Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.20

Rosie Wyles, Costume in Greek Tragedy.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2011.  Pp. ix, 154.  ISBN 9780715639450.  $32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Al Duncan, University of Utah (


The first extended study of its kind in half a century, Rosie Wyles’ Costume in Greek Tragedy synthesizes and in many areas advances scholarly discussion of fifth-century Greek tragic costume. With attention to detail, Wyles mines deeply the well-worked visual and verbal evidence, offering interpretations which take both theatrical semiotics and reception theory into account. As a standard reference, Wyles’ argumentative and at times speculative work is unlikely to supersede the judicious survey in Pickard-Cambridge’s revised Dramatic Festivals of Athens. But by tackling the most interesting questions of tragic costume—even where these issues are irreducibly contentious—Wyles’ book may be consulted fruitfully by advanced undergraduates with an interest in dramatic production and established scholars alike.

Wyles presents the book as “a comprehensive introduction to what fifth-century tragic costume looked like and how it was used in performance” (3). The first two chapters study the form, materiality, creation, and afterlife of fifth-century tragic costume. In chapters three through six Wyles turns to theatrical semiotics and reception theory to explain how what actors wore on stage plays “an essential part in the creation of meaning” of tragedy, with particular attention to how the Attic playwrights themselves explored the question of “how costume operates” (1). As back matter, the book includes a brief conclusion, an appendix with translations of the more extensive pieces of literary evidence, a selective glossary, bibliography, index, and a list of “references to costume” in extant tragedies organized under English headings (e.g., finery, hair decoration, etc.).

In the opening chapter Wyles surveys “some of the most important” (5) visual evidence from fifth- and early fourth-century Attica representing physical tragic costume. Wyles makes the modest, yet surely correct, claim that any monolithic conception of tragic costume is “misguided” (5, 33). Wyles herself takes a diachronic approach, arguing in an Aristotelian mode for an “organic” (5) evolution in theatrical production—progress she discerns through detailed attention to the modes and materials of costuming. She presses hard on certain pieces of evidence (such as the Basel krater, 6f.), but her conclusions are reasonable where they are not irrefutable. Both the paucity and fundamental ambiguities of the evidence ultimately leave Wyles' evolutionary claims tentative and somewhat vague, as she posits no overarching theory to explain or account for such change over time. One cannot—and to her credit, Wyles does not—safely periodize trends in fifth-century costuming without further evidence. Her analysis of the materiality of dramatic costumes is particularly informative. Likewise valuable is the observation that subtle variety is regularly detectable within casual “uniformity” in vase depictions of choral costumes. This may reflect painterly variatio as much as dramatic practice, of course, but the proposition has far-reaching implications: differences in choreuts’ individual appearances challenge, by analogy, “the uniformity of voice and speech act” which too often has been assumed when theorizing the tragic chorus (9).

Wyles’ second chapter, the book’s most important contribution to the history of Attic production, considers “the practicalities of making and using tragic costume in fifth-century Athens” (34). Wyles asks difficult but essential questions: Who made tragic costumes? What terms did Greeks use to refer to what we call “costume”? What happened to garments and masks after production? In attempting to answer these questions, Wyles offers some of the book’s most intriguing possibilities. For instance, she argues that ornamental patterns were “woven in rather than dyed directly onto the cloth” (34–5), and hints that ornate tragic costume was necessarily, and therefore conspicuously, costly to produce. Although this accords well with recorded choregic complaints over the financial burden of outfitting a chorus, theater’s fundamental capacity for disguise and “make-believe” should not be discounted.1

Wyles holds her most interesting and speculative arguments until the end of the chapter. She deems it “probable” (42) that by the late fifth century, due to substantial investments of capital, labor, and time, costumes were contracted to a workshop of male weavers, possibly the poikiltai whom Perikles, a noteworthy chorēgos, reportedly introduced to Athens (Plut. Per. 12.6; 12.8 is erroneously printed). More intriguing still is the possibility of the re-use of costumes in subsequent festivals. Wyles summarily rejects the hire of tragic costumes as “out of the question” (45), despite proposing that loans of specialty items, gratis, might have been common. If costume rental cannot be demonstrated until the third century (cf. LSJ s.v. ἱματιομίσθης), there is nevertheless no reason to rule out categorically such cost-saving measures, especially when there is evidence, such as the scholion on Ar. Vesp. 1312 (cf. Anth. Pal. 11.189), to suggest some form of market for theatrical costumes by the late fifth century.

