The Fashion Is The Fashion 5: Richard III

Sketch I made for a production of Richard III.

Today I’m going to talk about the unique costume challenges in dressing the cast for a production of Shakespeare’s history play, “Richard III.”

The play is set in 1483, a time period where, even though many European countries were at war, many nobles had sumptuous, more form-fitting clothes with fur, gold, leather, and other exotic fabrics. If you look at the sketch I did above, I gave Richard designs using velvet, leather, fur, and gold. After all, Richard is a powerful duke even before he takes the crown. For more information about this period, visit Fashion History.edu.

Design for Queen Elizabeth Woodville by me.

Further, If you’re interested in finding pre-made patterns of 15th century-inspired costumes, go to your fabric store and look for kids like the ones I photographed below.

My design was based on a drawing by the 19th century illustrator HC. Seleous, and the color were taken largely from Richard’s royal portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. I also used a royal portrait of Elizabeth Woodville, queen to Edward IV, (Richard’s brother).

Donning the Hump

Interestingly x-ray photography has recently revealed that Ricahdr’s alleged hump was added to his portrait after his death. In reality the king only suffered from a curvature of the spine. Just like in Shakespeare’s play, the Tudor Chroniclers literally defaced Richard’s image to make him look like an evil, deformed maniac.

Costume designers are vital to help the actors realize the deformity when playing Richard III, and they have done so in many ways. Ian Holm wore a boot on his leg. John Harrel had a bowling ball fastened to his hand, and Antony Sher had a large hump in the center of his back, both a cloth one that was built into his clothes, and an elaborate makeup prosthetic for scenes where he was partially undressed. When I researched for my thesis, I consulted Sir Antony’s book “Year Of the King,” where the actor explained his research into real spinal deformities, and how he incorporated them into the performance. You can see how my actor Matthew figured out how the hump would impede his walk and other movements.

For the final battle between Richard and Richmond, one has to decide on the period and think carefully of the fitness of the actors. 1485 was at the height of the era of suits of armor, and many films have chosen to have Richard fight to the death, while encased in a heavy metal coat of plates.

Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2017 BBC TV mini-series “The Hollow Crown.”
Design for a suit of armour for Henry Tudor

However, this has not always been the case. Ian McKellen had Richard fight in a gas mask in a 1940s British military uniform, driving around on a jeep that gets stuck once Richard utters his most famous line:

Richard III is a play about political intrigue, mafia-like turf-wars, and literal backstabbing and the clothes need to reflect this brutal and Machiavellian world. The costumer needs to help all the actors, not just Richard realize their place in the corrupt medieval political landscape of The Wars Of The Roses, as these characters go from an uneasy peace, to the last gasp of civil war.

Ian Mckellen in the 1995 movie version of Richard III.

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