Performance Costume
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Performance Costume

New Perspectives and Methods

Sofia Pantouvaki, Peter McNeil, Sofia Pantouvaki, Peter McNeil

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eBook - ePub

Performance Costume

New Perspectives and Methods

Sofia Pantouvaki, Peter McNeil, Sofia Pantouvaki, Peter McNeil

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About This Book

Costume is an active agent for performance-making; it is a material object that embodies ideas shaped through collaborative creative work. A new focus in recent years on research in the area of costume has connected this practice in vital and new ways with theories of the body and embodiment, design practices, artistic and other forms of collaboration. Costume, like fashion and dress, is now viewed as an area of dynamic social significance and not simply as passive reflector of a pre-conceived social state or practice. This book offers new approaches to the study of costume, as well as fresh insights into the better-understood frames of historical, theoretical, practice-based and archival research into costume for performance. This anthology draws on the experience of a global group of established researchers as well as emerging voices. Below is a list of just some of the things it achieves: 1. Introduces diverse perspectives, innovative new research methods and approaches for researching design and the costumed body in performance.
2. Contributes towards a new understanding of how costume actually 'performs' in time and space.
3. Offers new insights into existing practices, as well as creating a space of connection between practitioners and researchers from design, the humanities and social sciences.

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Information

Year
2020
ISBN
9781350098817
Topic
Design
Edition
1
Margaret Mitchell
Introduction
Historical drawings, paintings and engravings depicting historical costume designs pose risks, limitations and benefits to the researcher. These artefacts cannot begin to be understood without written and additional visual materials that give a context to their uses.1 Even with well-rounded written and visual documentation, the modern researcher is usually left with only a partial story or understanding of the research subject. This chapter will identify various lines of inquiry used to resurrect the possible original life of a historic costume design with a focus on analysing images. It discusses obstacles and assumptions that confront the researcher and offers suggestions for understanding what can be known and what will remain unknown about a particular costume research subject. It also points to the impossibility of a wholly net- or web-based approach to comprehensive research about a costume image or artefact.
The Researcher and the Survivor
Primary-source historic costume drawings offer the modern researcher a physical bridge to the past. Researchers today spend a great deal of time on the internet studying images of archival materials which are immediately accessible in digital formats. Digital images are made of light waves; when it comes to digital images that are digital reproductions of hardcopy images (e.g. costume drawings), they are images made of images, removed by at least two degrees from the viewer. The first degree away from the human eye is the camera lens that captured the digital image. The second degree away from the human eye is the image transmitted on the computer screen. Image resolution in the central focus of the average human eye is greater than the image resolution of a camera or of a typical computer screen (Wright 1989: 53). Because the naked human eye and brain have degrees of resolution, but no pixilation variances to dissect when viewing a physical object, the naked eye has a greater capacity to view an object in person versus viewing an object on a screen or in a reprinted format (Wright 1989: 53). Colour variances on monitors, flicker fusion frequency (Ramamurthy and Lakshminarayanan 2017), screen brightness, environmental illumination and display equipment capacities also provide wide varieties of image distortion. However, on-line research and digital reproductions provide positive features: often the first publication of an image, visual magnification, comparative images in multiple archival collections and rough language translation. However, studying the actual costume drawing allows us to see and regard the design in the same spatial relationship and with the same tool, the human eye, as its original artist. In the presence of the artefact we have no visual separation or distortion caused by digital screens. Even if a researcher cannot physically touch a historical costume drawing, it can still be magnified and scrutinized with lenses and the human eye; both of these are more perceptive than seeing within a digital non-physical format that acts as a mediator. In the presence of an actual costume drawing, we have a sense of scale. We, in the present relate to the object spatially and visually as the artist did in the past.
From the time a costume drawing was made, until the time we open an archival box in a museum or library, the drawing has been handled by multiple people, possibly altered by multiple people, and it has existed through periods of care or neglect or both. The paint, pencil or ink colours and graphite marks are perhaps dulled or damaged by time, but we can engage with the drawing on a human scale and begin to attempt to unpack the story of the costume drawing from the point of least distortion: its current physical reality. The journey through time may affect inquiries of study.
The Study of Visual Images
Authenticating the creation of the image in time and space is the first step to contextual placement. If the artist is known, locating and dating the image is usually somewhat easier than working with a costume drawing of unknown authorship. Works housed in museum archives often, but certainly not always have been accessioned or catalogued (many collections have partial inventories, uncatalogued works, new acquisitions and also mistaken attributions in old hands, etc). Such records record a hierarchy of information, including attempts to identify authorship. If the artist is known, the second contextual issue is the placement of a particular artwork within the artist’s total body of work (known as the oeuvre in conventional art history). It may be important to understand if the work in question is late, early or climactic in the artist’s career. Biographical reference sources for artists living before the nineteenth century are sometimes less detailed depending on the status and the nature of record holding for that particular individual, but even in the Western European eighteenth century the famous ‘salons’ recorded precise information as to the names of artists and titles of works. Such information is also found in much older Chinese works for example and must be assessed within the frames of convention, the status of art practice, the nature of studios, the prevalence of copying and many other social and cultural factors.
