Motley’s the Only Wear
When Shakespeare wrote “Motley’s the only wear,” he was referring to the costume of the fool, a character he typically cast as a teacher of profound insights. To theatergoers of the 1930s through the 1960s, the phrase “Designs by Motley” denoted gold-standard stagecraft. This map examines the work and legacy of the English design trio who adopted the Motley moniker and explores what happens when costuming incorporates fashion, cross-dressing, gender politics and notions of truth.
Always billed collectively as Motley, the three Englishwomen Margaret Harris, her sister Sophie and Elizabeth Montgomery (not to be confused with the star of television’s Bewitched) achieved renown designing exquisite costumes and scenery for more than 300 English and American productions—plays, operas, ballets and films—over the course of four decades. In step with the early 20th century’s New Stagecraft movement, which advocated simplicity and metaphor in unified director-driven productions, Motley eschewed elaborately detailed sets and costumes that express a historical period through imitation and illusion. Instead, they evoked an era by drawing from its own fine-art styles.
Motley’s career took off in London in the 1930s, when actor-director John Gielgud hired them to design his visionary productions, including Hamlet (1934) and 1935’s Romeo and Juliet, featuring Gielgud and Laurence Olivier alternating as Romeo and Mercutio. Known to film audiences for his Academy Award–winning role as the sardonic valet in 1981’s Arthur, Gielgud is considered one of England’s foremost theatrical interpreters of Shakespeare. Motley credited Gielgud for giving them their start, and Gielgud in turn claimed Motley’s designs helped fuel his early directorial achievements.
When William Shakespeare wrote the line “Motley’s the only wear” in his comedy As You Like It, he was insisting that the costume worn by the fool is the only worthy attire. The term for a court jester’s multicolored patchwork outfit, motley can also denote any mixture of incongruous elements. The Bard commonly used the character of the fool as an educator, revealing truths about human nature through seemingly silly words or behavior.
For the theatrical design team known as Motley, who met at a London art school in the 1920s, costuming was not just about making chic clothing. This principled trio of women called themselves Motley in part to announce their commitment to conveying a play’s true spirit. Paralleling Shakespeare’s ironic use of foolishness to espouse wisdom, Motley often covered characters in elegantly simple costumes that disclosed complex inner landscapes. After winning costume competitions at the Old Vic theater’s fancy-dress balls, judged by actor John Gielgud, Motley garnered numerous invitations to design London stage productions. The critics loved them, and by the end of the 1930s, audiences recognized the phrase “Designs by Motley” as signifying beauty and excellence.
By 1940 Motley had cemented their reputation as a first-rate theatrical design squad working in London. That year Laurence Olivier summoned them from across the pond to design costumes and sets for Romeo and Juliet, which he was starring in and directing. After the production, one of the Motleys, Elizabeth Montgomery, remained in the U.S. to put the Motley stamp on Broadway, designing imaginative costumes for musicals including South Pacific (1949), Paint Your Wagon (1951), Can-Can (1953), Peter Pan (1954), The Most Happy Fella (1956) and Kwamina (1961). Broadway often set fashion trends, and knockoffs of South Pacific star Mary Martin’s costumes soon graced department-store clothing racks nationwide.
A generation after Motley made the Shakespeare-to-Broadway career arc viable, Theoni V. Aldredge dominated American stage costuming. Toward the end of her 20-year tenure as the New York Shakespeare Festival’s head designer, she designed dozens of Broadway musicals. By Aldredge’s era, it was commonplace for a show’s unified concept to be subordinate to the director’s overall vision. Nonetheless, she was revered for her humble, Motley-like view of her craft. “You don’t take over a show,” Aldredge told The New York Times in 1984. “Good design is design you’re not aware of.”
Costume designer for more than 100 stage productions and scores of films, Theoni V. Aldredge is best known for the opulent attire she devised for some 50 Broadway musicals over a 45-year period, beginning in the early 1960s. Aldredge was nominated for a Tony Award 15 times and won for Annie (1977), Barnum (1980) and 1983’s La Cage aux Folles.
With its transvestite nightclub setting and a seductively clad chorus line of female impersonators called Les Cagelles, La Cage aux Folles features titillating drag costumes. The gay-themed musical explores the idea of drag as transformation and contains several references to hiding. In the opening number, a giant trellis descends from above, then flies back up, whisking off a layer of the Cagelles’ glamorous outfits to reveal scantier attire underneath.
