4 December 2019

Work cited:

Barthes, Roland. "The Diseases of Costume." Critical Essays. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1972, pp. 41-50.

Originally published in French as “Les maladies du costume de théâtre” in Théâtre populaire, Mar–Apr, 1955.


This essay provides a method for evaluating whether a costume for a stage is “good” or “bad” through the metaphor of illness. Its initial premise is that a healthy costume has a single purpose: to serve the production of the play in which it appears. Then it introduces the three main diseases of costume:

1. Slavish devotion to historical accuracy at the expense of essential truth.

2. Obsessive aestheticism outside of the needs of the play. (Basically, costumes that are beautiful just to be beautiful, or are an end in themselves.)

3. Outlandish displays of wealth whose sole purpose is to validate the social and economic structures of bourgeois theater.

Then, it presents two requirements for costume "health":

1. "A costume must be an argument." That is, it must express essential ideas and tensions within the play beyond that of its own literal existence as a garment.

2. "A costume must create a humanity." It must work with the actor in a physical, functional and contextual way. It must do this in accordance with other stage design elements such as scenery and lighting.

It is important to note that Barthes is far less concerned with “character” in the way that informs much contemporary discussion surrounding costume. Rather, he is interested in the dynamics of theater making and performance theory in a much broader sense. We are told that the theories of Bertolt Brecht are fundamental to the thinking in this essay. This essay also has strong connections to ontology, semiotics, structuralism, Antonin Artaud and Susan Sontag (re: Illness as Metaphor).

How does this relate to scenography?

This essay is specifically written about costume design for the stage. Roland Barthes is an important 20th century thinker. This essay is an important, if polemical, discussion about the theory stage design. This is an important essay for all stage design students.

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