Women and Shakespeare

S4: E3: Ella Hawkins on Period Dress in Contemporary Shakespeare Performance & Biscuit Art

August 21, 2023 Dr Varsha Panjwani/Dr Ella Hawkins Season 4 Episode 3
S4: E3: Ella Hawkins on Period Dress in Contemporary Shakespeare Performance & Biscuit Art
Women and Shakespeare
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Women and Shakespeare
S4: E3: Ella Hawkins on Period Dress in Contemporary Shakespeare Performance & Biscuit Art
Aug 21, 2023 Season 4 Episode 3
Dr Varsha Panjwani/Dr Ella Hawkins

In this episode, Ella Hawkins talks about her book on 'Period Dress' in contemporary Shakespeare performance and about her biscuit art.

Her book is available in different formats: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/shakespeare-in-elizabethan-costume-9781350234420/

Check out her Instagram: ellamchawk

For a complete episode transcript, click http://www.womenandshakespeare.com

Interviewer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Ella Hawkins
Producer: Varsha Panjwani
Transcript: Benjamin Poore
Artwork: Wenqi Wan

Suggested Citation:  Hawkins, Ella in conversation with Panjwani, Varsha (2023). Ella Hawkins on Period Dress in Contemporary Shakespeare Performance & Biscuit Art. Women & Shakespeare [Podcast], Series 4, Ep. 3. http://womenandshakespeare.com/

Twitter: @earlymoderndoc
Insta: earlymoderndoc
Email: earlymoderndoc@gmail.com

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Ella Hawkins talks about her book on 'Period Dress' in contemporary Shakespeare performance and about her biscuit art.

Her book is available in different formats: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/shakespeare-in-elizabethan-costume-9781350234420/

Check out her Instagram: ellamchawk

For a complete episode transcript, click http://www.womenandshakespeare.com

Interviewer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Ella Hawkins
Producer: Varsha Panjwani
Transcript: Benjamin Poore
Artwork: Wenqi Wan

Suggested Citation:  Hawkins, Ella in conversation with Panjwani, Varsha (2023). Ella Hawkins on Period Dress in Contemporary Shakespeare Performance & Biscuit Art. Women & Shakespeare [Podcast], Series 4, Ep. 3. http://womenandshakespeare.com/

Twitter: @earlymoderndoc
Insta: earlymoderndoc
Email: earlymoderndoc@gmail.com

Varsha: Hello lovely listeners! Welcome to your favourite podcast, Women & Shakespeare. I am your host, Dr Varsha Panjwani, and earlier in the summer, I was standing in line to clear immigration in Denmark. I had gone there to present a paper on Shakespeare’s Sister and to meet one of my best friends who is also a Shakespearean. Not only was Shakespeare on my mind but also on my passport. As I absentmindedly flicked through my British passport, I noticed that pages 26 and 27 depict a performance taking place on the thrust stage of Shakespeare’s Globe. In this performance, the actors are dressed in ruffs, doublet and hose, and gowns. I thought about the intricacy with which Shakespeare is woven into the national fabric of this country and I wondered what sort of link was being promoted between Shakespeare, historical costume, and Britishness. 


Luckily, I knew just the person to help me think through these questions so it is my pleasure to introduce this episode’s guest, Dr Ella Hawkins. Ella is the author of the wonderful book, Shakespeare in Elizabethan Costume: ‘Period Dress’ in Twenty-First-Century Performance. This book is out in paperback now and a link to it is included in the show notes. So, you know what to do. Yes, that’s right, buy a copy if you haven’t already. Ella is not only a wonderful researcher but also a baker and artist and is known for her biscuit or cookie art. You have to check out her Instagram page to know what I am talking about! My students and I are ardent followers. So, without further ado, let’s welcome Ella! 


Varsha: [00:00:00] Ella, I am so pleased to welcome you to Women & Shakespeare. We have been engaging with your research and we are quite excited, but we have to say we love your Instagram page because those beautiful, beautiful biscuits. Oh my God. We're so excited to talk to you about all of these things. 

