The Importance of Being Earnest Costume Concept
Cecily:. Gwendolen, your common sense is invaluable. Mr. Moncrieff, kindly answer me the following question. Why did you pretend to be my guardian’s brother?
Algernon:. In order that I might have an opportunity of meeting you.
Cecily:. (To Gwendolen.) That certainly seems a satisfactory explanation, does it not?
Gwendolen:. Yes, dear, if you can believe him.
Cecily:. I don’t. But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer.
Gwendolen:. True. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.
For me, in this particular production of this play, the final sentence of this exchange sums up the main characters’ attitudes toward life. They are so thoroughly enamored with the form of being, that they make form and style “being” itself. It is as though they see all of life as a play, and themselves as more or less valuable insofar as their appearance is “smart” and their words “clever” regardless of content. “All art is quite useless.” Wilde once said, and these characters seem fully determined that “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” preferably both.
The Importance of Being Earnest, has, on occasion, been called an Existentialist play. In this production, the Existential obligation, to self-create meaning in a meaningless world, is a keynote to the character’s motives. Each main character self-creates an ideal, and then attempts to live up to that ideal, no matter what common sense obstacles intrude.
They are all very like a bride, so enamored of the ideal of love and marriage, that she agrees to marry the first man who offers, and then concentrates all her energy and purpose on having the “perfect” wedding. A “perfect” dress is made, a “perfect” series of music is chosen, “perfect” decorations are put up, and a “perfect” cake sits amidst the guests at a “perfect” reception. Everyone cries sentimental tears, there is a $20,000 bill for all this perfection, and within a few months the marriage has turned sour.
Anatoly Antohin, my director, has said that he wants everyone (except the servants) in summer white a’la “Fanny and Alexander” as if at the very beginning of the play everyone was ready for a wedding.Plot complications ensue for three acts, and when reality is tamed and forced to conform to everyone’s wishes by Act III curtain, the weddings can go on.The stage will be littered with suitcases and trunks, decorated like honeymoon luggage c.1900 with ribbons and flowers, and spewing forth clothing as decorated as those worn by the characters.
My central metaphor for the costumes in this play (including those which are spewing forth) is that of a wedding favor. For those not acquainted with these objects, a wedding favor is a small object, usually a group of 3-5 Jordan Almonds, wrapped in a combination of fluffy bridal illusion (fine net), cellophane and/or lace. They are often trimmed with white silk flowers, or decorated with objects like plastic doves holding rings in their beaks, plastic “glass” slippers, lacy hearts, or some over-blown combination of all of these. They are given to guests at the reception, and as any child will tell you, after you unwrap them, the contents seem either disappointing, or inedible. Even when you think you get to the core, you find on biting into the candy (often given a surreal finish of silver or gold leaf) that there is more hard, tooth-breaking sugar coating on the outside than there is actual almond in the center. I believe that the characters in Earnest not only are this way, but take great pains to be this way. Wilde said once “I sometimes think that God in creating man somewhat overestimated his ability.” The characters in Earnest intend to improve upon God’s version of themselves by wrapping themselves up in an ideal self.
The costumes in Earnest take the basic forms of upper class English dress of the era 1895-1900. However, to “push” this metaphor we are constructing them rather oddly. Firstly, everything (except the servants which will be dressed in the solid reality of c. 1895 servants dress), will be in shades of white. The farthest outer layer will be translucent net, lace, plastic or chiffon, so that all the complex inner layers will be revealed. However, with the sheer quantity of decoration, and layers, no skin will show other than the face. One’s impression should be of clothing, on top of clothing on top of clothing, excess piled on excess, till the audience imagines that “unwrapping” the character would make the person disappear altogether. The wrappings, in each layer will also be excessive, There will be silk flowers, on lace on ruffles on clear plastic, with even the hair/wigs being made of cellophane, ribbons and roses.
Jack’s hideously “off” note of coming in the middle of Act II dressed in mourning black will stick out like a sore thumb (even with a Translucent organza black tailcoat). Everyone keeps telling him to change, as though his variance from the excessively romantic cheerfulness of bridal white is an offence or social gaffe.
Gender too, is to be seen purely as a construct of clothing. Two of our “female” characters, Miss Prism, and Lady Bracknell were cast with male actors. The clear costume parts will reveal the “bust improvers” and “bustles” that help to aid both our male and female actors to portray “ideal” femininity. The clothing spewing out of the trunks will include extra bustles and other mysterious “improvers” that have a comically surreal shape, as if the people in the play might suddenly decide to go “Bunburying” as a person of opposite gender as easily as their own. Clothing for these people is not merely disguise, but the essence of a reinvented self: You are “Earnest” if you claim to be, Lady Bracknell is a Lady (not a man) because she dresses as one.
The translucency and shine of the costumes (aided by lots of cheap plastic) will help give a cellophane wrapped look that will make the clothing, hats and hair seem somehow insubstantial, even ghostlike. As if to say these people were brought to life by Wilde in 1895, and they continue to live, like airy spirits, as long as people wish to believe in “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” in “Love” and “Ideals”, as long as wit is prized, and romantic novels have the “good end happily, and the bad, unhappily.” We all see Gwen and Algy, Jack and Cecily, Prism, Chasuble and Aunt Augusta as deeply silly, yet we all wish at the same time that we were them. We wish that we were beautiful, witty, and full of determination to live and love happily ever after, reality be damned.