Armitage barbatus: or, beard as costume, part 2

Part I is here.

II. On costumes

To start to answer how any visual element might work as a costume for him, first, let’s revisit one of Mr. Armitage’s first interviews, the video extra included on the North & South DVD. When I saw this the first time I thought it was a fairly standard statement about the role that costumes play for actors, but in light of the question I’m discussing, it turns out to be surprisingly revealing.

“Costumes are really, really important,” he stresses at the beginning. “[…]When you get into costume before the day starts, if they feel like costumes, then it [stammers] the creation of your character for that day is kind of marred in some way, so it was really important, the details …” he continues, before going on to discuss the costumes for Thornton. He notes that this costume’s construction “gives your character, gives your costume a biography, as it were, and then the stiff, starched cravat, is a very useful tool, which can then be deconstructed.” After an amused reference to Thornton’s cravat, and its removal, he then goes on to discuss the significance of Thornton’s pocket watch as an article of his father’s that Thornton carries with him at all times, and concludes, “so in some respect, your costume becomes clothing rather than costume, so yeah, it’s really, really important.”

To ask here: what does it mean, exactly, for a costume to become clothing? On the face of that, it means that something that marks you as a character (Thornton’s darned trousers, for instance), becomes a piece of clothing, presumably one that belongs to you. But what if what he’s saying is: when I put on the pants, if the pants are realistic and don’t seem like a costume, I become the person to whom they belong? And here I don’t mean “become” in the sense of “play the role of,” but rather, “The clothing lends me, Richard, personality elements that I use in my work”? Or even, “when I put on Thornton’s clothes, I am Thornton”?

So: what happens to you, Mr. Armitage, when you take Mr. Thornton’s clothes off?

To ask here, second: what does it mean to say that a costume has a biography? I would know what he meant if he said it had a history (“this is the jacket sewn in 1996 for x playing the role of y, and in 2003 it was altered to fit me playing the role of z”), but biography implies something quite different (“this is the watch worn by my father and his grandfather before him, the watch that he was wearing at my baptism, the watch that he took off just before he killed himself”). Does the costume itself have a persona that can be drawn upon, a life that can be narrated? Is the costume alive? Does it lend its (imagined) life narrative to the actor? What happens to you when you don a series of items that have biographies? How do their biographies then become tied up with yours? If the costume has become clothing, is its biography still separate from yours?

A nice view of the pocket-watch — an item with its own biography in the pocket of Thornton’s failed father: Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) surveys Marlborough Mills in a publicity still drawing on episode 1 of North & South. Source:

To note: when Armitage says that a costume element can be deconstructed, I doubt he means that in the technical sense, but rather something more like manipulated, stripped down, laid bare. (In fact, I think that what Armitage is doing when he acts is perhaps the fundamental opposite of deconstruction — it’s almost the embrace of a [futile?] measure against the inherent fundamental contradictions that necessitate a deconstructive reading from the viewpoint of the theorist. I’ll have to ponder this some more in the future. Interesting.) I think he is saying that the capital paid into a particular costume element can be exploited periodically because the costume is not merely a receptacle for something, it constitutes it: rather than being used up, the costume pays interest. If I understand him correctly, he means that a clothing element can be exposed so prominently because it is much more than a sign of something, to be instrumentalized, but can take on its own life. Thornton’s starched cravat is not the symbol of his bourgeois pride or his struggle to reattain his social status; instead, if the costume is right, if the costumer is doing his job, when the actor puts it on, and does his job correctly, then it constitutes, it is, his pride / status — and so when it comes off, it is not just a sign to the viewer that something about the status is changing (“I am showing you how rattled Thornton is by taking off his cravat”), but rather the status itself changes (“I am rattled”). I hope the distinction is clear here between signaling the appearance of change and actual change. Understanding it is complicated by the genre of the explanandum here, the fact that as viewers we tend to say, “oh, whatever the actor does is a performance,” but Armitage’s comments here suggest that what happens when puts on a costume ends up being something slightly more than a performance. In his terminology, a faulty costume mars not the performance — but the creation of the character.

