Costumes in Classical French Plays


The magic of the theatre would not be complete without the use of costumes to make the story and the characters come to life to the audience. Whether they are there for authenticity, comedy, or to express the creativity of artistry and interpretation, costumes are definitely a significant element to the theatre.

French Neoclassical Theatre

To summarize the styles of this theatrical art form, the word grandiose would be the best description. French Neoclassical theatre prides itself in its excessive and fantastic manner of producing stages, scenery, and costumes. French theatre scholar, William Howarth explains how the Neoclassical French theatre followed more the contemporary fashion of the 17th century than achieving historical accuracy in the plays performed. Women that performed in Neoclassical theatre wore costumes influenced by the early Greek period such as dresses with drape lines and trains that have to be picked up and carried. Sheer materials were used to make women’s costumes such as linen, silk, gauze, and taffeta. For accessories, the actresses had scarves and shawls made of precious material like cashmere. Their outfits were completed by adding hats like mobcaps or bonnets with feathers in them. 

Neoclassical theatre

Neoclassical men’s costume, on the other hand, was focused more on emphasizing the body and shape of the performers. Their breeches were neutral in color and were paired with colorful waistcoats or tailcoats. The material differs between the socio-economic status, and the common man wore clothes made of wool while the more luxurious fabrics were used for wealthy men’s costumes such as satin, silk, and cashmere.

Costumes in the French Neoclassical Style

Actresses wore chemise dresses which are high-waisted and can have long and tight or short and shaped like a melon. These have low draw-string necklines and worn with ribbon sashes. They also wore pelisses which is a close-fitting coat dress with high necklines and worn with matching belts. Another kind of clothing worn by actresses was the redingote, a long, princess-cut coat which was buttoned at the top while the bottom was open.

Actors wore pantaloons which are calf-length pants made from knitted elastic fabric. They were later on made longer up to the ankles with stirrups places under the foot. Near the waistband, fob pockets were places for small objects like watches. They also wore tailcoats which became popular with two different styles. The claw-hammer or swallow-tailed coat has bottom edges that resembled a hammer, while the bobtail coat is more rounded with shorter tails.

Shoes and other Accessories

Women in the Neoclassical French theatre wore poke bonnets which have wide front brims, which extended from the head to a few inches beyond the face, with small crowns at the back. They also wore reticules or indispensable, small, drawstring purses worn at the wrist. These were a fashion staple at the time because women’s dresses were too slim to allow pockets. Men in Neoclassical French theatre work Hessian boots, short riding boots that were recorded in history as being worn by Hessian mercenaries when they fought in the American revolution. They are black boots recognized by its decorative tassels and a heart-shaped curve at the front top edge. The actors also wore wrapped cravats, huge cravats that are mainly worn to hold the shirt collar over the chin. It is worn and tied around the neck and ends with a bow in the front.

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