Wyles’ third chapter, ‘Semiotics and the Language of Tragic Costume’, applies the work of the Prague Linguistic Circle to Attic drama. Wyles sees the cognitive processes used to decode the language of theatrical costume by fifth-century Athenians modeled in the playscripts themselves, suggesting that “certain characters” act as “internal spectators” who offer “an internalized representation of the spectator’s response to costume” (47). Detailed descriptions of a characters’ clothing (Pelasgus’ remarks to the chorus at A. Supp. 234–53 are Wyles’ prime example) do offer culturally internal or ‘emic’ examples of decoding; and, being rather marked as they are, these moments may indeed have provoked metatheatrical reflection on the role of costume in tragedy and comedy, as Wyles suggests here and elsewhere (cf. 95–6). However, even in tragedy, these descriptions need not be read straight. Costumes can be decoded by characters in surprising manners, contradicting or subverting more obvious visual interpretations. There is no small danger of circularity when using the text to reconstruct a hypothetical production against which the text is, in turn, interpreted.

An extended catch-all fourth chapter, ‘Costume in Action’, addresses separately six ways in which costume functions in production: Identity, Determinism, Emotional Manipulation, Ethnicity, Historical Dimension, and Fabrication. This review considers only the related studies of identity and ethnicity.

Wyles argues that “the whole of a character’s identity was bound up in the costume so that there was an almost complete identification of a character with the material of his or her semiotic representation” (63). Forging rigid links between character and costume leads to provocative conclusions. A character “could be understood to continue to exist, even after the end of a performance, ‘frozen’ in the costume” (63–4)—an observation that enriches the layered meanings of Euripides’ tragic atelier in Acharnians. Just as characters might enjoy a Nachleben through their costumes offstage, the onstage removal of costume items has the potential to destroy aspects of a character, as occurs when Cassandra throws off her prophetic insignia in Agamemnon, thereby “deconstructing her semiotic representation as a character” and ultimately resulting in her “‘semiotic death’”(66). But Wyles equivocates: discussing Bacchae pages later, she concludes that Pentheus’ offstage removal of the maenad disguise before his crazed mother “is not enough to reassert his identity—the semiotics of his assumed costume are too powerful” (69). Character and costume may be “bound up”, but performance and plot also determine identity.

Discussing ethnicity, Wyles calls attention to tragedy’s curious use of costume with contemporary “oriental” features to represent Greeks from the past. She describes how “semiotic markers which retained primarily foreign associations”, such as tiaras, were employed to mark characters as barbarian ‘others’ (81). A deeper exploration into how the foreign, feminizing threats posed by unmarked tragic costume remained latent in popular imagination (cf. Aristophanes’ send-up of Agathon in Thesmophoriazusae) would have been helpful here. But by drawing attention to the fundamental ethnic ambiguities of tragic costume, Wyles helps us better read a play like Medea, where “the audience’ [sic] perception of Medea shifts throughout the play and the level of sympathy depends on how close or distant she seems to them” (84).

