General English

Media Studies

  • noun clothes worn to make a person look like somebody or something else, especially in a dramatic performance


  • The clothing worn by an actor or other stage performer. Throughoutthe history of the theater, fashions in costume have alternated betweencontemporary dress, attempts at historical representation, and symboliccostume.

    The ancient Greeks introduced the wearing of masks,which allowed actors to play several parts, with long robes beingworn for tragedy and short tunics for comedy. Simple symbolic devices,such as the winged shoes of Hermes, were used to distinguish stockcharacters. The chorus often dressed symbolically to represent elders,townspeople, or birds or animals. Roman actors wore elaborate costumesfor tragedy, using high boots, masks with high foreheads, and bodypadding to make themselves literally larger than life. Actors in comedieswore ordinary clothes. Stock characters had their own colours, withroyalty being dressed in purple, slaves wearing red wigs, and prostituteswearing yellow.

    In medieval Europe elaborate costume was used to emphasizethe supernatural aspects of the mystery plays. The facesof angels were painted red and those of the damned black. God appearedin gold cloth, Adam and Eve in leather suits, and the devil in grotesquemasks. Less is known about the use of costume during the Renaissance.Elizabethan costume was a confused mixture of contemporary dress withoccasional attempts to suggest historical period. The early 17th-centuryEnglish court masques were notable for the ornate costumes of InigoJones.

    In the Restoration period wildly exaggerated versions of thelavish fashions of the day were used in the comedies of Etherage andCongreve. Eighteenth-century costume was generally elaborate and fancifuluntil David Garrick led a return to more naturalistic styles.Attempts at historical accuracy remained fairly notional, however.When portraying an ancient Greek in 1758, Garrick wore the costumeof a Venetian gondolier, arguing that such men were usually of Greekorigin. In France, where convention demanded that actors play Macbethwearing a tail wig and 18th-century army officers' uniform, Voltaireand the actor Henri-Louis Lekain campaigned for greater realism.In 1789 François-Joseph Talma made a great innovation by appearingin Voltaire's Brutus wearing a toga with bare legs and arms.The brief costume was not well received by the audience but by theend of the century realistic classical costume had become acceptable.

    During the early 19th century, the dramatization of Sir WalterScott's novels established a fashion for historical accuracy in costumes.For Charles Kemble's 1823 production of King John, James RobinsonPlanche dressed the king in clothes based on medieval manuscript illuminations.

    However, by the beginning of the 20th century this trend haditself become restrictive. The modern theater has embraced a varietyof approaches to costume, ranging from the naturalistic to the whollysymbolic or abstract. The fashion for setting older works in fantasyworlds or historical periods other than that from which they originatehas been used to particularly striking effect in Shakespearean productions.see also wardrobe.

Origin & History of “costume”

Ultimately, costume and custom are the same word. both come from Latin consuētūdō ‘custom’. But whereas custom was an early borrowing, from Old French, costume took a lengthier and more circuitous route via Italian costume ‘custom, fashion, dress’ and French costume. In the early 18th century the word referred to the custom or fashion of a particular period as it related to the representation of the clothes, furniture, etc of that period in art. In the 19th century this passed into ‘mode of dress appropriate to a particular time or place’, and thence (completing a semantic development rather similar to that of habit) into simply ‘garments, outfit’.