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‘Costume contributes significantly to the construction of heterotopias within the act of theatrical

The notion of space is a topic that has brought about a variety of academic intrigue throughout history. From philosophers to poets, such as Michael Foucault and Gaston Bachelard, the idea that space can evoke memories and that our experiences are in fact related to our ability to understand space continues to influence new academics in a variety of genres. The following paper will explore the idea of bodies in space. More specifically costumed bodies within a theatre space whose costumes are theatrical representations of meaning, materiality and even our hidden desires. The materiality of costume is becoming an ever increasingly studied topic. Academics are intrigued into what costume represents and its ability to present meaning and character so vividly alongside the overarching creative world of the theatre. The theatre is an interesting space, especially when considering the work of Foucault and his study on heterotopias, as it is able to represent multiple places and times throughout history at one single moment. Simarlily, Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space explores this too, the idea that our memories, past and present, are innately related and fixed to the spaces we grew up in, the house. There are clear parallels to be found in Foucault’s work on the heterotopia alongside Bachelard’s poetic description of our housed memories. These both relate to the sense that costumed bodies help represent meaning and add to the heterotopic quality within a theatre space. Our innately human quality of feeling allows art to form (Ingold, 2000:23), we aid theatres ability to show meaning by expecting exactly that, to feel. Costume plays a huge part in the construction of art, as a result, it contributes to theatre as a heterotopia. The following essay will explore this idea of costume as a heterotopia, within theatre and independently, in relation to two productions. The first, a recent National Theatre adaptation of An Inspector Calls. And the second, Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring.


Firstly, it is important to define the heterotopia. The easiest way to do this is as Foucault does, to first discuss the utopia which is a “...site with no real place” (Foucault, 1984:3). Foucault goes on to describe them as a presentation of society in a most perfect state and that essentially, utopias are not representative of real spaces (Foucault, 1984). Therefore, a heterotopia is a juxtaposition of a real spaces and places that represent society in every single way including the things we try to ignore in society, or cannot deal with. Heterotopias are “sacred places and profane places: protected places and open, exposed places: urban places and rural places...” (Foucault, 1984:1) all at once. Foucault categorises the heterotopia into 6 categories that can be summarised as follows; it is a real place, an ongoing history, an illusion of real space, and involves a change in space as a result of history. Foucault himself categorises the theatre as a heterotopia as it is a place that alludes to be a real place. Heterotopias are a “joint experience” (Foucault, 1984:4) much like the theatre has a possibility to be a shared experience (Odam, 2017:173). The theatre is full of possibility and imagination. Throughout history theatre has been a place that has allowed theatre makers to deal with issues that society cannot discuss, just like the cemetery deals with one of society's biggest issues; death. Furthermore, the theatre represents a multitude of spaces all at once, spaces that are foreign to each other (Foucault, 1967:6).


There are a large variety of departments that work together to create these heterotopic theatre spaces. With specific focus on the role of costume in the theatre there are obvious similarities to this tool and the definition of the heterotopia. For example, the summarised discussion of the 6 categories of the heterotopia above can easily describe costume if we replace the word “space” with specific terminology: ‘a real outfit’ that is ‘an illusion of real clothes’, ‘costume is an ongoing history’ due to its ability to relive pasts through clothes, and ‘costume is a juxtaposition of real outfits’. As Edinborough (2016) discusses, theatre is used to realise invisible worlds through visual tools, “...the material becomes a metaphor...”. Edinborough goes into great detail about the theatres ability to blur realities through the simple means of creating an illusion of a lived space, an invisible space, through all the different mediums within (Edinborough, 2016). It is clear that this causes costumes to become a heterotopia, or at least hold heterotopic qualities. This happens organically as a result of costume being a part of the wider heterotopia that is the theatre, but it is also possible to argue that costume exists with heterotopic qualities in its own right.


Space, as Massey (2013) describes it, is not dissimilar to “a pincushion of a million stories” all happening at once. She goes on to liken this pincushion to a house which Bachelard may argue is every house. Bachelard discuss the notion that our “...memories are housed…” (Bachelard:2014:30). Not only do we house our memories, but we also relate our memories to our house, past and current. Each time we move house, our past comes with us as our house is a representation of “our corner of the world” (Bachelard, 2014:26). This applies to costume too as each costume is filled with old realities, the memory of the actors or people who wore the costumes before them and the actors who will go on to wear them. In general, Bachelard’s discussion of the house in relation to our personal association to space comes down to the importance of memory. The notion that our memories allow us to relate to spaces differently. Costume, as a stand alone object, sets out to evoke memories with an audience through its materiality, but also challenges your understanding of these memories by reshaping them.

Ian MacNeil’s An Inspector Calls

To help visualise this space evoking materiality it is helpful to take evidence from a performance example. An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley which was first performed in 1945, is a story of deceit. A family, who have lied to themselves as being society's finest, are tested when a strange man appears. Inspector Goole aims to reveal a horrible lie they have all been hiding. He states that they are all linked to a woman named Eva Smith and though she had multiple names her face never changed. To prove the family all knew her, he carries a picture of her. He ensures everyone sees the image but he never shows the picture to more than one person at a time.