Cross-referencing general source material with more detailed documents such as letters, inventories, bills of sales and public records can aid in dating and locating an artist and a costume drawing. If a work is not signed or stamped with an authentic and original signature or mark, more detective work is in order. Similar works by known artists can be compared, but in some cases, definitive artist identity may remain unknown. In many cases in the past, the costume design drawing was anonymous or carried a sense of authorship that differed from our modern perceptions. Often the person commissioning the work was socially more important than the designer and design decisions were greatly influenced by a patron.2
The available technology that was used to create the costume drawing is the essential baseline for generalized identification. The identification of papers, canvas materials, graphite, charcoal, ink and colour media may help the researcher understand ranges of time periods and locations. For example, a costume drawing painted with a mauve aniline dye could not have existed prior to 1856 and likely not prior to the late nineteenth century.3 Written records in museum archives should be scrutinized to understand media technology used in the drawing. Further complications in assessing media can arise when it is hypothesized that the original drawing has been altered through time. The researcher must determine whether or not all media used is original and at what points in time the drawing may have been altered. Once the physical object is understood, the researcher understands at the very least what the artwork is not.
Art is never purely mimetic, even if a painting or drawing is rendered in the style of ‘realism’, a much-debated topic itself in the nineteenth century following the development of photography. A costume drawing may have been the wellspring of the designer’s original idea or it may have been produced after the performance for publication or presentation. Without photographs or an extant costume for comparative study, researchers must approach a costume design as a highly interpretative work with varying relationships to reality.
Costume researchers also investigate and use historical portraits in their work. Historical portraiture is often used for design inspiration and information as well as for contextualization and corroboration with a specific historical period. Unless a photograph or physical garment in a painting is extant and can be compared to the painting, the modern researcher has no way of knowing whether or not a painter was depicting the subject accurately. Even if a garment exists, it too may have experienced changes over time.4 The artist employs his or her interpretative style (and perhaps biases) and it is very possible that the person who commissioned the painting also had some control over the painter’s decisions. Primary source written documentation describing clothing style and materials may also be used in a comparative study, but such detailed written inventories are more typical among royal, noble, mercantile and other wealthy subjects. Letters, pawn documents, bills of sale of clothing, tailoring services, wills, as well as the sale of human beings if they were wearing clothes are more common sources relating to merchants, artisans, labourers and slaves. For understanding the demotic (everyday) view of performance, historians make use of songs, ditties, broadsheets (early types of prints hung in public) and other forms of popular culture including oral traditions.
A Case Study: A Study of a Costume Design for Récit de l’Amérique in Ballet Royal du Grand Bal de la Drouairière de Billebahaut
The unsigned costume design for Récit de l’Amérique (Story of America) (Figure1.1.1), created in France for two performances in the early seventeenth century and now housed in the Robert L. B. Tobin Theatre Arts Collection at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, is a curious expression of the Native Peoples of the New World/ the Americas. This design was discovered with 187 other costume designs which were from a larger grouping of approximately 239 designs for entertainments that took place at the French court of King Louis XIII between 1614 and 1634 (McGowan 1986). Of the 188 costume sketches, twenty-seven of them can be attributed to the Ballet Royal du Grand Bal de la Drouairière de Billebahaut (Ballet of the Grand Ball of the Dowager of Bilbao), which was performed in Paris in February of 1626. As part of this entertainment, a pageant entitled ‘The Four Parts of the World’ included Récit de l’Amerique. This title is inscribed in the upper-right-hand corner of the sketch. The designer is documented as Daniel Rabel, or an unknown artist from his atelier (studio or workshop).
Asking Questions and Identifying the Lens of the Researcher
Upon encountering this image, the following general questions arise:
1 Is this sketch Daniel Rabel’s or is it from his atelier?
2 Is the sketch a copy of an earlier work?
3 Do the physical properties of the sketch match the dates of the documented performances?
4 Are there multiple documents or sources that can be used to place this sketch in a context?
5 What was the original function of the sketch?
Conducting research is in part a process of curiosity; questions beget more questions and sometimes our prejudices can lead us to assumptions that have little to do with the truth and everything to do with hopeful speculations. Studying a time period or place beyond our lived experience may lead us to imagine in detail what it might have been like to be in that place and time, but a researcher can never really know the truth in totality, of another place and time. To assert absolute certainty based on partial evidence outside of a lived experience is a romantic exercise of interpretation. Awareness of bias (also known as ‘subject position’) and intellectual circumnavigation of the subject lead to richer and more nuanced interpretations. My biases – or indeed my interests – related to this sketch are as follows:
1 There is a desire to prove the sketch is not a copy.
2 There is a desire to discover the biases of the artist.
3 There is a desire to discover the sources the artist used in order to make design decisions about the costume.
4 The researcher has admired this sketch for many years.
5 The researcher has a contemporary bias regarding current issues around imperialist appropriation of the cultures of Native Peoples.
Biases two and four are particularly leading. Bias two cannot be factually and completely discovered unless a large amount of introspective primary research exists that was generated by the artist. Bias four is completely subjective and although admiration may fuel the motivation to conduct the research, it may also prejudice the researcher during study. Bias five assumes that the artist or his or her audience may have had an imperialist nature and the researcher looks at the work through a modern cultural lens, which may or may not be appropriate or analogous.
The Sources and Context
René Bordier’s libretto for the Ballet Royal du Grand Bal de la Drouairière de Billebahaut includes songs and speeches as well as descriptions of dances and costumes; however, it is an incomplete document. Primary source materials related to Daniel Rabel’s costume work are housed in archives at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Louvre in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, the Morgan Library and Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. Some Rabel ballet costume designs are owned by private collectors and galleries. Multiple locations of archival materials provide contextual corrob...

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