Ella: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I'm really happy to be here. 

Varsha: So let's dive right in. When did you first encounter Shakespeare, and what was the nature of that encounter? 

Ella: My earliest encounter in the theatre that I can remember is seeing a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at a theatre called Theatr Clywd, which is in Wales, which is an hour from my hometown. And the thing that was exciting about that at the time is the actress playing Titania had been in this TV show called Skins. And so that was, like, the super exciting thing about going to see that production. 

Varsha: And was it in historical inspired dress? Do you remember? 

Ella: I can't [00:01:00] remember. I've spoken to someone more recently who reminded me that there were a lot of leaves involved. Part of the set design was that leaves were all over the stage and it was a nightmare to clean up. But I have no memory at all of what kind of costumes and I'd love to look it up. So I'll have to check. 

Varsha: Oh yeah. You need to find out where, yeah. Where this love of costume has started. Yes.

Varsha: On that note, your work is about Shakespeare in Elizabethan or Jacobean, or we'll call it Jacobethan costume. But you examine how are they being used today and so on. And we will delve into the specifics very soon. But what got you interested in researching costumes in the first place?

Ella: I started looking into design more generally while I was doing my undergraduate degree. I had the option to do a third-year module on design for Shakespeare and hadn't really thought about it before at all. But I wanted to do a Shakespeare module and that was the Shakespeare module available.

Ella: So I took it, loved it, wanted to carry on looking at [00:02:00] design particularly as I carried on through my Master's and sort of thought about PhD projects. And I've always been obsessed with period dramas. I'm just really into historical dress, anything. It's just what I enjoy doing, you know, for fun as well as thinking about it for research.

Ella: So it was when I was thinking up, like, what could I possibly do a research project on for my PhD that is design focused. I saw a production of Henry V. It was at the RSC, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and it was in medieval costumes, it wasn't Elizabethan, but they were so streamlined and stylish and beautiful to look at.

Ella: They didn't feel completely historical, and it just struck me in that performance as I was watching it. There's something so fascinating about that process of translation, making something simultaneously historical, but also completely modern, and that felt like something I really wanted to dig into more deeply.

Ella: So I followed that, focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean as opposed to medieval as a starting [00:03:00] point, and followed it from there. 

Varsha: Great, and we have been using a lot of terminology right now. In your book Shakespeare in Elizabethan Costume: ‘Period Dress’ in Twenty-First-Century Performance you discuss a range of costume design concepts or practices such as ‘original practices’ costume, and ‘historically-inspired’ costume. I think they're often conflated under the period dress label. So could you please elaborate on the diversity of approaches to period dress?

Ella: Yes, absolutely. I think the terminology issue is a huge one and one that I was interested in all the way through writing the book. And the reason why ‘period dress’ I've included as a subtitle in inverted commas is because if you read a theatre review or if you look at many different scholarly writings about Shakespeare, it's a really helpful catchall phrase that people have used to describe any production or any film that does [00:04:00] set the production in the past, usually Elizabethan and Jacobean, but also it can be used ‘period dress’ meaning 20th century or medieval dress.

Ella: So it's a really widely used term, and it's something that I sort of wanted to go further with to break that down, to go further than saying ‘it's in period dress’, to think about what that actually means and how many different things that term is used to describe.

Ella: So I put it in the subtitle to make sure it was catching that, but also indicating that hopefully I was gonna dig into that a bit more deeply. So in the book, I do look at different approaches, as you say, with sort of different chapters addressing those different approaches. That was one of my key findings in the whole project really, is just how many different reasons directors and designers use and adapt Elizabethan dress to do completely different things, and that's why it felt like such an exciting project.

