Peter T. Millington

Presented at the Traditional Drama Conference 12th October 1985

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This paper attempts a fresh examination of English folk play costumes, taking account of the broad European context. It starts with a review of the ideas of previous writers, which covered the types and functions of the costumes, as well as trends in their development. A set of working categories is presented which divides the costumes into (1) realistic costumes (2) non-representational costumes, and (3) dancers' uniforms. Trends and the influences which have shaped the folk play costumes are examined in more detail. Important among these have been the costume practices of the popular professional theatre. Some non-representational costumes were probably inherited from the pre-existing customs to which the plays became attached in the eighteenth century. They may therefore give clues to the early history of the plays.


We probably all like to look at folk play costumes, even if they are only pictures. Some of them look very strange, but I suspect that most of us haven't really given them a lot of thought. Certainly, until recently I hadn't. It wasn't until I started comparing pictures of European folk plays with British costumes that an interest began to stir.

At first I thought that they looked very different. The English definition of folk plays has been very restrictive. We exclude things which European scholars never think twice about. As my own view broadened I gradually realised that English and European costumes were perhaps not all that different, and I began to see possible explanations for some of the more unusual looking English costumes.

This is what this paper is about. I hope my ideas will set you thinking.


First, let's look at what has gone before.

The early writers on English Folk plays - Ordish, Chambers, Tiddy, etc. only made passing references to costumes. They more or less just said that they exist. Not until the books by Brody (1969) and Helm (1981) was there any detailed discussion of them. And incidentally if you want to follow up the specifics of earlier work on costumes both these books give passable reviews.

Margaret Dean-Smith's "Life Cycle" paper (1958, pp.252 & 253) also outlined the general concensus of opinion on costumes in the mid 1950s.

Generally speaking, it has been recognised that there are two main types of costumes, i.e. Dressing-in-character, and "Ribbon" costumes. It has been commonly thought that "Ribbon" costumes are the "original" costumes, and that these have been replaced over the years by the degenerate practice of dressing in part.

It has been variously suggested that the "ribbon" costumes represent, among other things; dragon's scales, hair, and even picture writing. However, most writers have not been particularly convinced by these ideas

Both Brody and Helm noted and sympathised with Richard Southern's (1961) comments that the "ribbon" costumes bear similarities with the German "Wild Men".

Brody's and Helm's books can in fact be taken together. Both saw disguise as being the main purpose of the costumes. In fact Helm preferred to use the term "Disguise" instead of "Costume", and overemphasised the function of preserving anonymity.

Both noted a trend through time away from disguise to open identity. Brody in particular felt there was gradual loss of facial covering in favour of increasingly complex designs for the headgear (exemplified by Minehead and Alkborough).

I find his evidence too convoluted to be convincing.

So, to summarise all this, previous work has covered three main areas;

I will now comment on these in more detail.


I feel it is possible to split down further the established distinction between "ribbon" costumes and dressing in part, and I think the terminology needs to be sorted out in the process.

Accepting therefore that hybrids frequently occur, both in terms of individual dress, and the mixture of types worn by the team, these are the categories of costumes I suggest:-

  1. Realistic Costumes
  2. These are costumes which endeavour, within the limitations of available materials, to portray realistically the character being played. Facial disguise if used consists of colouring or masks.

    (e.g. Antrobus, Ches.)

  3. Non-Representational Costumes
  4. Usually, these are essentially decorative costumes in which the clothing, and often the headgear too, do not represent the part being played. Characters are distinguished by the properties they carry and/or by their headgear. For instance Beelzebub may carry a club, and the Doctor may wear a top hat.

    Non-Representational costumes can be further divided into two sub-types.

  5. Dancers' Uniforms
  6. Dancers wear identical costumes, often military in style, with unobtrusive headgear such as caps, which will not get in the way during the dancing. Facial disguise is rare.

    Ancillary characters normally wear realistic costumes.

    (e.g. Bellerby, North Yorks.)