To ask here, finally: we may fairly conclude that his remarks here elide the actor / role line, so it seems fair to ask about the process of putting on clothes in a larger sense. We can fairly ask whether the process doesn’t work in reverse, whether putting on one’s clothes as oneself doesn’t also constitute a performance, or, to use Armitage’s words, the creation of a character. (I was pushing what seems to me this rather obvious point in western civ discussion of North & South this spring: that clothes help us constitute the self and identity in the West, and students seemed a little stunned by it, so I’ll elaborate.) If he puts on the wrong clothes as Armitage, does that mar the creation of Richard Armitage for the day? What happens to the creation of Armitage if the clothes “feel like costumes”? And further: if the clothes that he puts on for his roles lend Mr. Armitage aspects of personality when he is acting, what does his costume in this interview tell us, in a situation where he is performing the role of Richard Armitage for one of its lengthiest early outings? What clothes does Armitage always have with him, and what are their biographies? In particular, I note here the pinstriped jacket and the choker, both styles of articles that have appeared repeatedly in photos of him.

What happens to you, Mr. Armitage, when you put your clothes on? Who are you before, and who are you after?

To Part Three: Never let them see you sweat: or, the role of sprezzatura

~ by Servetus on July 21, 2011.

27 Responses to “Armitage barbatus: or, beard as costume, part 2”

  1. […] II. Richard Armitage on costumes […]


  2. An element of what happens to an actor when donning a costume, is Movement. How does the costume influence/constrict/free the essence of the character played? A corset will impose a sense of restricted motion; a cravat will stiffen the neck.

    When the actor introduces a feature of his/her own (the

    An element of costume is its influence on movement. A corset imposes some restriction of motion; a cravat stiffens the neck. Such is the influence on an actor of movement in developing a character.

    When the actor introduces a “biographical” element such as a pocket watch), the costume and the actor form an alliance -to express a character. They are as one. Fancifully, the costume does assume a biography. If costumes could speak! The costumes in museums; the
    costumes in the exhibit at Stratford, Ontario, for instance; the non-theatrical costumes in the Met. Each ensemble has its history. Correlation to our more mundane existence: the response we have when donning different clothing. Jeans and T-shirt, prom dress, “business suit”. How do we feel, who are we, how do we move? For the actor, this must be an even more intense experience, more conscious.

    And I still hate that tie on the CA red carpet!


    • Sorry about the tie. A man I dated once told me that it is the one thing that men are really allowed to make decisions about in the wardrobe, so I usually think we should leave ties alone in our commentaries. I was fine with the tie, but I didn’t like the tie / shirt combination so much — stripes with checkers? Meh.

      It’s helpful to add the component of movement here. I’m arguing a little bit based on these remarks that what you call the intensity of the experience that Armitage has doing this blurs the actor / role line in ways that we don’t immediately appreciate when we see him as himself because we don’t think of him as playing a role.


  3. Sorry there is a hanging sentence there – the first para simply disappeared, and attempt to re-enter – well, that’s the result.


  4. I remember reading an interview of Sir Ian McKellen when LOTR was made, about the same subject: costumes, make-up, etc.
    He said that he had “found” Gandalf when he had tried the prosthetic nose. I always find these bits of information very interesting in getting to know the actors work behind the performance.


  5. In accordance with the first comment, I think there is marginal truth in the saying “the clothes make the man”. While I’m not materialistic or remotely fashionable, the idea that clothing represents who we are at any given moment I can agree with. One of the first ways we determine how to interact with a person is based on their appearance, all facets not just clothing. It’s the cultural symbolism associated with the different characteristics of appearance. Once we become better acquainted with a person we don’t need those clothing clues to know how to behave toward them but to an extent we still rely on them. It’s a frame of reference, I guess you could say. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious nerd (I’m not pretentious!) I have to say that RA’s thoughts regarding costuming follow the theory of symbolic-interaction. (I was a Sociology major) The costume not only allows the actor to “become” the character, it gives them vital information about the character which then, obviously, adds to the viewer’s experience. In the mundane world, as previously stated, we alter our behavior with different outfits…..or alter our outfits with different behavior. I think I’ve rambled enough and possibly bored whoever bravely endured this snippet but I was compelled to comment after reading such an interesting blog.