Ella: So ‘original practices’, as you mentioned, is an approach that's very historically minded in a research sense. [00:05:00] So this is about practitioners, particularly associated with Shakespeare's Globe, and particularly between 1997 and 2005, that the practitioners, Jenny Tiramani and her team, have continued following that approach since, separately from the Globe.

Ella: That was all about rediscovering those historical dressing and dressmaking practices. Techniques that had been lost to time potentially, or that were perhaps used in the historical reconstruction industry, but less so in the theatre. So that was all about going to museum collections, looking at surviving garments from the period, and understanding how they were made in minute detail.

Ella: So the layers of fabrics, the kinds of fabrics, the kinds of dress making practices, how seams were sewn, all these things, how they were cut, how they fitted on the body. So it was all about understanding how clothes were worn and made. Actually, that generated an enormous amount of material that we now sort of now understand better that period of dress history.

Ella: [00:06:00] But completely sort of the opposite end of the spectrum, theatre practitioners use historical dress to perhaps imagine what the fairy world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream looks like in a way that's not in any way looking to be historically accurate, but using those costumes to capture something about whether that's the supernatural or the imagination or magic, something that feels sort of fantastical and something that's completely different from modern reality, but that still has this really interesting relationship with Shakespeare and Shakespeare's time.

Ella: So, and there's others, many others in addition to those two different things, there's a whole spectrum where it goes in different directions, where it can be deconstructed, there can be individual garments taken out of context and used to kind of remind us of particular ideas that they sort of generate. But that diversity of approaches felt really exciting, and that's what I love about it, I think. 

Varsha: You spoke about different garments or costume elements that evoke [00:07:00] the Jacobean period aesthetic and actually have become associated with Shakespeare himself quite a lot.

Ella: Mm-hmm.

Varsha: So the ruff, which is a pleated collar or a frill worn around the neck, it's of course one of these garments that has become so associated with both the period and with Shakespeare. And you have made one out of toilet rolls in your house. So listeners I can see in Ella's study this beautiful, actually really regal looking ruff that she has made out of toilet rolls. It's excellent.

Ella: Thank you.

Varsha: In this context, please tell us about the ruff-wearing Thespian Cucumber, the beruffed cat, and the bull, all of which appears in your book. 

Ella: That's right. Yes. The ruff element of my project came kind of out of nowhere. I assumed that the ruff would be part [00:08:00] of just a general, you know, Elizabethan-inspired approach to staging Shakespeare.

Ella: That any period dress production might just sort of draw on the ruff as part of a wider approach of using different garments from the period. But actually, it turns out the ruff has this enormous signifying power that everything relating to Shakespeare. And that has expanded out way beyond performance into all aspects of modern culture, but also sort of through history as well.

Ella: So I use what's called the Thespian Cucumber as a way into thinking about that in the book. So basically a few years ago Hendricks Gin, so a brand of gin, decided as a marketing campaign they were going to celebrate World Cucumber Day. Which existed already, but in a much more niche way. But they decided to really co-opt that and run with it and make it part of their brand.

Ella: And as part of that campaign – they presented cucumbers, because that was a garnish for gin, that was the connection – in different contexts. So drawing on various, sometimes stereotypes, [00:09:00] sometimes you know, just different associations, different garments, different places to give those cucumbers particular personalities or qualities or associations.

Ella: And one of those was the Thespian Cucumber. They wanted a cucumber that really captured everything that Shakespeare has come to represent in modern culture, that sense of prestige, high culture, those red plush curtains, everything that we think about as like high culture. So it was a funny, inherently funny thing they were trying to do by making it elevated, to that status.

Ella: And what they did is they showed a cucumber and it was wearing a ruff, so just a ruff. There were other things there as well. There were those sort of plush curtains in the background, but the fact that the cucumber was wearing a ruff was what made it Shakespearean, is what gave it that status. And that same technique has been used everywhere.