  7. Rudimentary Types
  8. These costumes are problematical, commonly worn by child performers. They are essentially ordinary clothes, but with some simple modification or addition designed to distinguish the wearer as a performer. For instance a coat worn inside out, a black face, a sash, and so on.

    To be honest I am in two minds whether to put this forward as a separate category. In practice, the performers are really aiming to reproduce one of the earlier types I have mentioned, but are limited by materials. Thus, most Derby Tup performers are probably aiming to be realistic, whereas the Rochdale performers with their simple sashes, can probably be regarded as non-representational.


Coming to the functions of costumes, normally the obvious thing to say would be that they aim to portray the character being acted, but obviously this cannot be said of the non-representational types. This is probably why previous writers have emphasised the importance of the costumes disguising the performers.

How important is disguise really ?

First of all, a great many teams never used disguise at all. Probably most sides that did use disguise attached no significance to it. But if they did, it is unlikely that they saw any mystical purpose.

Disguise provides a popular guessing game for the audience, and supplies a useful cover for those actors evil intent. It also enables shy performers to come out of themselves.

Streamers covering the face are a problem. At some places they had certainly been or become a form of disguise, but in many cases, the face was still perfectly recognisable behind the streamers.

It is difficult to say if they were an original feature of the costumes. Southern, Helm and Brodie have suggested, they could have been inherited from some sort of "Wild Man" costume - an idea I favour. Alternatively, the streamers could have developed from over enthusiastic hat decor, or even from attempts to portray long hair.

I'll come back to this later.

All types of costume serve to mark the performers apart from their audience. This effectively gives the actors a licence to behave in strange ways. With the rudimentary types this may be the only function.

Dancers' uniforms have a distinct decorative function, and I only include them in this paper for completeness.

One thing earlier writers have barely mentioned is that the colour of costumes can be significant. For instance, red, white and blue decorations clearly have a patriotic flavour, and the Goathland Plough Stots are said to have had teams dressed in red, blue and orange to reflect the local political parties.

However there are other colours which have significance, and I will go into these further when I discuss the influences which may have affected costumes.


The earliest records of Quack Doctor plays from the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries commonly make reference to shirts covered with ribbons when mentioning costumes. These costumes were clearly non- representational, and although streamer type costumes immediately come to mind, this may not be the case. Several of the accounts use the word "ribbon", and ribbons proper are relatively expensive, and consequently tend to used sparingly, often in rosettes. It is likely therefore that some of these early descriptions refer to the decorated type of costume.

However, as Margaret Dean-Smith noted, dressing-in-character is also to be found side by side with the non-representational types even in the earliest records, albeit as a minority. A note of caution is therefore required in saying that the non-representational costumes were the original costumes.

The trend noted by earlier writers of non-representational giving way to realistic costumes is substantially correct. Certainly, where traditions have been known to have had both types at different times, the non-representational costumes have almost invariably been dropped in favour of dressing in part.

Examples of non-representatial costumes replacing realistic costumes have almost exclusively involved modern revival sides, where special factors prevail.

Similar changes in the use of facial disguise can also be found, but unlike changes in type of costume. The adoption and abandonment of facial disguise has been two way. So in this case any idea of general trend is best left undecided.

A trend which appears to have been missed by earlier writers, who have naturally concentrated on the non-representational costumes, is that the style of the realistic costumes have also changed to reflect the professional theatrical costume of the day. Toy theatre, historical pageants, the cinema and television all seem to have had an influence in this respect.


So far I have reviewed what people have already said, and there is nothing really contentious. The main thing which is missing is an explanation of the non-representational costume types, and their origins.


The first comment I have to make regarding the possible sources of these costumes is to reiterate that costumes should aim somehow to portray the characters being played. So one would naturally expect in any play to find realistic costumes. Certainly, if you gave an English folk play to an uninformed group of people to perform, they would use realistic costumes.

The fact that we do find non-representational costumes indicates that other influences are at work. Perhaps this "unnatural" state explains why the trend has always been away from non-representational costumes.

Two situations occur to me where non-representational costumes could have arisen;

I'll tackle these in turn.