In a recent production by the National Theatre, whose designer was Ian MacNeil, Inspector Goole wears a trench coat that appears to have lots of pockets. There is no way of knowing whether the Inspector is showing the family the same picture of ‘Eva Smith’ or whether he is showing them all different women. When considering the idea of the Inspector’s pockets as a place of secrecy it is hard to not think of Bachelard’s description of the house. Specifically, his description of wardrobes where he evokes the idea of interior and exterior space; “...what good things are being kept in reserve in the locked wardrobe?” (Bachelard, 2014:101). In some areas of our house we put things on show, in the exterior, and allow them to be seen. In other areas, we hide things away and sometimes these interior spaces are locked. Anecdotally, Bachelard discusses a casket as an example of interior and exterior space. Our perception is that it is a solely “exterior space” as we are not always invited to see inside (Bachelard, 2014:`06). However, sometimes what is inside is sometimes a representation of the person that is being laid to rest. Sometimes the interior can be incredibly lavish. Furthermore, historically we find examples of people being buried with their prized positions. A clear example of this is the Egyptians who created an extreme exterior (the pyramid) whilst creating a solely interior space for the body and their possessions that was not allowed to be seen by many, it was private (History.com Editors, 2019). Applying this back to the Inspector’s coat, it is clear that the designer agrees with Bachelard when he says “For to great dreamers of corners and holes nothing is ever empty...” (Bachelard, 2014:159) as there is no way of knowing whether each pocket contains a different image. The Inspector is presented, on the exterior, as one thing. He is put together, smartly dressed and does not seem ruffled as the family are when the secrets are revealed. However, within his coat, there is a possible interior that is based upon lies just as a casket, or wardrobe, can appear as one thing but is actually something else, if we are allowed in. Though we are not let into the secrets of the Inspector’s pockets, as with any performance, the experience of watching is promoted to evoke our imagination and our memories. Therefore, as an audience member you are promoted to ask questions about the secrecy of the coat and whether the Inspector is as deceitful as the family, if you decide to relate to the costume in this way. The theatre is full of memory and imagination and designers, like MacNeil, are able to help us believe and search for these memories if they believe themselves (Bachelard, 2014:167).

Rolf Borzik’s Rite of Spring

To take this exploration of costume and space further, it is useful to take time studying the contrasts between this notion of privacy and publicity in relation to space. As mentioned in relation to An Inspector Calls, Bachelard discusses the sense that we have the ability to lock certain memories or ideas away behind closed doors. Overarchingly, space “concerns our relations with each other” (Massey, 2013), publically or not. As humans there are rules about what we can wear when and how much skin is appropriate, these rules depend on gender, religion, and society. As Bachelard may state, we are allowed to show some things on the exterior, but a lot of our bodies must stay private as an interior behind our clothes. So when a costume directly contradicts these societal standards of nudity, even just suggesting this, it can aid costumes heterotopic qualities. Pina Bausch’s contemporary dance work was all about taking the ordinary and twisting it, putting the audience in a relationship with theatre they may not have thought possible. She did this through staging, movement, and music. Rite of Spring is perhaps considered her most famous piece of work due to the relationship the dance holds with the music, Bausch allows the music to be “...seen and heard.” (Stearns, 2017). In regards to what we see, dancers in a ritualistic manner dancing themselves to death who are dressed in shift dresses that naturally change with the dance. At the start they are relatively clean and loose, but as the dancers begin to perspire, as a result of the activity and as they connect with the earth (that staged the floor), the costumes become more sheer and we are revealed to parts of the body that are normally hidden vicariously so as not to expose secrets. Costume here is also used to help develop the story and the space for the audience by dressing “...the human sacrifice is materially embodied in red voile shift dress...” (Barbieri, 2018:55). This idea of secrecy that Bausch’s designer, Rolf Borzik, allows to be broken down can be seen across theatre. It relates back to the idea of costume and theatre as a heterotopia but at the same time beautifully supports exactly what Bachelard states about housing certain memories within certain spaces for fear of being seen. The costumes in Rite of Spring presents something we cannot deal with in society, the idea of being comfortable without clothing on. As Yi-Fu Tuan (2011) states, we teach ourselves to experience things in relation to our innate human qualities. As children our senses help us learn and help us grow, however, we are conditioned to believe things as a result of this same humanistic nature. As we rely on our parents, we rely on things that make us feel safe and secure such as following a path in a forest instead of straying from the path. As humans we set up rules for the space we live in that are in line with what we have experienced thus far and it limits what we experience for fear of being put out of our comfort zone. This happens within our houses too by locking certain aspects of our life away. What this also represents, is that theatre immediately causes heterotopias when it creates something that immediately juxtaposes this. This is apparent with Borzik’s design as the dancers wear clothes we would not dream to wear in public for fear of exposing parts of our body we would rather keep locked away.

