Academic journal article Studies in Philology

From Priests' to Actors' Wardrobe: Controversial, Commercial, and Costumized Vestments

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

From Priests' to Actors' Wardrobe: Controversial, Commercial, and Costumized Vestments

Article excerpt

This essay examines Catholic vestments on the English stage from the early Reformation through Shakespeare. The changing meaning, status, and usage of Catholic vestments, which crossed the boundary from sacred religious property to secular theatrical costume, enabled the diverse theatrical manipulation of the garments to build on and relieve contemporary social anxiety about Catholicism. This, in turn, demonstrates the self-contradictory attitudes of many early modern English subjects toward Catholicism, theatricality, and sexuality. The discussion begins with the vestiarian controversies caused by the radical Protestants' stubborn resistance to state control over what to wear in Reformed churches. This controversy can be elucidated by a look at vestment rentals and sales before and after the Reformation. The economic value and cultural history of vestments as well as the related religious polemic played a crucial role in determining where vestments belonged physically and metaphorically. The discussion then focuses on several plays that stage vestments during and after the Reformation and explores what they reflected and represented. From the effort to keep Catholic vestments as the symbol of sacred authority to the strategic movement to reverse their meaning to secularized Catholic hypocrisy, struggles to control the meaning invested in the liturgical Catholic vestments were represented, embodied, and enacted in early modern theater history as well as in the plays staged in the period.

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IN post-Reformation England, Catholic clerical vestments, newly divested of their sacred authority, were sold to theaters as costumes. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass suggest that the journey of religious garments from church to theater represented "a series of translations in which a sacred garment from the theater of God came to represent a 'heathen' religion on the secular stage." (1) With the relatively rapid transitions of state religion under Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, Catholic ecclesiastical clothes circulated from altars to stage and stage to altars, ensuring the separation of sacred meaning from these formerly sacred signifiers. Clerical robes on commercial stages might remind theater audiences of their original religious aura as much as the same robes in the pulpit might remind churchgoers of their commercial use in public theaters. The transfer of vestments to theaters in sixteenth-century England was not motivated solely by religious change. Churches sold or rented out vestments and accessories not only to serve theatrical enterprise, but also to compensate for the financial shortages created by the decrease in church-sponsored plays and the costs of redecorating churches previously full of Catholic furnishings and ornaments. Liza Picard observes that in one case, "all the old copes and vestments, with the alb, fetched 5 [pounds sterling] 10s, so the church made an overall profit from the changeover." (2) Drama historians point out that the often luxurious Catholic clothing, like all clothing used for costuming actors, was a considerable investment for theater companies: according to Andrew Gurr, the impresario Philip Henslowe "invested rather more money in apparel for the players than in playbooks, and far more than in stage properties." (3) In his diary, Henslowe recorded not only the expenses for new costumes but also the payments for clothes-keepers, tailors, mercers, milliners, lacemakers, and a "sylke man." (4) Furthermore, the acquisition of particular clothing often triggered new characters and new plays: according to Jean MacIntyre, outlays for costumes often influenced performance repertory. (5) Garments now superfluous to the needs of the church became vital new properties for English drama.

The changing meaning, status, and usage of vestments enabled theatrical use of the garments to build on and relieve contemporary social anxiety about Catholicism. This, in turn, demonstrates the self-contradictory attitudes of many early modern English subjects toward

Catholicism, theatricality, and sexuality. …

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