Theatrical Influences

If we didn't know already, Ian Russell (1979 & 1981), in his work on the Derby Tup plays and the Selston Bullguisers, has clearly shown that today's traditional performances are significantly influenced by contemporary fashions - T.V., the cinema, etc. I can see no reason why this should not also have been true of the past. In fact I've already mentioned that realistic costumes have usually followed the theatrical styles of the day.

Today, theatrical costumes are almost always intended to be realistic, avant garde productions being the main exception. However, from about the early seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, one of the most popular forms of English drama was the Harlequinade. And in the Harlequinade, the costumes were non-representational.

The Harlequinade consisted of a variable number of stock characters such as Harlequin, Panteloon, Clown, Columbine, Punch, Doctor, etc. These characters always wore the same basic costumes and always took the same types of role - lovers, a foolish servant, etc. The plays would take any theme, - Dr.Faustus, Blue Beard, Oliver Cromwell - and intersperse the stock characters with the dramatis personae required for the theme.

The characters of the Harlequinade came from the the Italian comedy or Commedia dell'Arte, which became popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (P.L.Duchartre, 1966). As with other countries, England developed its own particular variants of the comedy (A.E.Wilson, 1934).

Harlequin and his friends first appeared in England in the early 17th century, in plays and extemporisations similar to the Commedia dell'Arte. They were called Italian Comedies. These plays featured the full range of the stock characters, and they were all speaking parts - the scripts incidentally being in rhyme.

In the early Eighteenth century, the famous actor manager John Rich (1692-1761) created the distinctly English pantomime, and such was the popularity that others very quickly copied him.

For nearly two hundred years pantomimes were based around the Harlequinade. The number of stock characters was severely reduced to just Columbine, Clown, Panteloon and the dominant character Harlequin. However the main change was that the Harlequin all but ceased to be a speaking character. This was partly because of Rich's genius for mime, and partly because he couldn't talk proper.

Some decades after Rich, Joe Grimaldi playing Clown became the dominant character of English pantomime, and even though it was virtually obligatory for the name of Harlequin appear in the title of a pantomime, he and the other characters became mere dancers.

Eventually, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Harlequinade characters ceased to have any meaning, so quietly they were dropped, and the "opening" took over to become the pantomime we all know today.

This really has just been the history of the Harlequinade on the established stage. It was also taken to fairs. It was taken up by Merry Andrews, assistants of the Mountebanks, and in this context, the characters continued to have spoken parts.

Many of the pantomimes of the early nineteenth century were eventually published as toy theatre plays (G.Speight, 1969), and at various times, the characters were portrayed in broadsheets, chapbooks, theatrical prints, pottery figures, and other popular artforms.

Can English folk plays have failed to be influenced by the Harlequinade? I doubt it. The costumes of the Harlequinade compare well with the decorated type of folk play costume. In particular Harlequin and Beelzebub have some similarities. Compare the mask and black face, and the bat and the club. Could there be a relationship? Most of the characters of the Italian Comedy wore masks, which in due course gave way to makeup. Perhaps here we have a source for the blackening of faces in folk plays.

It is curious that we do not find Harlequinade characters by name in English Quack Doctor plays. Possibly early collectors ignored any plays with such characters as "not Folk". Still, at the very least, the Harlequinade established a precedent for costumes that do not attempt to realistically portray the character being played.

Religous Customs

One particular feature distinguishes the Harlequinades from the folk plays we know. The folk plays are associated with specific days of the year. The pantomimes are not, although they have acrued a "season".

Most of the folk play times of occurance are religious feast days, notably Christmas and Easter. (Plough Monday could bear some relation to Twelfth Night.) This suggests that the plays could have attached to existing religious customs, if not religious plays. This would be quite in line with the situation in the rest of Europe. So in this case, it might be that some folk plays took over the costumes of the previous custom.