Theatrical representation and our wider desires

In a wider analysis, the theatre helps us deal with our deepest desires. They are our darkest desires because the wider space we live in doesn’t allow us to experience them. As a result, theatre, and art alike, allows us to explore our fetishes. It encompasses our human experience all in one go. As Barbieri discusses in relation to The Rite of Spring, the costumes explore gestures “...that are both physical and visual and express the interconnectedness of individual, earth, and community..” (Barbieri, 2018:55). Theatre has the ability to show off multiple experiences at one time, which relates to the idea of secrecy within costume like with An Inspector Calls. The theatre shows us things we normally aren’t allowed to witness actively, as discussed, alongside the secrets it can hold. These secrets can be visual aids like the coat, but can also be within other parts of the theatre experience too. Any part of the “...theatre can be conceptualized as a mode of threshold experience - a mode of experience that does not necessarily rely on the concrete spaces we associate with theatrical performance.” (Edinborough, 2017:105). In relation to the two performance examples studied in this paper, the staging is also representative of this notion of the theatre as a ‘mode of experience’. In Rite of Spring, the staging is simplistic, it is open as the costumes are and does not hold secrets. It’s simply the earth, cleverly done only by covering the stage floor with dirt. If there are secrets to be found in the set and costumes it is for the audience to search for themselves; “At times, the simpler the image, the vaster the dream.” (Bachelard, 2014:156). Perhaps a simple theatre space allows us to explore our relationship to it in line with our human experience more easily. Alternatively, the National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls presents lavish costumes and a set full of hints for us to find deeper meaning. But perhaps this is due to the nature of the play itself, as one embedded with foreshadow, deceit and hidden meanings. The design has to represent this, but ultimately it still represents our desires. It represents our everyday nature of walking past buildings and people without really paying attention. What MacNeil does, alongside J.B. Priestly’s original techniques, is present a space that cannot be passed by. The world he creates juxtaposed our real world by allowing us to revel in the desire of unpicking spaces and secrets in detail and being given the time to do so. Clearly here, theatrical representation is defined by “otherness” which is alike to Edinborough’s definition of “Heterotopian space [which] is established in places partially defined by the fact of their otherness” (Edinborough, 2017:114). Our inability to explore otherness in our everyday lives allows the theatre to transcend our understanding of space. Theatre designers, and makers, clearly latch onto this and create extraordinary worlds that allude to a variety of spaces all at once that all contradict our everyday understanding of space.


It is clear that costume, alongside theatre, represents something more than human. Our normal human tendencies, as discussed briefly in reference to Tuan, are affected by our surroundings from the day we are born and the relationship we hold with space. We experience things through a gradual learning process that comes to us step by step, day by day, and we’re constantly stepping forward as a result of our relationship with time and space. Therefore, costume immediately contradicts our understanding of space by presenting past, present, and future all at once. Often costumes do not change even though a play can represent a large variety of times and lengths. In fact, perhaps it is fair to argue that theatre itself immediately disrupts space by confusing our understanding of time, by passing anywhere from 1 hour to 50 years or even passing no time at all. Like Bachelard’s description of the house, the theatre space evokes multiple time periods at once. Though this does not happen directly through memories as Bachelard states in regards to the house. Instead, the theatre does it through allowing us to explore thoughts and different worlds. It invites us to imagine. In a world that is so structured by rules and a constant moving forward, the theatre becomes a space that allows us to develop our understanding of experiences, taking it from the pedestrian understanding to the deeper and perhaps more philosophical understanding. Costume becomes a tool for this theatrical representation that is needed to help audiences explore space so deeply. It can be done in many ways, it can explore private bodies, public bodies and hold a multitude of secrets that can be explored if audiences so desire. Overall, it is clear that the theatre is complete with contradictions of our understanding of everyday space and becomes a place for us to explore deeper desires. Therefore, costume, as a tool of theatrical representation, aids the promotion and success of theatre as a heterotopia as a result of being part of theatre but also in its own right as a stand alone object.

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Edinborough, C (2016) Theatrical Reality: Space, Embodiment and Empathy in Performance [eBook]. Intellect Books Ltd, Bristol.

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Ingold, T (2000) The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. Routledge: London.

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Priestly, J.B. (2001) An inspector calls and other plays. London: Penguin

An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestly (1992) directed by Stephen Daldry. Hull New Theatre, 24 September 2019.

Stearns, D. (2017). Must Stravinsky Be Both Seen and Heard? Pina Bausch's 'Rite of Spring' Delivers a Convincing Yes [online] WQXR. Available at: https://www.wqxr.org/story/must-stravinsky-be-both-seen-and-heard-pina-bausch-rite-spring-delivers-convincing-yes/ [Accessed 6 Jan. 2020].

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