Ella: You'll find the bull that you mentioned outside the Bull Ring Shopping Centre in Birmingham when it was Shakespeare's the 400th anniversary of his death, which was 2016, to celebrate that they put a massive ruff on the bull statue [00:10:00] outside. And the Shakespaw Cat Café in Stratford-upon-Avon that has its sign outside is a portrait, one of those like historically re-imagined portraits of a cat. And it's wearing a ruff and that's what makes it Shakespearean.

Ella: So it's become this very specific garment, which is these starched pleats of fabric. By adding that to anything, you make it Shakespearean. And that is fascinating to me about how this one garment has come to have such power that you can put it anywhere and really draw on all those ideas and qualities that Shakespeare has come to sort of embody in modern culture.

Ella: So that is how they appear in my book, the Thespian Cucumber, the bull and the cat wearing ruffs. 

Varsha: I think I'm gonna experiment with that, creating Shakespearean things around the house. 

Ella: Please do. 

Varsha: And isn't that a great lesson plan as well, just to put a ruff on objects and see if students identify it as Shakespearean? I bet that they will. [00:11:00] 

Ella: Absolutely. 

Varsha: Would you say that there are some other pieces of clothing that have become shorthand for the Jacobethan period and for Shakespeare? And could you please describe them if there are any such. 

Ella: Yeah, there are several other garments particularly that will immediately go Elizabethan, you know, early modern, probably with a less direct connection to Shakespeare, but certainly for the period.

Ella: So you've got your doublet and hose, which is the menswear, the combination of a sort of jacket and those puffy pants. Those like, puffy trousers that finished above the knee. So short trousers. Those are very, very specific to the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. And that's what they evoke for us now.

Ella: So any man wearing a doublet and hose, or a woman wearing a doublet and hose, will immediately take you to that period. And probably you'll also think if it's Elizabethan, it might be Shakespeare related. So there's that. There's also, for women, the shape, it's the silhouette of the gown of the dress that would be worn.

Ella: [00:12:00] So a very conical shaped torso. So sort of going narrower at the waist and being wider at the top without that curved waist. So just sort of a straight line and then going in the opposite direction for the skirt. So it's almost like an hourglass, but with straight lines instead of curvy lines. That will immediately shout early modern, Elizabethan, Jacobean, in historical women's wear. 

Ella: Also the codpiece, which is an interesting one. That is the exaggerated, genitalia-shaped garment that men wore between their legs that protruded out. You can probably imagine why. But that's actually more of a Tudor fashion that had very much shrunk and become almost, you know, not visible by the Elizabethan period.

Ella: But it continues to have that association with us today. And you'll often see it in costume designs, particularly as a sort of ludicrous symbol of amorousness, you know, someone being particularly sexual. So it does crop up even though it's much more of a Tudor item. And also, I'll [00:13:00] say corset, but in the period it was referred to as, ‘bodies’ didn't become the corset until later.

Ella: It's a different kind of garment, but that's the women's underwear that shaped the torso into that conical shape. So a sort of bone, so a stiffened garment, that crops up all over the place as well. Particularly now as a symbol of restriction, maybe oppression, although it's worth noting that that's not the historical use of the garment.

Ella: It was kind of the early modern version of a bra. You know, it was important for support and was actually, if it's fitted to your body, it's very comfortable to wear. It was much later, and if things were ill fitted, they might have that restrictive thing. But yeah, so those are a few garments. 

Varsha: I mean, the codpiece. I'm glad it faded out. 

Ella: Yes, yes. 

Varsha: No one needs to see that. 

Ella: No, no. 

Varsha: Well, would you say that the companies that are associated with performing Shakespeare in [00:14:00] period costume are accorded more cultural significance than companies that perform Shakespeare in modern dress?

Varsha: What I'm trying to say is that, is there a lingering notion that period dress is actually the proper way to do Shakespeare? So the companies who are doing Shakespeare in period dress are the more properly Shakespearean companies? 

Ella: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that is a really interesting question and it's a really difficult one to pin down.

