Contemplating ‘Costuming the Leading Ladies of Shakespeare: From Stratford to Orange County’ at UC Irvine

Before Ophelia’s madness set in. Photo by Allan Helmick

The first work of Shakespeare’s I ever saw performed was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On the giant white-box set, the lovers swung on trapezes, and acrobatic tricks amazed with shimmering props. It enthralled my 13-year-old self, creating the delusion that all Shakespeare was done just like that. Much later, I learned that the production was a groundbreaking international hit directed by Peter Brook. As imaginative as it was, all the elements served the story—including the costumes.

The first actress you encounter in the compact lobby exhibit “Costuming the Leading Ladies of Shakespeare: From Stratford to Orange County” at UC Irvine’s Langson Library is Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. In the reproduction of a painting by John Singer Sargent, Terry wears one of the most notorious costumes in Shakespearean leading-lady history: The dress has a crocheted layer in green wool and metallic blue thread, but its eye-catching iridescence is provided by a thousand green beetles’ wings. (They are routinely shed, not ripped off the insect.)

The actual gown was on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and one of its patrons once aptly remarked that the crochet overlay evoked both soft chain mail and the scales of a snake—perfect for the power-hungry, murderous queen to manipulate her younger, warrior husband toward the crown. The garment’s design gives a nod to the era of Shakespeare’s source material (the Scottish king Macbeth was born in 1005), while also remaining contemporary to the late 19th century, when Terry dominated the London stage.

The Bard’s plays are sometimes set during his lifetime, when noblemen’s castoffs were given to servants, who then sold the dresses or doublets to actors; in the historical time of the story; or transported to outer space or a circus or “modern dress,” most often the present day. Prior to the 19th century, actors wore what they wanted or what they could get without regard for other players, explained co-curator Scott Stone, UCI’s research librarian for the performing arts. But it was during Terry’s career that costumes began to be cohesive.

Concurrent with Terry, Helena Modjeska was the star of Poland, specializing in Shakespeare’s tragic roles. Modjeska emigrated to the United States in 1876, settling in Orange County’s Santa Ana Mountains with her husband. She named her ranch Arden after the forest in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (it’s part of OC Parks in what’s now known as Modjeska Canyon). Not adept at ranching, Modjeska returned to the stage and designed her own costumes, prompting recent MFA costume-design grad Danielle Nieves to focus her research on the actress. Nieves’ exhibit, “Speaking Through Style: The Lasting Impact of Helena Modjeska’s Costuming,” was installed in the actress’ sewing room at Arden.

Inspiration. Photo by Allan Helmick

UCI’s Special Collections & Archives has a trove of items from her stage career. But my favorite on display at Langson Library is the actress and producer’s magical book of fairy tales, drawn by hand for her grandchild. On each spread, Modjeska reserved one page for a full-color drawing, and the other for the text in both English and Polish. Whimsical creatures float among the words, and a vine or other tendril divides the two languages. Ask to see inside if the book is shut.

A character study of Ophelia fills the exhibit’s largest showcase. It’s big enough to display the gowns worn by Maribel Martinez in New Swan Shakespeare’s 2016 production of Hamlet. The costume hanging on the left is in pristine layers of creamy lace, while the one on the right is a filthy version of the same dress, capturing Ophelia’s swift shift from maiden to madwoman. The original sketch in white line against a black background reveals how the design evolved to the final version worn by Martinez.

Also in the Ophelia case are circulating and reference books open to pages depicting the character. Next to one of Modjeska’s wigs is a photo of her 1889 Ophelia costume that broke convention because it was green, not white. Aside from actresses’ interpretations, there are artists’ renderings of the tragic character. Sir Everett Millais’ famous portrait (1850-’51) of Ophelia may have influenced Modjeska; in it, she’s just drowned in a stream while wearing a heavily beaded dress, the green-dominant strands floating alongside the flowers Hamlet’s mother names in the play.

Modjeska’s wig. Photo by Allan Helmick

Production books, stage manager’s notes and other rehearsal artifacts from UCI shows in 1966, ’92 and 2017 fill another display, the items on loan from the directors’ archives. Not included was the costume I wore in the 1980 production of Richard III. Lady Anne is in mourning, so my gown was in black silks and velvets, with silver sleeves and trim. All the ladies had tall, princess hats, though the high points were cut off flat like a fez. A gossamer ruffle trimmed mine, flopping madly around my face whenever I moved.

During Anne’s big scene, she weeps over the corpse of her father-in-law, then curses his murderer (Richard, who also happened to have killed her husband). She is accompanied by various servants and protectors, one of which was played by Jon Lovitz. During one rehearsal, I heard sniggering and corpsing, as the Brits call breaking character. The director stopped us. During his lecture on proper rehearsal behavior, I figured out what had gone down. The actor playing the corpse had gotten a woody. Lovitz had it in for me from then on: teasing, trying to break my concentration. Not funny. Luckily, my costume empowered me against his shenanigans.

Aside from that totally understandable omission by co-curators Stone and Joshua Hutchinson, the exhibit’s variety of costumes on just a few characters provides visual evidence of Shakespeare’s rich text, universal themes and sorcery provoking infinite interpretations.

Time your visit this summer to coincide with productions of Midsummer or Winter’s Tale on the New Swan stage, just outside the library.

Costuming the Leading Ladies of Shakespeare: From Stratford to Orange County” at UC Irvine’s Langson Library, West Peltason and Pereira drives, Irvine; www.lib.uci.edu/langson. Check website for hours. Through Sept. 30. Free.