Costume Society, Reviews  |  November 28, 2014

Designing ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’ at the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Shoemaker’s Holiday is a dark comedy set amongst the craftspeople of London in 1599. The writer Thomas Dekker, a Londoner himself, was enamoured with London life, London society – the hardships, humour, love and losses.

The Shoemaker’s Holiday is fantastically funny, fantastically dark. There are so many references to geography, to period details of the time, to currency, to locations – and to costume.  For example, French hoods are directly referenced in the text – that’s one example of the many references to clothing, and clothing as a marker for social status. That forms an interesting thread to follow for the costumes. One of the challenges of this show is how to get across the notion of status, class, subclasses – all things that nowadays are a little bit more blurred. But in 1599 there was a wealth of class differences, and Sumptuary laws dictated and certain ‘types’ of people couldn’t wear certain types of fabric. I’m not a historian, but you can see the display of wealth in peacock fashion during this period - displaying wealth through fabrics, layering fabrics, through the scale of costume and dress. Wealth was worn on the outside – there was very little subtlety.

So when two of our characters climb the social ladder – as they ascend, we beef up their costume silhouette. So Maggie, for instance, begins as a lowly serving wench, in a costume of rough textures, muted colours.  And as they gain in riches, her silhouette will change, her dress will get bigger, she’ll adopt the kind of shape in style at the time. By the end, Maggie has an incredibly garish French hood, and the quality of the cloth has changed, the silhouette has changed – finally ending up with a crude parody of Elizabeth I, with the biggest silhouette you could possibly have. Rather like someone in 2014 might look through glossy magazines and plump for what the most wealthy are wearing, she copies the wealthiest person in 1599- the Queen!

So in this way we tell a narrative through the costume. When I’m looking at costume I’m not necessarily trying to directly recreate the period style – that is only one part of it. It’s also about how to blend that knowledge of the period with character detail and narrative clarity. So they aren’t just pretty costumes. We’re taking the day to day thing we all do of getting dressed, and placing it into this different era, creating clothes rather than costumes, with general wear and tear, creating things we could feasibly see on the street.

And shoes. Even having chatted to people in positions of authority on shoe making there is not a lot of reference pre 1600 - so a lot of my job for this is academic guesswork! There is a limited pool of material to work from. But what we do know was approximately when the high heeled shoe was starting to come in to fashion in London. Ralph, one of the shoemakers, makes a shoe for his lover that is meant to be the finest shoe in London: in our production, that shoe is the only notable shoe with a heel. It’s the finest shoe because it is literally his brand new prototype – invented by our shoemaker in 1599.

By Max Jones, Designer Royal Shakespeare Company

The Shoemaker’s Holiday runs from 11 December 2014 to 7 March 2015 in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

  • Costume designs for Margery Credit: RSC
  • Costume designs for Margery Sheriff Credit: RSA
  • Costume designs for Margery Shopkeeper Credit: RSA