    • Amanda, thanks for the kind words and fantastic comment, and welcome. No worries about being pretentious — I sort of live for the complex conversation!

      I don’t know much about sociology (quantitative social sciences were going out of fashion in history writing when I was in grad school), so I may not understand you completely. And I’m following a performative / discursive idea of identity development. But does this theory allow for the fransformation of the actor? That’s a little bit where I’m going here (as should become clear in the next two posts).


      • Yes, I believe it allows for the transformation of the actor because of the symbolism behind the clothing, costuming, bearding, or what have you. I see it as being an ongoing interaction between the character and the viewer but also, and more importantly to a transformation (which I think follows where you’re going with this, if I understand you correctly) it is an interaction between the actor and the character. When RA talks about the biography of a costume it sounds like he’s describing a personal conversation leading to the ultimate change made to “become” the character. One of my favorite things about our thespian is the research he does and the biography he creates in his mind about his characters. Socially identity development is a lifelong process and just as our daily experiences help us to build and change those identities, I imagine the temporary transformations actors make during a performance shape their own identities. I feel a little like I lost my point somewhere in here but maybe this makes sense to someone else. 🙂 Servetus, I hope our differing backgrounds lead to more interesting discussions. I may have difficulty at times understanding you, especially since I recently graduated (finally!) and have Sociology on the brain! It occurred to me today, while thinking about RA on the red carpet and something he said in an interview awhile back (I can’t remember which one and am not going to try to find it right now) about how he’s uncomfortable being in the spotlight as himself and if I recall correctly that people will never see the real Richard Armitage on the red carpet (paraphrase) which begs the question, who is he when he’s doing publicity work? Does the beard help him to hide himself by keeping one aspect of himself “in character”, so to speak? Wow….I write long posts. Sorry about that! I’m a talker, if you couldn’t tell. lol


        • OK, cool. Great comment. What I’m trying to get away from is the idea that there’s a strong line between Armitage and his roles, or that what he does when he’s performing is only symbolic for him (though it might be for us). I think if it were his performances would be a lot more mannered (in the sense of mannerist) than they are. And yes, the beard is a tool that grants him sprezzatura (see next post) but it’s also one that changes him. I would add to his comment, if I were interpreting him, that “the real Richard Armitage” is not one constant thing. I think that is part of what gets him in trouble with fans occasionally — they think they’ve signed up for one thing and when they don’t get it they’re perturbed.

          Congratulations on graduating — a big step!


  6. Good that your post ended with putting cloths on him again ;o)
    I admire the density of your analysis, Servetus. The biography of the cloths is a really fascinating aspect. I would like to know, which role he had in mind for the promotion shots for the Project magazine. But I think he brings some of his ‘agression’ from Thorin with him. Not that I think he ‘playes’ Thorin there, but I have the impression he himself as an actor is in a process of change right now and will come out different after the filming of “The Hobbit” has ended.


    • Well, you know, I wanted to leave them off, but then I thought that might be presumptuous, seeing as how we’ve never met 🙂 Though I was thinking today that if I knew I could be his alterations tailor, that’s the career I’d pick next.

      Seriously, though, I think you and I are going to agree. The longterm thesis of this series is that the beard as costume has become a tool for artistic and personal growth for him — that it aids him in doing things he might find difficult as Richard Armitage without it — so that saying “I don’t like the beard” purely on aesthetic grounds ignores what he’s doing with it, and what it’s doing for him.

      You are very intuitive, CDoart.