Ella: For sure, yes, there is an association that doing Shakespeare in early modern dress or just in historical dress more generally – so that would be medieval for the histories, Roman dress for the Roman plays, you know, that sort of historical context – is seen quite widely still as being the proper, in inverted commas, way to stage Shakespeare.

Ella: The fact that that has associations with specific companies comes more from the sort of length of time that they've been in operation. So for example, the Royal Shakespeare [00:15:00] Company has a very strong association with historical dress, but that's because since the sixties when it became the Royal Shakespeare Company, but also previously when it was the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, the company has a really long history of staging Shakespeare in historical dress, but very rarely does it nowadays.

Ella: Hasn't been doing it for the last 20 years or so in terms of the majority of its productions. This company now does a lot of modern dress, does a lot of alternative historical periods, like more modern, maybe 20th century.

Ella: All kind of reclaiming Elizabeth and dress and using it in a very pointed way, not in a sort of just putting the plays in the past kind of way. So they do have that history and the fact that many audience members have witnessed that performance history. They've been seeing Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Company and also at the National Theatre for decades.

Ella: And if you've grown up seeing Shakespeare in historical dress, that does feel like the way it should be staged. 

Ella: If you were to look at wider, you know, theatre companies that were in operation during the 20th century that we might [00:16:00] not think about immediately now.

Ella: They will also probably have been performing Shakespeare in historical dress because that was the performance tradition of the time. We've shifted since the nineties, really much more towards a modern dress tradition. So it is part of a wider cultural shift. But also the Shakespeare's Globe is quite an interesting outlier in that respect because actually it's a relatively new theatre.

Ella: It opened in 1997. And that theatre in particular has a very strong association with historical dress. And that's partly because during that first artistic directorship, when Mark Rylance was artistic director, and that was 1996, he began, before it opened, till 2005, the theatre was associated very strongly with that ‘original practices’ approach.

Ella: So that historical research into original performance practices. But the person who came after Mark Rylance, Dominic Dromgoole, was also very interested in historical dress, but in a very different way, much more in terms of modernizing those historical costumes so they're readable, they're legible to [00:17:00] modern audiences, but they still look old.

Ella: And then since then there's been much more reinvention. So since Emma Rice and Michelle Terry, very much historical dress is still there largely because of the sort of past-ness of the building. There's a real association with, you know, there's an interesting relationship with history there. And so historical dress continues to be really prominent, but now in a hugely deconstructed, imaginative way.

Ella: So they are an outlier in that they don't have that same sense of sort of performance history in the 20th century and previously, but because of that relationship with the past, they have a slightly unique relationship with it. 

Varsha: You said that the Royal Shakespeare Company doesn't actually put many of its productions now in period dress. But I enjoyed your argument that even though it doesn't do that anymore, it does promote a link between Shakespeare in period dress and its own company identity. [00:18:00] Could you tell us the ways in which the company celebrates its links with period dress Shakespeare? 

Ella: Yes, absolutely. This is something that I was really inspired by the work of a friend of mine, Beth Sharrock, who writes about paratexts in a contemporary performance.

Ella: Beth’s written about how when you go and see a livestreamed production from the Royal Shakespeare Company anywhere in the world, there'll be like an introductory section where there might be a TV presenter introducing the show.

Ella: There might be a video introducing the history of the company. They might show some production photos to give you that sense of what's happened before this production. And again, in the interval, the company really works to kind of create that sense of institutional identity in those materials surrounding the show. And so there you'll be seeing production photos very often from that earlier period. So before you are exposed to the opening scenes of a modern dress Romeo and Juliet, for example, you'll see perhaps the 1960s, 1970s, you'll see like Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, all these [00:19:00] people wearing historical dress.

Ella: So you really get that sense of historical dress that is giving a sense of prestige and cultural weight for the organization potentially. But also if you go to the Royal Shakespeare Company gift shop, you'll see those same kinds of pictures. So those celebrities of the past wearing those historical forms of dress, they'll be on espresso cups, they'll be on umbrellas, on postcards that you can buy and take home, because that's so much part of what that company is and how it sort of celebrates itself.

