Hamlet is a play that features a powerful noble family engaging in political and millitary intrigue. in Elizabethan England, clothes were of vital importance to denote a person’s status and wealth. The costumes also informed the movements and posture of the people that wore them.
For this installment of this series on Elizabethan costumes, I am deeply privileged that in 2009, I filmed an MFA presentation by my friend and colleague Anna Gonzales. For her presentation at the Blackfriars Theater in Staunton VA, she created two authentic Elizabethan costumes from scratch, which took 900 hours!
In order to make these costumes as accurate as possible, Anna painstakingly researched Elizabethan fashions including period portraits, surviving records, and books of patterns that tailors later published in the mid-1600s. Sadly, no Elizabethan garments survive intact and no patterns. Elizabethan tailors probably felt no need to record their clothing patterns since almost everything they did was custom-made.
She then gave these costumes to two actors, Jeremiah and Dawn, and had them rehearse a short scene from Hamlet. As the video below shows, these costumes dramatically change not only how the actors look, but how they are able to move, which in turn, gives vital information as to how Elizabethan actors were able to perform onstage.
Garment References In Hamlet
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,280Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii.
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief
‘That can denote me truly. “
Out of all of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet is the only one who is explicitly stated as wearing black. As Anna says in the thesis presentation, black was a very expensive color to make, so only a prince like Hamlet could afford a black cloak. In addition, his black clothing reflects that he is in mourning for his father. Given that Shakespeare’s company were middle-class artisans, it’s entirely possible that they only owned one black garment and made sure Hamlet was the one who wore it. Therefore, he may very well have been the only character who wears mourning clothes in Act I, Scene ii, thus making an uncomfortable divide between himself, and the court.
Polonius Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,Act I, Scene iii.
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that
Act II, Scene i
Ophelia. My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac’d
No hat upon his head, his stockings foul’d,
Ungart’red, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors- he comes before me.
Gentlemen and Ladies Get Dressed
Scholars and Soldiers
The play opens with two soldiers strolling the battlement; then a ghost dressed in complete armor appears. Once Hamlet and all the other main characters die, the play ends with Fortinbras staging a violent coup. Therefore the soldiers’ costumes are very important for creating a mood.
In the 1590s, gunpowder made full plate armor unnecessary. Usually, soldiers only wore a padded coat, a helmet, and a breastplate. Higher ranking nobles who likely never saw combat would wear a gorget, a small armor collar to protect the chest. This video about the wars between early English settlers in America and Native Americans shows nicely the armor and weapons used by the English of this period (strong language ahead):
Elizabethan Fencing costumes
Most productions like Olivier’s and Branaughs have Hamlet and Laertes in outfits approximating modern fencing outfits, but in 1600, when the play was written, the attire of fencers was less sophisticated. According to Malcolm Fare, early fencers mainly wore padded doublets and sometimes cloaks; outfits similar to what they would normally wear.