We are used to seeing clothing from a variety of historical periods on stage, particularly in Shakespeare’s plays. But in Elizabethan times, costumes would have been more elaborate or exaggerated versions of everyday Elizabethan dress. This meant that they could be used for more than one production.

The exception would have been the Roman plays, including Julius Caesar. Togas were easy to construct, and it is likely that the Roman plays had a mixture of togas and Elizabethan dress. Actors were exempt – while on stage – from the laws about what clothes each class could and should wear. This meant that their costumes could tell the audience a lot about the character instantly, including their age, social class, what they did for a living and where they were from.

Elizabethan clothes were very heavy and came in many layers, for warmth. They were complicated to put on – so there would be no quick costume changes for Elizabethan actors. This is why, for example, Viola in Twelfth Night doesn’t change back into women’s clothes at the end of the play – there wouldn’t have been enough time. Although Orsino wants to see her in her woman’s weeds (clothes), we assume this will happen after the end of the play. In the same play a cruel trick is played on Malvolio to get him to appear in public in very ridiculous clothes – yellow stockings cross-gartered – showing that costumes could be used for effect to get a laugh too.

Did you know?

  • Fashion was just as important in Elizabethan times as it is now. Ruffs, which were elaborate collars of folded linen sticking out like a fan all the way round the neck, were very popular. Men wore a combination of tights and shorts, called ‘doublet and hose’ – the shorts would often be enormously padded for the sake of fashion!
  • Lots of actors wore wigs – but so did lots of normal people in Elizabethan times.
  • Productions of Shakespeare’s plays today often choose to use costumes from a specific era or place. They do not often use Elizabethan styles. Many productions are in modern clothes – which is what most of the costumes would have been for the Elizabethans back in 1600.
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