Ella: And interestingly, the National Theatre, although those two companies were established almost exactly the same time, and they've shared practitioners between them, they're much less interested in celebrating and promoting that past. If you go to the National Theatre gift shop, you'll see much less of that historical, you know, performance practice and much less so in those introductory videos, which is really interesting in terms of how those two institutions present themselves.

Ella: But there are lots of opportunities, lots of places where you'll see that past, particularly at the Royal Shakespeare Company just sort of [00:20:00] coming through into visibility. 

Varsha: They had this project as well, Stitch in Time, I think?

Ella: Yes. Oh, yes. That's a very good thing to mention. Yes. So the Royal Shakespeare Company wanted to completely redevelop their costume department because it had been based in the same place for a very long time and it really wasn't very practical. It's very nice in historical looking with, I think, wonky floors and small spaces, but it really wasn't practical for actually running a contemporary 21st century theatre costume department.

Ella: And so in order to raise the money they needed to completely redevelop a building to get those facilities. They promoted this Stitch in Time campaign, which was showing the quality and the skill of the craftsmanship that goes into these costumes.

Ella: And that was partly through, they had in the theatre foyer, this historical dress that they'd created specially for this this campaign. It was this yellow sort of gold dress. And that was visible. You could see the different layers that go into a doublet and hose where they sort of peeled [00:21:00] back to show the construction that goes into it. But they also had different merchandise that you could buy and different ways that you could learn about what the company does online. And that was really focused on historical dress because it really shows off that skill and that quality that goes into the construction. So yes, absolutely they promoted it in that sense as well, which was, yeah, I was fascinated by that too.

Varsha: I just want to think about period dress and its associations a bit more. So, as you probably know, I research Indian productions of Shakespeare. 

Ella: Yes. 

Varsha: And in Indian productions of Shakespeare as well, sometimes they use the doublet and hose Elizabethan style of costume. But when they use it in an Indian production, it generally signals an alignment with an English tradition of Shakespeare. And if they break from it or if they mix it up, then it obviously suggests an Indian [00:22:00] ownership of the playwright’s work.

Varsha: So they're using costume for making such national significations of ownership. So do you think that there is a link between period costume and an assertion of English ownership of Shakespeare in this country? 

Ella: That's such an interesting question and it's so fascinating to hear about the context in which, in Indian performance, that the costumes have been used and those significations that it has.

Ella: Yeah. I think especially looking back at performance history to kind of look at where these associations have come from, there has been a very strong association between historically inspired Shakespeare and Englishness. So I'm thinking back to in the 18th century, there was something called the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, which was an art gallery.

Ella: It wasn't performance, but it was this man called John Boydell who wanted to set up an English national school of painting. And he thought, well, what better subject than Shakespeare [00:23:00] to make my national school of English painting to celebrate everything that it means to be English. 

Ella: And so the paintings in that gallery, many of those, sometimes for the first time, showed the characters from those plays wearing Elizabethan and Jacobean dress, and that all became bundled up with the Elizabethan era having very nationalistic English connotations of a golden period of the past, really. So ever since then there has been this association of Englishness, Shakespeare, Elizabethan-ness, all packaged up into one thing.

Ella: So yes, there has been, certainly in the past. It's really open to discussion about what role it plays now, particularly in which context those sorts of costumes are used. In terms of performance now, it really feels, at least in the current moment, I'm thinking of the last few years particularly, there's been a massive trend in just reinventing and using those costumes to signal some kind of break from those various associations.

Varsha: And the first thing [00:24:00] that does come to mind is if Shakespeare is in period dress, then it must be celebrating the pastness of the work, or it is a nostalgic exercise. 