Before the age of elastic, when stage costume designers put men in tights for Shakespearean plays, they used bulky wool stockings with lambswool pads called “symmetricals.” It was common for actors with skinny or less than heroically sculpted legs to pad their musculature into more manly contours. Aldredge was more fortunate: Her Cagelles, sporting sleek Lycra tights, had shapely legs that looked amazingly feminine.
Examples of cross-dressing abound in Broadway musicals, but the ruse goes back at least as far as Shakespeare’s day. The Bard used the device to give female characters the power Elizabethan society reserved for men. Cross-dressing propels the comedy in both the farcical La Cage aux Folles and Shakespeare’s witty pastoral play As You Like It. Both works feature unusually multilayered cross-dressing; and in both, love motivates the deception.
In Shakespeare’s time women weren’t permitted to perform onstage; men handled male roles while boys portrayed females. But Shakespeare played up this constraint. In As You Like It, protagonist Rosalind disguises herself as a boy and tests Orlando’s love with a game—she pretends to be herself. To wit: A boy (the actor) plays a girl (Rosalind) disguised as a boy (Ganymede) pretending to be a girl (Rosalind).
In La Cage aux Folles, when his lover’s son must appear to have a set of “normal” parents, drag queen Albin trades his flamboyant masquerade for the persona of a demure housewife. Only with the help of cunningly designed costumes can an actor conjure such meaningfully comic deceits.
The first Broadway musical to feature gay men as central characters, La Cage aux Folles is adapted from Jean Poiret’s 1973 farce; the 1978 French film adaptation was remade as The Birdcage (1996), starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. The historic hit musical’s “I Am What I Am,” sung by the leading drag queen, became an anthem for the gay community.
William Ivey Long designed the costumes for Cage’s glitzy 2004 revival, but, as Long remarked, “The idea of butch, bodybuilder men wearing dresses is not as shocking as it was 20 years ago.” The revival’s take on the Cagelles, the show’s drag chorus line, reflects society’s changed attitudes toward gay culture. Viewers of the original production had great fun trying to identify the two women cast among the convincingly attired male chorines. (One was Linda Haberman, who later helmed the Rockettes.) The director claimed the women added to drag’s mysteriousness, but in truth they were there to diffuse discomfort among mainstream audiences aroused by the men in their sexy feminine costumes. Straight males could assume a Cagelle they found attractive was one of the female performers. By 2004 such subterfuge was unnecessary: The revival’s Cagelles were all men.
The most talked about ballet event of 2011 was New York City Ballet’s premiere of choreographer Peter Martins’s Ocean’s Kingdom. Set to a score by Paul McCartney, it marked the former Beatle’s debut as a ballet composer. While critics shared lukewarm responses to the choreography and the music, the ballet’s hip, eye-catching costumes by the composer’s daughter, fashion designer Stella McCartney, elicited heated, starkly opposing reactions. Some thought them scrumptious, others distracting—even when Martins’s mediocre work begged such distraction.
For previous premieres by Martins and several other choreographers, New York City Ballet had commissioned costumes from top theatrical designer William Ivey Long, whose ascent coincided with Broadway’s increasing appetite for spectacle, beginning in the 1980s. Long’s dazzling, often surprising costumes, such as the candy-colored suits he designed for the gangsters in Guys and Dolls (1992), demand a reaction. While they sometimes steal focus, they offer abundant visual pleasure, and when the rest of a show isn’t so great, stunning costumes can help save the evening. Long’s designs raise the same question as Stella McCartney’s: How do costume designers serve lackluster work and still make a splash in voraciously visual times?
Fashion designer Stella McCartney famously avoids using such animal products as fur and leather in her acclaimed clothing collections. But she’s not the first female English designer to make a political statement through her materials. So did Motley, the three-woman design team that flourished during the mid-20th century, when costuming emerged as a theatrical profession. For one of their earliest shows, a low-budget, Old Vic production of The Merchant of Venice, they created Shylock’s costume out of dishrags. The women grew to realize that costly fabrics don’t necessarily translate well onstage and that rich effects can be produced with striking color and well-placed folds. Motley’s belief that beauty derives from simplicity and economy, not extravagance, reflects what they described as their ordinary middle-class backgrounds and values. Their concern was never to wow audiences by adorning productions with pricey costumes but rather to show how, through creative ingenuity, cheap materials can be transformed into stylish and meaningful attire.