a Greek hair style similar to classical sculptures of Aphrodite.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1989 (1989) by Joe Cocks © Shakespeare Birthplace TrustRoyal Shakespeare Company

1980s Punk

The 1970s and 80s saw the emergence of the Punk movement. A movement about anarchy and rebellion and one that saw a new attitude towards clothing and style. Original Punk clothing was anti-mainstream and unique, often handmade and featuring rips, patches and safety pins. Fashions included tight jeans, leather jackets and Dr. Martens boots.

Fairy dress, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1989) by Sue Blane © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

This tutu was worn with Dr. Martens boots by a fairy in the 1989 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by John Caird and designed by Sue Blane.

Influenced by alternative Punk fashion, the production design mocked any idea of sentimental prettiness by dressing its fairies in tattered tutus, patched-up wings and Dr. Martens boots. The set took the form of a junkyard filled with bicycle frames, an old piano and an iron bedstead.

Costume design for Titania (1989) by © Sue BlaneRoyal Shakespeare Company

Having already found fame designing the ‘glam rock’ musical production of the Rocky Horror Show in London, Blane brought her famous eclectic and diverse style to the main RSC stage. But as the rehearsal notes for the production reveal, there were also the more practical considerations of creating costumes for the production:

'It is hoped that Titania’s and Oberon’s quick changes will be completed in thirty seconds'

'Hermia’s costume gets quite a beating when she is dragged around the forest'

'Lysander’s trousers could well get pulled down during Act 3 Scene 1, suitable underwear please'

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, 2016 (2015) by Manuel Harlan © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

Modern Day

In 2016, the costume design for Hamlet drew inspiration from contemporary high street fashion and modern day West Africa. In this production Hamlet is portrayed as a student who returns home from Europe to connect with his African roots.

Paapa Essiedu (2015) by Paul Wills © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

Contemporary costumes designed by Paul Wills reflect the modern day setting.

This white suit was worn by Actor Paapa Essiedu playing Hamlet in 2016. It was sourced from a high street store and painted in a graffiti style with motifs including crowns and skulls.

Lead Actor Paapa Essiedu reflects on the importance of producing contemporary versions of Shakespeare’s plays. 'I think it’s important to give people a world that they can connect to and a world that they can recognise …when you see a character walking on and they’re wearing normal clothes you’re like, "Brilliant. I understand what that character is like."'

Pappa Essiedu as Hamlet, 2015 (2015) by Manuel Harlan © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

In this 2016 production, the character Hamlet is presented as an intense art student, painting his clothes and bedroom with avant-garde imagery; artistic protests that the court and his family found unsettling and a sign ‘he was mad’. The design of the paint covered clothes were inspired by Artist Jean Michel Basquiat and his political graffiti-style paintings.

RSC costume workshop by Gina Print © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

Costume production at the RSC

The costumes worn in our productions are made and adapted in-house by our team of skilled costume makers in our specialist workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The RSC costume workshop, Gina Print © RSC, From the collection of: Royal Shakespeare Company
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The RSC has the largest in-house costume-making department of any British theatre, with 30 award winning craftspeople.

Skills and activities range from men’s and women's costume construction, armour, millinery, costume props, leatherwork, mask-making, jewellery-making, dyeing and printing.

Breastplate worn by David Tennant Breastplate worn by David Tennant (2013) by Stephen Brimson LewisRoyal Shakespeare Company

This breastplate was made by the RSC Armoury and was worn by Actor David Tennant playing the title character in Director Gregory Doran’s production of Richard II in 2013.

The breastplate is made from an original 19th century breastplate sewn onto suede - an example of how historical and contemporary techniques can be combined to create a costume for the stage.

David Tennant as Richard II (2013) by Keith Pattison © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

This image shows David Tennant performing on stage as Richard II.

Speaking about the production, Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis said he wanted to 'find a look for the play that takes you back in History to a world where you believe these characters would exist. But that doesn’t necessarily means it’s an exercise in historical accuracy by recreating a museum perfect piece of history live on stage – that’s not important – what’s important is telling a story in the clearest possible way.'

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, 2016 (2015) by Manuel Harlan © RSCRoyal Shakespeare Company

As these highlights have shown, the styles, colours and shapes of fashion throughout history have influenced the look and feel of productions at the RSC.

The costumes a character appears in tells the audience a lot about their personality and status, and is a key part of conveying a story on stage.

The RSC has a long history of telling stories both on and off stage and continues to do so today, through a programme of theatre performances, events, education programmes and exhibitions.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Credits: Story

Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Google Cultural Institute and Mad Pixel.

Thank you also to all the designers and their estates who gave us permission to use images of their work in this exhibition.

Costumes from past RSC productions can be seen in person in Stratford-upon-Avon at the RSC's permanent exhibition The Play's The Thing: Secrets and stories from the world’s most famous theatre company:

The Play’s The Thing Exhibition is supported by Heritage Lottery Fund and UBS.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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