Early Tudor theatrical costume: Some historical

Was the clothing for players symbolic or representational in the interludes performed at the Henrician court?

What forms of clothing were used in the early Tudor revels generally, what evidence is available for us to interpret, and how might the evidence enable us to speculate on the appearance of players at court?  ‘Symbolic' is being deployed as a term to describe costume which is heightened or metaphorical, or uses colours or conceits understood by an early Tudor audience to represent specific moral attributes, cultural notions, or character traits, etc.  'Representational' is being used to mean costume which directly rather than abstractly signifies the character being performed, i.e. a priest character taking to the stage in clerical vestments, or an allegorical moral category which is embodied in secular or social terms.   

T.W. Craik contends that the actors would have been dressed similarly to the audience to heighten the resonance of the dramatic event for the spectators (1958, p49), but adds the somewhat contradictory argument that, because of doubling schemes, there would have to be something “peculiar and distinctive” about each costume for easy identification of character (ibid.).   He goes on to assert that there would have been a difference between the costumes used for the masque and the interlude, yet doesn’t provide any specific evidence for his view that in the latter, “the decorative quality of the costume is not allowed to obscure it’s significance” (1958, p50).  

Perhaps at issue in Craik’s argument is a difference between interludes which were performed at court, and those which were not.  Could there have been a difference between the kinds of costume used for royal entertainments and those performed in the houses of noblemen, at the Inns of court or on Rastell’s Finsbury stage, for example?  An interesting document in the Loseley papers written by George Ferrers in his capacity of Lord of Misrule gestures towards the fact that players of a dialogue merely had their costumes translated out of the existing wardrobe (see Feuillerat, 1914, p60) –  evidence which would surely blur the distinction between the appearances of masquers and interluders in royal revels.  And The Play of the Weather of course, has no doubling scheme, so the need for the distinctive markers that Craik assumes distinguishes characters are irrelevant for this particular text.    

A problem with interpreting the evidence is the lack of differentiation where the accounts do exist of the destination of the costumes being itemised.  Only in rare instances are historians and literary critics able to link a specific costume with a specific performance.  What follows therefore is a list of some of the extant evidence concerning early Tudor theatrical costume, largely found within the plays themselves, which indicate either 'symbolic' or 'representational' costume, as well as some evidence that fits into neither category.    


Representational costume – the evidence for: 

Clothing in Wisdom

Wisdom enters, "in a ryche purpull clothe of gold with a mantyll of the same ermynnde wythin, hawynge abowt Hys neke a ryall hood furred with ermyn, wpon Hys hede a cheweler wyth browys, a berde of golde of sypres curlyed, a riche imperyall crown [thereupon] sett wyth precyus stonys and perlys, in Hys leyfte honde a balle of golde wyth a cros [thereupon] and in Hys ryght honde a regall schepter" (2000, p236).   
"Here entrethe Anima as a mayde, in a wyght clothe of golde gytely purfyled wyth menyver [Walker suggests 'elegantly trimmed with miniver fur'], a mantyll of blacke [thereupon]..." (p236) 

"Here entreth vi women in sut, [iii] dysgysyde as galontys and iii as matrons, wyth wondyrfull vysurs congruent" (2000, p250)

Clothing in The Three Laws

Bale specifies secular costume in The Three Laws, with stage directions denoting, "Let Idolatry be decked like an old witch, Sodomy like a monk of all sects, Ambition like a bishop, Covetousness like a Pharisee or spiritual lawyer, False Doctrine like a popish doctor, and Hypocrisy like a gray friar".  

Clothing in Satire of the Three Estates

Lindsay's 1540 interlude suggests  representations had social elements, as opposed to symbolic, in this dramatic form: 
'Thereafter came a man armed in harnes withe a sword drawen in his hande, a Busshope, a Burges man, and Experience, clade like a doctor, who sate them all down on the deis, under the King.' (Collier, 2001, p124)

Symbolic costume – the evidence for:

Albert Feuillerat uncovers an undated document specifically "concernyng a Enterlued" which endorses the notion that motifs would be repeatedly painted onto costumes in court plays, as Craik contends – notably a washerwoman whose costume is decorated with buckets (1914, p245).  The document also demonstrates that the representation of secular estates corresponds to moral or immoral qualities associated with that particular social type.  