Varsha: But we've been talking about this and your book proves that designers, and I quote you now, ‘look back in time not to facilitate an escape to a lost or a better past, but to provide a space in which ideas of the present can play out with a degree of distance from reality’. Now, could you tell us a little bit more about what that means and maybe why we need that distance from reality to see our ideas play out?

Ella: Yes, definitely. The idea of this lost and better past and this association of historical dress with nostalgia was kind of that setting up point that I wanted to explore beyond to see those different ways that costume was working. So that's why I come to the conclusion that it is not just about nostalgia.

Ella: Sure, sometimes nostalgia plays into [00:25:00] it. But also there were so many examples where there were really critical things being explored through those costumes. I think for me, a really interesting question is why productions have chosen at any point in history to set the plays in that period.

Ella: Is it because they are looking to situate the plays there, saying these are problems of their period? Let's look at them in their period, and that sort of explains them away a little bit? Say The Taming of the Shrew, for example. Are we going to look at it as being an early modern problem, which we don't need to worry about because it's in its period?

Ella: Or are the costumes being used to really think about that gap between then and now? So say for example, there was a production of Othello in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is at Shakespeare's Globe, in 2017. They used ruffs and they used other garments, but in a really pointed way. Their whole drive behind the production was to highlight that the domestic violence in the play and also the racism is just as [00:26:00] relevant today as it was when the play was written, and they were using those garments coupled with modern dress.

Ella: So like the Duke would come in wearing a ruff and take a photo of the murder scene on his smartphone. They were just collapsing the gap between then and now using costumes as a kind of indicator of that to really highlight that like, in many ways, not much has changed. So costume I think, has enormous potential for exploring that gap and for thinking critically about past versus present.

Ella: But also, it's really worth thinking about the motives behind why productions are set in the past or now. That is a really fruitful area to think about, I think, in terms of understanding what the production's doing. 

Varsha: So Shakespeare attracts a lot of, you know, different types of audiences. How do you think period costume can intersect with ideas of representation of race and gender and sexuality [00:27:00] on stage today?

Ella: Theatres are doing really important work on that at the moment, particularly in the last few years, there's been an awful lot of reinvention and a lot of widening who gets to wear these costumes and who looks particular ways in performance and how productions are cast and how they're costumed.

Ella: The relationship between casting and costume is also hugely important. So a production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Company more recently, 2019, I wanna say? It was gender flipped. They completely turned the play on its head and had matriarchs instead of patriarchs.

Ella: And they used Elizabethan dress to really communicate the status of these characters wearing these enormous farthingales, huge ruffs, big hair. So it was Elizabethan, but also it was completely in the present day as well. It put women in power, and part of that power was generated through what they were wearing, that sense of, a) the sort of historical status that those costumes provide.

Ella: But also just about how much they took up space. You know, [00:28:00] these women wearing enormous dresses that were actually larger than they would've been historically to really emanate that sense of grandeur and status.

Varsha: Something that is so huge and, you know, we can think of it as restrictive, but it was used in this production to indicate women taking up space, right? 

Ella: Yes.

Varsha: I read about a modern designer who has designed a dress called Social Distancing, where – 

Ella: Yes!

Varsha: where I heard that it works on the principle that if someone's coming into your personal space, the dress just expands.

Varsha: Yeah. So it's quite interesting that these kind of modern techniques are speaking to these historical costumes of just being bigger and taking up space and removing people in your personal space. 

Ella: Yes! Oh, I remember seeing those pictures like during the early stages of the pandemic, like, I need a farthingale. Definitely. They've [00:29:00] finally come back!

Varsha: I love it. And I also love how you have said that actually historical costume can help us in thinking about who is getting to wear these costumes and what does it say? Because it would be quite easy to, when we, cast, say for example, people of colour or people of a certain sexuality and gender fluidity on stage to put them in modern dress.

Varsha: It would be very easy to do so, but just exploring how they can be in period dress, how they can communicate what has happened to them historically or what is happening to them in the play through period dress. I find that quite fascinating.