Wyles’ fifth chapter, ‘Costume and Theatrical Discourse’, treats systematically a topic adumbrated in earlier chapters, namely the “on-going commentary” that tragedies themselves provided on costume’s effects (95). Wyles traces a generic dichotomy in the way costumes function: “whereas comic costume can sometimes be transparent, tragic costume cannot”—symptoms, she asserts, of comedy’s general directness and transparency and, conversely, tragedy’s indirectness and opacity (99). There is more flexibility on this point than Wyles allows, especially when considering complicated works like the Bacchae, where Wyles' assertion that the “gravity of the situation . . . kills the comedy of [Pentheus’] cross-dressing” goes too far (100). 2 Quibbles over generic boundaries aside, Wyles convincingly establishes that costume enjoyed a “privileged place” in the “ancient view of theater and how it worked” and was “fundamental to appreciating the artform” (106).

The final chapter, ‘Translating Costume across Culture’, puts Wyles’ preceding observations into practical perspective. She demonstrates through case studies that the “idea of ‘translating’ costume . . . is a highly complex process” further complicated by Attic drama’s “mostly alien semiotic code” (112). Situating the crucial theatrical moment at the audience’s semiotic reception of performance, Wyles claims baldly that “Authentic costume is fundamentally limited in what it is able to communicate to a modern audience” (112).3 Wyles ultimately proposes that the “subjective viewpoint of what is important to a production” should determine how Attic tragedy is produced today (125).

In contrast to its academic merits, Costume in Greek Tragedy shows signs of over-hasty production by the Bristol Classical Press, including numerous typographic errors. To accommodate new audiences, the press has tucked away the more unsightly tools of scholarship. It is a shame that no footnotes are printed, though their vestiges appear as in-line citations, sometimes awkwardly incorporated. Relatedly, the list of works cited is short and disproportionately Anglophone. When compared with Wyles' erudite bibliographies published elsewhere, one senses the editor’s blue pencil.

In a “comprehensive introduction” (3), it is disappointing that Wyles eschews plays which are lost or fragmentary from her analysis. Granted, sufficient context is a prerequisite for production analyses of this kind. But when available evidence for fifth-century costume is in in short supply, each additional instance has great potential significance. References to costume from fragmentary tragedies—even satyr plays, such as Aeschylus’ Theoroi—would sometimes have confirmed, at other times complicated, Wyles’ assertions. Fragments and testimonia are acutely missed in the List of References to Costume in Tragedies, where their inclusion would have done little harm to presentation and much good as a scholarly reference.4 Wyles does, however, follow Aristophanes in making a favorite of Euripides’ Telephus (96–8, and passim). One wishes the same courtesy had been extended to that playwright’s Bellerophon or Philoctetes as well.

In sum, Costume in Greek Tragedy gives a crucial and complex component of Attic drama the modern, book-length study it deserves. Those making historical inquiry into the practicalities of fifth-century production have typically refrained from theories of performance and its reception. Wyles demonstrates how the two may be profitably studied together in a single volume. Scholars of Athenian tragedy may still wish for a more extensive, magisterial, and nuanced discussion of this elusive topic. But as an approachable overview, this book deserves a wide readership. In her introduction, Wyles states that tragic costume employed its own “sophisticated language” that was “capable of producing many . . . layers of meaning, and comments on theatre” (1). The same may be said of her work.


1.   Wyles cites P. Wilson, The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia: The Chorus, the City, and the Stage (Cambridge: 2000). But more recently, see M. Christ, The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens (Cambridge: 2006), page 200: “Nothing prevented a chorēgos . . . from discreetly recycling costumes from his own previous chorēgia or that of a friend or relative.”
2.   Consideration of disguise in non-dramatic works, such as the Odyssey, would complicate Wyles' generic distinction. See Murnaghan, S. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey (Princeton: 1987).
3.   For a more theoretically engaged view on “authenticity,” see Gamel, M., “Revising ‘Authenticity’ in Staging Ancient Mediterranean Drama” in Hall, E. and Stephe Harrop (eds)., Theorising Performance (London: 2010), 153–70.
4.   The index of properties in Joachim Dingel’s dissertation, to which readers are further directed (139), lacks ready accessibility, as Wyles herself notes (2). See J. Dingel, Das Requisit in der griechischen Tragödie (Tübingen: 1967).

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