We present ourselves to the world through the mirror of our clothes: hemlines, colours and accessories that say to the world: be my
friend, love me, take me seriously and remember that I exist as there is no one else like me! Our outfits always mean something and this could not be more true than in theatre: on stage, every word, gesture, prop and accessory has a purpose – and a message. And while in real life we may all have days when we have crawled out of bed and haphazardly pulled together whatever we could find, theatre costumes – be they elaborate creations of silks and chiffon, or faded jeans, white t-shirts and red tennis shoes – are always artfully chosen to portray the character who is wearing them.
Di and Viv and Rose, Amelia Bullmore’s play that was recently presented at London’s Hampstead Theatre, makes the symbiotic relationship between our clothes and our identity one of its running themes. Powerfully portrayed by a trio of extraordinary actresses, three very different women meet in their fresher year at university, in impossibly bold 1983, and forge an unlikely friendship through the tribulations of growing together – and sometimes growing apart – until the present day. Throughout, the characters are as defined by their clothes as they are by their interests, passions and interactions. Serious, driven, intellectual Viv ‘dresses like it’s the war’, all subdued colours and outdated dresses, business student Di’s roomy, sporty clothes are a statement about her sexuality while life-loving, heart-on-her-sleeve Rose is the one who makes the most concessions to the fashion trends, so long as she can personalise them just enough to prove that she does, in fact, have a mind of her own – her sparkling joie de vivre all wrapped in her bold colour choices and the quirky ribbons in her hair.
Unlike most plays, this playful yet touching story tells us from the very start that the clothes are a key to its characters and their lives. And surprisingly it is Viv, with her out-of-time dresses that outwardly reject fashion altogether, who from the first scene lays bare the messages behind the clothes, and then goes on to make fashion the heart of her career. As the three grow up, life happens: trauma and success, motherhood and illness, loss and misunderstanding – and while fashion changes around them, their wardrobes help us trace what changes and what stays the same inside them.
For the three’s reunion in Viv’s glamorous New York apartment in 1998, they all wear updated versions of their trademarks: Rose’s bright fuchsia dress tells us that life’s struggles have not dimmed the brightness of her spirit, Di’s staying true to herself with a tailored suit, and Viv’s all-black wardrobe continues to be her statement about the power of fashion. And in the final scene, it is again Viv’s wardrobe that sends the most touching message: when she is at her most vulnerable, no longer a young girl armed with the unshakable power of her convictions but a woman conscious of the unpredictability and messiness of life, her bright red trenchcoat finally brings colour back into her life!
The wardrobe for this play transports us through time in much the same way as ‘Impressionism and Fashion’. What do your clothes say about your personality, status and mood today?