A look at European folk drama indicates what the previous customs may have been like. Most European folk plays have religious themes, and the two most popular stories are The Three Wise Men, and Passion Plays, occurring at Twelfth Night and Easter respectively. The plays of the Three Magi are perhaps the more common, being found in Germany (Dreikonigspiele), Denmark (Heligtrekongers- sangere), Sweden (Starngossar), and elsewhere. There good evidence to suggest that these plays are directly descended from liturgical dramas performed in the church.

These Twelfth Night customs all follow more or less the same pattern, with three (or more) participants representing the Magi, another with an illuminated star on the end of a staff, plus other sundry characters such as angels and devils. The costumes likewise are similar - white robes or surplices, with tall crowns or hats, often conical. One or more of the Wise Men commonly has a blackened face to represent the represent the Moorish king.

For examples see L.Schmidt (1962), L.Schmidt (1965), A.F.Schmidt (1948) & T.Pettitt (1981)

Plough Monday costumes compare well with this description. The decorated headgear correspond directly with the crowns of the three Magi, and the clothing represent their robes and regalia, as in Europe.

The Drekonigspiel characters would indeed readily mutate into those of the English King George plays, and the Moorish king could be seen as another source for face blackening.

The European costumes are often based on ecclesiatical vestments (indeed in many cases they are genuine vestments). Vestments are found in five liturgical colours, each to worn on different occasions (see Table 1).

In particular, white is associated with the Christmas season, and red with Easter. With decorated costumes, this is indeed what we find. Many of the costumes performed at Christmas have a white base. As Plough Monday marks the end of Christmas, it comes as no surprise that these are white too.

The costumes of the Midgley Pace Egg play are particularly interesting, as they show a strong religious influence. Firstly they are basically red, which is the colour we expect for Easter. Secondly, the headgear is essentially a decorated version of the college cap or mortar board, which is a direct descendant of the four-cornered clerical hat called the Biretta.

However any excitement over this evidence has to be tempered by the fact that the Midgley costumes are not particularly typical of Pace Egging costumes.

Other Customs

If costumes were drawn from pre-existing customs, they could as easily have come from non-religious customs. Religious plays and the Harlequinades could account for the decorated style of costumes, but hardly for the streamer types.

Previous workers have suggested that the streamer types could have come from "Wild Man" customs. Just what a "Wild Man" custom is I have been having difficulty following up. But in nearly all cases, the central feature is one or more men totally swathed in twigs, straw or similar material. English Straw Bears, Irish Strawboys and perhaps the Burry Man probably fall into this category of custom, which usually occurs around Christmas and New Year.

In appearance, these figures are not unlike the streamer type costumes of folk plays. This is not surprising since they are manufactured in a similar way. The straw, twigs, streamers, etc. are formed into belts, by being tied with string or being attached to horizontal strips. These are then wrapped round the body. The headgear follows a similar pattern, but some form of support is required. With stiff materials this is done by tying the tops of the twigs or straws into a bunch, but soft materials need to be attached to a hat or cap.

In Europe, these figures often have an associated drama - "The Summer and Winter Play" or "The Four Seasons" - in which different figures attired in suitable materials present competing allegories of the seasons.

I have no evidence immediately to hand that such plays were ever enacted in Britain. If they were, it is possible that they could have acquired the text of a Quack Doctor play, whilst continuing the non-representational costumes.


This then has been my interpretation of English folk play costumes. To recap, I have presented a set of working a categories for costumes, and reviewed their functions.

In modern terms, the non-representational costumes are not the natural form of costumes. So I have attempted to explain their origin in terms of the theatrical practices of the Harlequinades, and inheritance from previous customs, such as religious plays, and "The Wild Man".

Each of the possible sources has its significance in different circumstances. For instance, I suspect that the Plough Monday decorative costumes could have come from an English Twelfth Night play. On the other hand, I think that if nothing else, pantomime established the precedent of not necessarily having costumes which visually represent the character being played. And so on...

Naturally there is more work still to be done, but for now I hope I have managed to give you, as my title promised, a new look at folk play costumes.