Ella: Absolutely. Absolutely. These costumes carry with them such weight of history and tradition.

Ella: So by exploring what they're doing today, I think it [00:30:00] has a lot of power and potential to enact bigger change.

Varsha: Yes, absolutely. Well, we cannot end this conversation without asking you about your biscuit creations because my students and I are huge fans. Could you please tell our listeners. How you use biscuits for public engagement, how you thought of this delicious idea, and also would you call these adaptations?

Ella: Yes. So I make biscuits or cookies as they're known elsewhere. I've always been a very creative person that I enjoy making things as well as writing about things and researching things.

Ella: I get the making urge. And so I’ve baked as long as I can remember for fun. But the beginning of the intersection between research and baking and particularly biscuits came back when I was interviewing designers as part of my research. So when I was going to interview Jenny Tiramani about ‘original practices’ costumes at the Globe, I made a set of biscuits that were inspired by [00:31:00] her costume design for Twelfth Night to just sort of capture something about that aesthetic, the overall style and to just show just that I loved them and that I wanted to, to really think about them in detail.

Ella: So that's where it started, and I so enjoyed the process of trying to capture that production's costume design in that collection of biscuits. And so I've carried on doing it and it's sort of gained momentum over time because that was a few years ago now.

Ella: It's only really over the last year during the pandemic that it's become a much more kind of regular weekend activity. But I've broadened it out to do all different periods of design history because you can make anything through royal icing and painting the royal icing or building up texture and layers and sort of detail using different techniques.

Ella: And yes, absolutely. It's a process of adaptation. It's about looking at whether it's the costume design for a film. So I did one set based on the 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma, but also TV [00:32:00] shows. So whether that's Outlander – historical dress – Game of Thrones, other things like that, or periods of design history, like Arts and Crafts or ancient Greek pottery sherds, or my most recent one was medieval tiles.

Ella: So it is just become this thing where I'll look at a period of history or a museum collection and I'll just be like, ‘This needs to be biscuits’, and I take a lot of pleasure in that process of adaptation and seeing if I can capture something about the original. 

Ella: And they have turned out to be a really good way of celebrating the material culture of the past and the present and costume design and film design, all different things, because they are drawing attention to those things in a wildly unexpected form. I think is what makes it interesting is, you know, someone will see like, ‘Oh, I recognize these patterns – wait, they’re biscuits!’

Ella: So having that weird combination of things is I think what makes them distinctive and that's why they work quite well I think as public engagement. It's a way of sharing [00:33:00] research, museum collections, the work of costume designers, the work of, you know, directors with a much wider audience and by holding workshops and that kind of thing it goes even further of sort of thinking about culture in a slightly unusual way. 

Varsha: We love them, and if, if you invite us to an entire exhibition of your biscuits alone with designs, we are totally signed up. 

Ella: Oh, thank you. 

Varsha: With a banquet of biscuits in the end, so, yeah. Just dropping it there and I'm sure our listeners are gonna flock to this event. 

Ella: Yeah, that would be fun, though I think it goes against like museum laws about like bringing food into things. It's a, it seems to go against all the rules. 

Varsha: Well, that's what we like and I absolutely [00:34:00] enjoyed talking to you so much, Ella, thank you for your time and for sharing all of these very exciting thoughts on costume with us. People haven't done that before on this podcast, so I'm sure our listeners will really appreciate it. 

Ella: Oh, thank you so much. I've had such a lovely time. 

Varsha: That was Dr Ella Hawkins talking about Shakespeare in period costume in all its manifestations, costume histories of various companies, and biscuit art. In our next episode, we will continue the design theme and talk to my favourite prop-maker magician, Emily Ingram. So, remember to tune in to Women & Shakespeare, streaming at Apple Podcast and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with a full transcript, head over to the website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. For now, dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu and keep smashing the patriarchy!