Wednesday, April 10, 2013

89. A Costume Correspondence

In a recent issue of Theatre Design & Technology (volume 49, Number 1, winter 2013), Margaret Mitchell published an article on 'A costume correspondence. The theatrical war effort of Charles Ricketts'. The text is available online on the Willard F. Bellman Digital Archives of TD&T

Margaret Mitchell is a costume and scenic designer and a professor of theatre arts at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, and her article is based on documents in the collection of the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. The Robert L.B. Tobin Theatre Arts Collection of the museum contains a box of letters and drawings by Ricketts to Penelope Wheeler, an actress, who (with Lena Ashwell) co-organized a war-time tour for wounded British and French soldiers and their medical staff.

Ricketts designed costumes for three Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, although the last play was never produced. The shows were staged in Le Havre in 1918. Ricketts started working on the designs in September 1917, and he had to design no less than fifty dresses. For economic reasons he designed interchanging parts for about twenty of those.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek has a doublet embroidered with grapes, squirrels, and butterflies; the Prince jewelled gloves. Shylock is terrific, Portia has a dress covered with mermaids, Jessica wears the Oriental garb of the Jewesses in Bellini and Carpaccio, I have introduced the striped dress of the Mass of Bolsena and Titian's Paduan frescoes, some persons have arabesques on their tights and gold wings on their hats. (Self-Portrait, 1939, p. 302-303)

Shannon agreed that these designs were among his best, but neither Ricketts nor Shannon saw any of the performances.

Charles Ricketts, letter to Penelope Wheeleer (Mc Nay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas)

The article describes the London costume trade and the changes it underwent during the First World War, when certain fabrics were hard to come by, costs were higher than before, and concerns over wigs and beards added to the difficulties. Margaret Mitchell writes:

Ricketts had four months to design and supervise the creation of the costumes. In addition to fabric shortages, money problems, and general wartime concerns and stresses, an incomplete cast during the building of the costumes forced Ricketts to design costumes that could be fit to a range of sizes and physical shapes. His letters indicate that he did not understand who would be playing some of the male roles or supernumeraries.

In December 1917, Ricketts wrote to Penelope Wheeler:

I have stencilled about 100 yards of stuff and I am in advanced state of senile decay.

Although Ricketts probably worked for no fee, seeing his effort as a way of supporting wartime charity, he insisted that the seamstresses were paid. In the first week of January 1918 the costumes were ready, and after Wheeler had inspected them at her home, they were packed and shipped to France. Ricketts wrote long notes for alterations, and instructions for the actors.

Among instructions for bow tying and jewelry wearing, Ricketts explains problems with the construction. He gives advice for makeup and hairdressing, and he also tries to troubleshoot fitting problems. He indicates a few surprises; he sent extra tights and extra green satin fabric for sashes, as well as a costume for a supernumerary not yet cast: "I have included a costume for a black page for Portia. I imagine you can steal or borrow a French child for the purpose."

After the war, the costumes were reused for other plays and performances. A summary of the importance of these wartime letters about costumes is given at the end of Margaret Mitchell's article:

The letters from Charles Ricketts to Penelope Wheeler provide a vivid window into the past. His handwriting gives us the pictures: the middle-ages designer is bent over the 100 yards of stenciling late at night; the designed furniture satin is not to be had; the manager/star does not provide enough money; the situation requires complicated touring logistics; the designer encounters the obstacles of inflation; stressed collaborators slam the door in the designer's face; the designer depends on the underpaid, overworked miracle worker who has it in her hands and mind to achieve the impossible; the designer is overcommitted, and swirling around him are lost friends, financial troubles, and a violent world in conflict facing an unknown future. Even so, Ricketts insists on the perfect hem, the precise height of the feather, the exacting spangle pattern, and the emotional and physical communion of actor and costume.