A majestic midnight blue velvet gown with attached train and matching crowned veiling is the first sight a visitor encounters on entering Costuming in Shakespeare”s History Plays. This exhibit is located in the Special Collections section of the Graduate Library, as an important component for the current residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Paul Wong
My, my, how styles have changed.<br><br>Courtesy of U-M Photo Services

Costuming in theatrical productions can either make or break a play. This collection emphasizes the creativity, careful research work and production values of costuming for Richard II and Richard III. The exhibit is richly detailed, with costume pieces on loan from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Stratford Festival of Canada and from the private archives of Zelma Weisfeld, Professor Emerita of Theatre Design. As it is so committed to authenticity, there are copies of the research materials which were used in costume creation. James Robinson Planche”s “Costume of Shakespeare”s Historical Tragedy of King John” is listed as Professor Weisfeld”s costuming bible. Planche”s encyclopedia work, in two parts, was first published in London in 1823-25. There are scene sketches, which include the appropriate costume, some penciled in, others scratched out and re-written, like a snapshot on theatrical life.

When actor Nicholas Pennell performed in Richard III in 1979, it was important to create a mood that reflected a crumbling social order during the reign of an evil and corrupt king. Weisfeld used a dark tabard as a background upon which she could impose, in a quartered pattern, the fleur-de-lis of France and the lion of England. Through the magic of costuming, this tabard had a dual role. Originally, it had been worn in a production of Richard II in 1978 by a lance-bearer. The easy adjustment was accomplished through the use of spray or dry-brush.

Richard II was known as the Sun-King. At the beginning of the play, he is at the height of his royal powers. Dressed in bright colors, he wears a sun medallion. As his powers deteriorate, his costumes reflect the enveloping darkness. Fabric colors change to somber tones of gray. In a pivotal scene with Lord Bolingbrooke, he is garbed in gray-green robes. There is a touch of irony however. On the darkened robes, there is a gold trim.

Many outstanding Shakespearean actors of 18th and 19th century England are represented in this exhibit as well. There is a hand-colored engraving of Mr. Edmund Kean, who portrayed Richard III around 1820. It is an elegant engraving, with a stamped out piece of silver and gold leaf, beads and glass stones. A pair of ocher kid gloves, which are reputed to have belonged to William Shakespeare, are on display. David Garrick, the recipient, used the gloves in his performances of Hamlet in the 18th century. Silver and pink threads are embroidered on the gloves, with silver fringe at the wrist. Authenticity is further realized in a King John Souvenir booklet produced by Herbert Beerbohn, “Tree at the Majestic Theatre.” Costuming heightens the understanding and pleasure of Shakespearean plays, and this exhibit is a richly textured accompaniment.

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