Historical accuracy in costume design: experiences and perceptions of Broadway costume designers

Jablon, Sara
Major Professor
Eulanda A. Sanders
Committee Member
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Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management

The purpose of this study is to systematically explore one aspect of costume design, the role of historical accuracy in American theater, according to contemporary Broadway costume designers. Using the grounded theory methodology, this study investigated the characteristics Broadway costume designers believe are essential for historical accuracy in costume design; the significance they place on historical accuracy for the success of the costume design; and how they approach and incorporate history into their costume designs of historically set productions. Sixteen Broadway costume designers were interviewed for this study. Based on the analysis of interview responses and guided by Hillestad's (1980) appearance model, an operational definition for historical accuracy in costume design was developed:

A historically accurate costume is one in which historically accurate articles made using historically accurate materials and processes are assembled about a historically accurate body.

Several points about historical accuracy in costume design were widely acknowledged: (a) the presentation of history on stage is essential to theater's mission of communicating with the audience; (b) the narrative takes precedence over historical accuracy; and (c) the importance of historical accuracy is conditional, dependent on production factors grouped into three classifications: applicability, attainability, and performability. Consideration of these factors leads to the iterative strategies in a costume designer's approach to a historically set production. These strategies are incubation, research, role-playing, and historical manipulation. This final strategy, in addition to the designer's personal inclination towards historical accuracy, results in a design that can then be situated on a historical accuracy continuum between artifact and invention. The factors, designer inclination, and design strategies are illustrated in the model of the creative process of incorporating history into theatrical costume design

Stemming from development of the model and further analysis of the data, a substantive grounded theory and its corollary were derived:

The higher designer inclination towards historical accuracy and the more favorable the production factors (i.e., applicability, attainability, and performability), the closer costumes will be situated to artifact on the historical accuracy continuum.

The lower designer inclination towards historical accuracy, regardless of the production factors, the closer costumes will be situated to invention on the historical accuracy continuum.

The model and theory emerged from the study's data, but the theoretical perspectives of dramaturgy, symbolic interactionism, and semiotics were utilized to aid in explaining these results. This project sought to provide a framework for evaluating the importance of historical accuracy in costume design and a tool to guide novice designers facing historically set productions. Thus this study contributes to the scholarship of both the costume and apparel fields and forges connections between them.