Clothing was also an important mechanism for acquiring credit within the early modern period. A gentleman arriving in London during the period of supposed sumptuary law enforcement might be distinguished by his clothing. Shopkeepers might take clothing at face value, and assume that the wearer was ‘good’ for their purchases within the shop. It would take little more than a trickster to hire an appropriate costume, to present himself as a gentleman, and to be treated accordingly. In fact there are examples of people arriving from abroad in expensive attire being lavished with entertainment and hospitality.
Within the theatre in general, many plays base the theme of disguise at the centre of their plot. One has only to look at some of the most popular Shakespearean plays which pivot on disguise or mistaken identity - Twelfth Night, A Winter’s Tale, A Midsummer Nights Dream and The Merchant of Venice - to recognise this common mechanism for deception or confusion. However with the advent of the City Comedy, a different type of deception becomes satirised.
One of the most rewarding examples is that of The Alchemist. Here Jonson uses the costume of the actors to dupe innocents out of their cash, clothing, jewellery, cloth, undergarments, damask, and other possessions[liii]. When the actors dress as a doctor (or alchemist), they become one; Doll dressed as a lady instead of a bawd, becomes one; and when Faces wishes to reassume the role of Jeremy, his master’s housekeeper, he simply has to shave his beard and return to his regular clothes. His neighbours do not then recognise him as having been involved in the deception at the house, and he almost escapes without punishment.
Right at the beginning of the play, in a rant between Face and Subtle, we learn that they came across each other one in the ‘honest, plain livery-three-pund-thrum’ (I.i.16), the other
You’d rak’d and picked from dunghills before day,
Your feet in mouldy slippers for your kinbes,
A felt of rug, and a thin threaden cloak
That scarce would cover your no-buttocks’ (I.i.33-37)
Their very lack of clothing, or ownership of personal clothing sets up the play, they have nothing to lose with Face’s master away, and everything to gain. As I have said, the principal characters whom they dupe are all types, the puritan, the knight, the gallant, the citizen, but all have one thing in common – their greed.
When Mammon (in itself a play on greed) fantasises about what he will do with his newly created gold, a large section of his speech is devoted to clothing:
I’ll have of taffeta-sarsnet, soft and light
As cobwebs; and for all my other raiment
It shall be such as might provoke the Persian
Were he to teach the world riot anew,
My gloves of fishes’ and birds’ skins perfumed,
With gums of paradise and eastern air….’ (II.ii.88-94)
When Subtle speaks with Tribulation, the puritan, about recapturing the puritans’ interest in his alchemists’ scheme, Subtle marks that they will not need to worry about ‘whether matrons of the holy assembly, May lay their hair out, or wear doublets, Or have that idol, Starch, about their linen’. (III.ii.80-83). Here the puritanical obsession with avoiding items of fashion, and of enforcing that women should not wear men’s clothing comes to the fore.[liv]
The audience is also presented with the call for Drugger to borrow a Spanish suit from the players; with the recognition of the cloak itself as probably being the actual cloak used in the staging of The Spanish Tragedy, and with the actor playing the part of the borrower joking about the fact that the audience must have seen him dressed as a fool in a previous play. I have written the scene as it appears in the text:
Although many other clothing examples exist within the play, one further example is that of Surly, who through his own disguise at the outset of the play becomes the very means of uncovering the plot. By donning his Spanish ruff and cloak, he apparently becomes Spanish.Face and Subtle speak openly of gulling him to his face and they assume that he cannot understand, and Ananias describes his ruff as ‘That ruff of pride About thy neck’ and says that Thou look’st like Antichrist in that lewd hat’ (IV.vii51-55). His trousers are described as ‘profane, Lewd, superstitious, and idolatrous breeches’. (IV.vii.48) Subtle and Face manage to turn the others gulls against him, on the grounds that he is clearly a Spanish spy. Each of these examples works in parallel with the other, and simultaneously sends up the Spanish, the Puritans, the thieves and fashion or clothing.
Clothing is literally the fabric which weaves society together. It signals your status and class, your actual wealth, your aspirations and your failures. It’s an item you pay your servants with, and a gift you give your retainers. It’s also an object you document in portraiture, and re-cycle continuously until it can no longer be worn. Even then it is translated into something else.
That clothing should become such a key part of the renaissance theatre should be of no surprise as theatre is all about representations of types. An actor does not have the time to go into the social background of this character - no flashbacks here. Within seconds of entering the stage he must communicate who he is, and - along with any play on his name, the language he uses, or the actor playing the part - costume is arguably the most immediately recognizable element of his role.
Clothes may even take on role of their own, and be recognizable from one performance to the next, so that in donning your costume, you become the role with all its inherited background.
That clothing should therefore be used as a means of satirising types within the theatre should again be of no surprise – one has only to consider the function of clothing within modern comedy to understand its impact. Surely the character of Ali G would not be as funny if the characterisation were left to Sasha Cohen alone, the costume is an essential part of the role, and makes it instantly recognisable. The same applies to the comedic types in Little Britain etc. The early modern city comedies were no different, and costume is at the heart of their production. Given the number of City Comedies which are not currently in print, and which are rarely performed, there must be countless other avenues to explore, and references to decipher.