      • Hello, Servetus. I just commented on your part 3 and afterwards read your feedback here.
        I see the beard as an instrument for him as well.
        In the third clip of JP about the filming of the Hobbit, RA (?) says something about, they were folded together and newly built up. I think they did that very well with him and ‘made’ him the leader of an unruly group of fighters.
        It is a new aura he wears as a person. His look hypnotizes me so much that I sometimes need a while to recognize he even wears a beard.
        More than the beard, he himself has changed for me. (But not in a bad way. He is great and just is more aware (and in relaxed possession?) of his abilities now ;o)


  7. I read your post yesterday and it touched me deeply. And I thank you for it. Report it would be to use a space that does not belong to me. So I’ll just make an only comment. I’m not a sociologist; I might have just exemplified what Amanda said. Sometimes an object means nothing to our observers, or communicating information stereotyped. But for whom uses may have a deeper symbolism. Once I was reading about acupuncture and read that should not wear rings during treatment so as not to block the energy. Normally, I never use rings. And I do not have a religion or beliefs. But this had a strong symbolism for me, so when I feel exhausted and energy sucked by people, I put two thick silver rings on each hand. Symbolically, they represent what I can block the exchange of energy and strengthen myself. As if I to call a protection mechanism. I do not need them and neither they have any power, they just help me focus. But, most people thinks are beautiful silver rings.


    • I do things like that all the time, Ana Cris. I once told a co-worker that I don’t accessorize, I arm myself. lol This does follow my personal spiritual beliefs but I think that difference between us is irrelevant. 🙂 Humans are very attuned to symbolism, though the meanings may be vary for individuals.


    • This is a really nice demonstration of the general point I’m making, Ana Cris. Very clear, very cogent, very touching. Great writing!


  8. An interesting quote….possibly relevant to this blog? From an interview in The Telegraph July 22, 2011.

    “He duly smiles, enchantingly, at the absurdity of the gap between image and reality. ‘Somebody asked me after I’d done all that training for Strike Back “Could you go out and work with the SAS?” I thought what a ridiculous question. It’s about replicating a look.”

    Ok, I’ll stop posting now. 🙂


    • Interesting. I want to write about this a little eventually. I wonder what he thought the interviewer was asking when he gave that answer.


  9. I love your analytical posts!
    It made me think of the fact that RA bought Lucas’ clothes to wear in real life. What does it mean? Does he take some of Lucas’ character with him? Perhaps his “coolness”? Or maybe in this case the clothes fitted his personality on the first place?
    I’m sorry if what I’m saying now sounds a bit critical towards RA (it doesn’t mean that I don’t love him! I do! ;)). If what you are saying in these series of posts is that he is changing, I agree. I heard him too many times saying that he doesn’t like his good looks (or something like that), and just wanted to say: than change it! You don’t have to take roles where you have to take your shirt off, or dyeing your hair to look more stunning… So maybe now is the time for a change for him. I hope it’s for good.
    I’m sorry, this whole week got to me… it’s the monsoon after the drought (according to judiang).


    • Thanks, Arfan, for the kind words. Yes, the choice to wear a character’s clothes that he referred to this spring is really interesting. It would interesting to speculate, for example, about whether the Armitage that appeared at the BAFTA 2010 TV awards was also Lucas.

      You get me exactly right, and I think this is a good way to be critical. I don’t think he’s always in control of the changes, but on the whole given the energy they give him I think he’s on the right path. So the length of the beard isn’t the issue — it’s what the beard gives them.

      I really appreciate the delurk — maybe you are changing, too? 🙂


  10. […] Part One; Part Two. […]


  11. Just found your blog today – OMG – love it!! Just discovered Richard two weeks ago via North and South and have since bought the wedding episodes of Vicar of Dibley. Saw Captain America last night. Already a huge Hobbit fan so the fact that he’s playing Thorin will be simply marvelous. Will be back to visit your site. Great job, keep it up.


  12. […] One, Two, Three, and supplement to Part […]


  13. Fascinating topic and a great analysis – as usual! 🙂 I think the right clothes help you get into character, because it’s one thing to walk around in a t-shirt and jeans on set rehearsing a scene and another to be in full costume. Thornton in jeans? Not Thornton, just Richard rehearsing Thornton for later. Thornton in a cravat? Definitely Thornton.


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