Thursday, March 27, 2014

Early Modern Thriftshopping

When the King's Men staged Middleton's A Game at Chess in 1624, their satire of the Spanish ambassador Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, conde de Gondomar was so explicit that they acquired pieces of Gondomar's wardrobe to use as costumes for the character of the Black Knight. The example is extreme, but not atypical. To the contrary, early modern plays were commonly costumed using the early modern equivalent of a thrift shop.

In early modern London, it was customary for lords of all ranks to bequeath their wardrobes to their servants in their wills. The clothing was typically expensive, and so the bequeathal would not be insubstantial, but the catch is that members of the servant class could not actually wear the clothing of their masters.

Early modern Englishpersons were extremely class-conscious, and a series of sumptuary laws defined who could wear what, and a series of fines for violating those laws. Also, this was a matter of practicality: the fanciest dress of the early modern era requires a servant to assist in dressing; if you can't afford a servant to help you dress in a suit, you have no business owning a suit you need a servant to assist you in putting on.

So what's a newly unemployed servant to do with their bequeathal of clothing that they can't wear? The answer was often sell that clothing to the playhouses. Exactly what that clothing entailed can be a bit hard to pin down. No records from the Lord Chamberlain's / King's Men are extent, and where Philip Henslowe, of the rival Admiral's Men, has recorded wardrobe items in his Diary, they are often in the form of "ij payer of grene hosse, and Andersones sewte," or "j owld white satten doublette." Robes for Henry the VIIIth, or gowns for Maid Marion are the order of the day; in most cases, once the players acquired their clothing pieces, where they came from ceased to matter, and what they were to be used FOR became of primary importance.

When Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" came out in 2012, those of us who work in theatre, and have spent many hours hunting for props and costumes in thrift shops were excited to have a theme song for the task, but as I and other members of The Cronicle Historie of Henry the Fift company look for the perfect pieces for the show, it's also good to know that this, too, is the modern form of an early modern staging condition.

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