“What kind of underpants should I wear?”
That’s the question I get asked the most and I understand why. Actors like to build their characters from the bottom up, so to speak. And costumes work better when they’re created from the inside out, authentically, and in keeping with the period. And the right underwear provides the right foundation for any garment.
My line of work, and clothing, is Tudor and Jacobean. I’m the costume designer for the Catskills Shakespeare Theater Company. We’re based in Jacob’s Grand Hotel, in Walkers Ridge, upstate New York, and although we’re a small troupe operating on a miniscule budget, we pride ourselves on our professional Shakespeare performances that people have been coming to for decades, from all over New York state and beyond.
I’ve been here for about ten years. I started my career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon Avon, so you could say my whole career has been about helping actors look the part. I’ve dressed some of the biggest and best knights and dames of the British theater, and most of them were cooperative and fun to work with. And you’ll have to forgive me, but I still call the women actresses – it just makes my job easier to distinguish between male and female actors.
One of the most demanding actresses I ever worked with wasn’t someone with solid acting and box office credentials who might be entitled to be entitled, if you know what I mean. She was a young thespian, just starting to pay her dues, who thought herself way above wearing a previously worn costume, as everyone in the theatre, cinema and television does. She was much too grand for the likes of us! This young madam thought she deserved a new costume, designed and made just for her. Well, I told her it wasn’t going to happen and it didn’t – because she got herself killed. Murdered, in fact.
But the director suggested, and I agreed, that her replacement shouldn’t have to wear the costume the dead girl tried on – theater folk are a very superstitious lot — so my assistant, Aaron, made a new Juliet costume for the new girl and a great job he did, too. Oh, the irony of who got the new costume. But that’s Shakespeare for you. Irony abounds on and off the page and stage.
And as for underwear, well, like the rest of the costume, it depended on your status in life. A Tudor lady would wear a soft linen smock, or chemise, to protect the rest of her clothes from sweat and body oils. Beneath her chemise, she would wear stockings, which were tied with garters above the knees.
On top of her chemise, a lady would wear her bodice, designed to flatten the front of the chest and lift the breasts.
Underpants, knickers, panties – whatever you want to call them — didn’t really appear for another couple of centuries or so. But I want my actresses to be confident on stage, so I tell them to wear whatever they’re comfortable in, even if it breaks character. So the next time you see a Shakespeare in the Catskills production, you can ask yourself, is she or isn’t she?
You can read more about Charlotte Fairfax in Untimely Death, published Nov. 10, the first in the “Shakespeare in the Catskills” mystery series published by Crooked Lane Books.
About Untimely Death
A Catskills resort’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet takes a wickedly ironic turn when the leading lady, Lauren Richmond, is first poisoned and then stabbed. Who would extinguish the life of such a beautiful young thespian? Who wouldn’t? Seems like just about everyone had a motive to pull the ropes on her final curtain call.
At the center of this Shakespearian tragedy is Charlotte Fairfax, formerly the costume mistress of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Upstate New York is a long way from the royal stage, but Charlotte is always the queen of her domain. As this small production’s costume designer, she has stitched her way into everyone’s lives, learning more than anyone could possibly imagine about the rise and fall of Lauren Richmond. But curiosity killed the cat. And it might well kill the costume designer.
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Meet the author
Elizabeth J. Duncan is the multiple award-winning author of two mystery series: the well-established Penny Brannigan series set in Wales and Shakespeare in the Catskills, launching this November. A former journalist and public relations practioner, she is a faculty member of the Humber School for Writers. Elizabeth divides her time between Llandudno, North Wales and Toronto, Ontario, Canada.