Clothing in King Johan

In this Bale play (c.1538) line 647 suggests that the Vice has a nose which is symbolically large: “Ye are as ferce as thowgh ye had broke yore nose at the buttre”.

Something else?

Craik uncovers evidence from the Losely MSS relating to a prophet performed during Edward VI’s coronation plays dressed in, “a tawny material interwoven with imitation gold or silver thread” (1958, p54).  So are we perhaps to assume a representational shape but fabrics which are rather more sumptuous?   

This might be suggested by J.P Collier who mentions the entertainment of the French ambassadors at Greenwich in 1528 (2001, p105), and augments Cavendish's relation of , "the most goodliest disguising, or interlude, made in Latin and French, whose apparel was of such exceeding riches, that it passeth my capacity to expound (2001, p106) with the accounts of Richard Gibson.  There is also a list of the characters in this piece and what they wore:

'An Orratur in apparell of golld: a Poyed [poet] in apparell of cloothe of golld: Relygyun, Ecclesia, Verritas, lyke iij nowessys [novices] in garments of syllke, and vayells of laun and sypers [cypress]: Errysy [Heresy] Falls-interprytacyun, Corupcyo-scryptorris, lyke ladies of Beem [Bohemia?] inperelld in garments of sylke of dyvers kolours : the errytyke Lewter [Luther] lyke a party freer [friar] in russet damaske, and blacke taffeta : Lewter's wyef [wife] like a frow of Spyers in Allmayn, in red silke: Peter, Poull and Jhames in iij abyghts [habits] of whyght sarsenet, and iij red mantels, and hers [hairs] of syllver of damaske, and pelyuns [pelerines?] of scarlet, and a Kardynall in hys apparell: ij Sargents in ryche apparell: the Dollfyn [Dauphin] and hys vrother in koots [coats] of vellwett inbrowdyrd with golld, and kaps of saten bound with vellwet : a Messenger in tynsell saten : vj men in gouns of gren sarsenet : vj wemen in gouns of crymsyn sarsenet : War in ryche cloothe of golld and fethers and armd : iij Allmayns in apparell all kut and sclyt of syllke: Lady Pees [Peace] in layds [lady's] apparell all whyght and ryche, and Lady Quyetnes and Daam Tranquylyte rychely besyen [beseen] in ladyes apparel’ (2001, p108-9).   

A 1547 inventory found in the Edwardian Revels Office accounts compiled by Feuillerat details the fabrics contained in the royal wardrobe. 

By the amount of "Clothe of golde grene Tissue" there is marginalia which states, "*cut for players for the king" (1914, p22).
By "whyte clothe of Siluer playne", marginalia states, "Cutt for a long gowne for a prest for the kinges grace to pley" (ibid.).
By "Clothe of Syluer whyte with workes" marginalia given, "all cut into crosse keys for players" (ibid.) 

Under tilsentes, "Tilsent black brochid" marginalia - "Cutt for a gown for a player viij yards & Cappe" (1914, p23)
Under "vellett", a "yolowe vellett" which is in marginalia, "Cutt for pleyers garment iiij yards d." and a "vellett whyte & Grene checked" also "Cut for player" (ibid.)
There is much marginalia by the 'satins' which might suggest that this was the predominant material used for players' costumes.  A problem is that ‘players’ is a catch-all term which doesn’t distinguish between maskers, disguisers or interluders.  

Wisdom uses both symbolic and representational costume to represent Lucifer who enters, "in a dewyllys [array] wythowt and wythin as a prowde galonte" (2000, p241) - he casts off his outer costume to reveal the gallant beneath after a long introductory monologue (2000, p242).


J.P Collier, The History of English Dramatic Poetry to the Time of Shakespeare, and Annals of the Stage. Volume One (Adamant, repr. 2001)

T.W.Craik, The Tudor Interlude: Stage, Costume and Acting (Leicester University Press, 1958).

Albert Feuillerat, Documents relating to the Revels at Court in the Time of King Edward VI and Queen Mary, London,

Greg Walker, ed., Medieval Drama: An Anthology (Oxford, Blackwell, 2000).