Dressing Lear

By Laura J. Parker, Costume Designer for King Lear

Costume design is the marriage of the pragmatic and the picturesque—it’s artistic world-building with a heavy dose of practical stagecraft to ensure that the actors have the movement, flexibility, and tools they need to tell the story. When approaching a script, I have to be aware of what the world is and how each character operates within that world. Conversations begin early on in the process between the director and production team to discover the feeling of the story we want to tell, especially with such openly beautiful scripts as King Lear. The script can be interpreted in so many ways. This production centers around family—a community coming together in celebration, and the quick and brutal way those relationships can unravel. The story has captivated audiences for centuries because the core of it—vulnerability, ego, love, betrayal, madness, forgiveness—is universal.

Leaning into the universality of this story, I chose to clothe the characters in an unspecific “old timey” world. They don’t live in any particular time or place, but they encompass a world that’s all their own. It’s not our world: it’s just outside of our own experiences. Waistcoats, cravats, lace dresses and textured fabrics establish the feel of looking through a worn stack of old family photographs. There’s a mix of everything, from the late 19th century through the 1930’s, with a touch of Carnivale-esque whimsy thrown in for fun. The color palette is awash with muted jewel tones—sepia tones, colors from a hand-painted Victorian photograph. The overall look is something that’s not unfamiliar, but still feels slightly out-of-time. Warm, textured fabrics add to the feel that you could have pulled that vest or that dress out of a musty attic trunk—a family heirloom, familiar yet foreign. Fabrics, colors, and styles denote status within the world, from royalty to madman and everything in between.

Relationships, both obvious and secret, abound within the script. Many of those relationships are never spoken, but colors worn or carried by the characters may hint at loyalties that lie beneath the surface. One of the wonderful things about designing on-site at William Peace University is that my workroom is next to the theatre space. I have the rare privilege of listening to the rehearsal process night after night, which helps me make costume choices that are going to reflect the actor’s interpretations of these classic characters. It also means that actors stop by my workspace when they’re on break and share character secrets. I get a lot of joy incorporating in little details that reflect those character secrets when I can—there are definitely a few mixed in here and there in Lear!

From a technical standpoint, Lear offers the costumer designer some fun technical challenges: bloody eye bandages, an army of scraggly knights, a Fool, the mad king, and Poor Tom. There was a lot of hot glue (Lear’s ‘crown of idle weeds’), and paint/makeup distressing to make characters look filthy. It’s not often you get to custom sew a beautiful waistcoat one day and then literally tear up and destroy a union suit the next. There’s a lot of room for flexibility and creativity in this show!

From kings to villains to madmen and everyone in between, this show was a joy to costume. I’m so glad to have had the chance to help build this world, create this family, and share this story with the community.