Boys Will Be Girls — The Waxing, Wigs, Couture and Corsets of Shakespeare's Leading Ladies

By Melissa Rose Bernardo
07 Dec 2013

Mark Rylance as Olivia
Photo by Joan Marcus

Not everything you see is original practice.
"The dressing on stage was not something the Elizabethans did," admitted Rylance of the pre­show routine where the actors transform themselves in view of the audience. "But at the Globe we said, 'We're spending all this money and all this detail on these clothes...' We found that it confirmed the atmosphere that we want — everyone being in the same room." In Twelfth Night, the auditorium, Rylance explained, becomes "part of Illyria."

It's not costumes; it's couture.
Said Rylance of designer Jenny Tiramani: "She'll show the actors what the options are, so you work together — like if you were a really wealthy person, if you were having a fashion designer making you dresses. And the corsets and the detail and the jewelry — the exquisite nature of the clothing, for me, has a resonance of the exquisite nature of the language."

Those dresses are built for class, not for comfort.
"The corset restricts your breathing. The farthingale — the hoop bit that goes underneath the skirt — restricts how far you can step out," explained Barnett of his regal Queen Elizabeth regalia. "In fact, as Elizabeth I wear two corsets! I am pinned into everything I wear. Sometimes I am cut out of my costume."



Paul Chahidi's awe-inspiring cleavage is the envy of his male costars.
"Women point... and ask, 'How do you do it?' Anyone in a corset this tight will have magnificent cleavage!" said Chahidi, emphasizing that it is "all natural!" ("Lest anyone think I'm doing something that the Elizabethans didn't do," he added.) "I probably shouldn't tell you this, but there is a tension and rivalry between me and Mark. He is maybe a little self-conscious about the size of his cleavage."

Rylance conceded that Chahidi's décolletage is "rather spectacular," likening it to "a deep river valley." But, he reminded us, the role of Olivia demands a conservative, non–cleavage-baring black gown: "I'm much more discreet and in mourning. My dress comes right up to my neck. Otherwise I would win hands down."

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Mark Rylance and Samuel Barnett in Richard III
Photo by Joan Marcus