A.Brody (1969) The English Mummers and their Plays : Traces of Ancient Mystery
London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969, pp.21-26

J.R.Crossland (195?) The new illustrated encyclopedia
London, Collins, 195?, pp.256-260

M.Dean-Smith (1958) The life-cycle play or folk-play : Some conclusions following the examination of the Ordish Papers and other sources.
Folk-lore, Dec.1958, Vol.69, pp.237-253

P.L.Duchartre (1966) The Italian Comedy : The Improvisation Scenarios Lives Attributes Portraits and Masks of the Illustrious Characters of the Commedio dell' Arte
New York, Dover Publications Inc. 1966

A.Helm (1981) The English Mummers' Play
Woodbridge, D.S.Brewer, 1981, ISBN 0-85991-067-9

B.Pegg (1981) Rites and Riots : Folk Customs of Britain and Europe
Poole, Blandford Press, 1981

T.Pettitt (1981) Ritual and Vaudeville : the dramaturgy of the English folk play
Prepublications of the English Institute of Odense University, Oct.1981, No.19

I.Russell (1979) 'Here comes me and our old lass, Short of money and short of brass' : A Survey of Traditional Drama in North East Derbyshire 1970-8
Folk Music Journal, 1979, Vol.3, No.5, pp.399-478

I.Russell (1981) 'Appy New Year
English Dance & Song, Christmas 1981, Vol.43, No.4, pp.16

H.J.S. (1937) The Plough Boys' Play : A version recorded
Yorkshire Post, 11th Jan.1937, pp.6 b-c

A.F.Schmidt (1948) Heligtrekongersangere in Danmark
Arv, 1948, Vol.4, pp.

L.Schmidt (1962) Das deutsche Volkschauspiel
Berlin, Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1962

L.Schmidt (1965) Le theatre populaire Europeen
Paris, Editions G.-P.Maisonneuve et Larose, 1965

R.Southern (1961) The Seven Ages of Theatre
New York, 1961

G.Speaight (1969) The History of the English Toy Theatre
London, Studio Vista, 1969

A.E.Wilson (1934) Christmas Pantomime : The Story of an English Institution
London, George Allen & Unwin, 1934

PTM 23.09.86



White Trinity Sunday, all festivals of Christ (except those connected with the Passion), festivals of the Blessed Virgin, etc. and on ordinary days for which no special colour is provided.
Red Whit weekend, festivals commemorating the sufferings of Christ, festivals of martyrs, etc.
Green Between Epiphany & Septuagesima and between Trinity & Advent.
Violet Between Septuagesima & Maundy Thursday, Fast days and Ember days.
Black Funerals


Yellow Jealousy The four elements, fire, air, earth & water
Blue Truth
Scarlet Love
Black Invisibility


Red, White & Blue The colours of the Union flag.


Red Labour Party N.b. The colours used by different Parties varied locally in the past.
Blue Conservative Party
Orange/Yellow Liberal Party

Tipteerers from Chithurst, Sussex

Decorated type of non-representational costume from Chithurst, Sussex, 1900 (B.Pegg, 1981), and for comparison, the finale of a Harlequinade from an English toy theatre print (G.Speaight, 1969)

Finale of a Harlequinade

"The Infallible Mountebank or Quack Doctor" broadside

A Quack Doctor broadside, featuring a Merry Andrew dressed as Harlequin (Courtesy of P.S.Smith)

Plow Stots from Selby, Workshire

Decorated type of non-representational costume from near Selby, Yorks., c.1892 (H.J.S., 1937), and for comparison, Swedish Tweflth Night "Starboys" (J.R.Crossland, 195?)

Starboys from Sweden

Mummers from Overton, Hampshire

Streamer type of non-representational costume from Overton, Hants., c.1930 (B.Pegg, 1981), and for comparison, a "Summer and Winter play" from Buch in the Odenwald, Germany (L.Schmidt, 1961)

"Sommer und Winterspiel&Quot; from Buch im Odenwald

© Copyright 1985, Peter Millington (petemillington@virginmedia.com, Web page last updated: 08-Apr-2016