“History is not a costume drama, Emily”

It’s getting chilly out there…it’s practically winter. That means it’s time for flannel, hot toddies, and making period clothing and then destroying it.
Or is that just me?

This will be my third winter of creation and destruction as sponsored by Whistler in the Dark: One Flea Spare, The Europeans, and now… Fen.

I’m excited about Fen for a myriad of reasons, not all of them costume-related. I’ve been thinking about certain lines, characters, and themes within the play since first reading it myself, even more so since hearing it read aloud at our first read-through last week. Two characters, however, stick out to me for obvious (and not-so-obvious) reasons.

The play, on paper, opens with this: “As the audience comes in, a BOY from the last century, barefoot and in rags, is alone in a field, in a fog, scaring crows…”
As a costume designer, this is interesting and exciting because of the whole “last century…barefoot…rags” section, obviously, but it’s also exciting because this BOY’s clothing might be seen as an aesthetic trick at the beginning of the show. Because he is the first person the audience sees, and because he will be wearing clothing of a certain time period, it will be easy for people to make the assumption that he is representative of the rest of the show, and his clothing representative of the rest of the costumes.

This is not the case, at least in terms of clothing. There is another character who is similar to him in dress, and while her clothing might not be representative of the clothing the rest of the characters are wearing, she as a character is (at least in my reading) representative of the rest of the show. She is the GHOST, and her stage direction is as follows: “She is as real as the other women [working in the fields] but barefoot and wearing nineteenth century rags”. Again with the “barefoot”, again with the “rags”, and, like the BOY, she is working in the fields.

I say this GHOST is representative of the rest of the show, at least for me, because in Churchill’s use of these two characters from centuries past, I am able to sense the definition of “history” with which she is working throughout the play.

History was my other focus in college, neck-in-neck with costume design. I frequently mixed these disciplines, talking about capital punishment in Britain in the eighteenth century while in the costume shop and Vivienne Westwood while in history class. I know at least one of my history professors got exasperated with this tendency, because his favorite thing to say to me was “History is not a costume drama, Emily”.

This statement, I think, can be taken in several ways. Of course, there are the actual BBC costume dramas, with Lydia Bennett crowing about how much she likes soldiers whilst wearing layers of sumptuous finery. That, while looking like history (if you don’t make a sport of looking for zippers, like I do), is a sanitized version of history. The definition of “history” that I take from Churchill’s use of the two ghosts is the furthest from this “BBC definition” as possible.*

In her use of these two ghosts, Churchill creates a historical continuity for Fen that is inextricably tied to the land and the people who have worked, do work, and will work this land, day in and day out. Churchill’s idea of history seeps into the play through these two presences that are made more dramatic by their place in the annals of history and therefore their costumes. One might argue that is, in fact, “costume drama”.

I’m planning on beginning construction (and, in turn, destruction) of both costumes (the BOY and the GHOST) soon, so stay tuned for more historical musings. And probably fire. And some bleach.

*Please don’t get me wrong, I love the BBC. And all of their sumptuous finery.

This entry was posted in design, Emily Woods Hogue, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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