Belle's Domain
Costume Designs

The Anthropomorphic Costume Designs of John Napier for Cats and Starlight Express.

I will investigate the methods and theories behind John Napier’s imaginative and spectacular costume designs in two contrasting shows, “Cats” and “Starlight Express”, discovering the similarities and differences between the productions. I hope to find out how the costume designs in these productions convey the anthropomorphic nature of the characters to the audience, and how the human body in performance is made other than human by costume.

Anthropomorphism is defined as “The representation of objects (especially a god) as having human form or traits” (Webster’s Dictionary online - 2008). In western culture it is common to assign human characteristics to animals in children’s stories, for example Beatrix Potter’s “Peter Rabbit” or Walt Disney’s “Mickey Mouse” are familiar to many. When this kind of anthropomorphic character is portrayed onstage by actors, their costumes must relay to the audience the layers of representation, that a human is playing an animal, who in turn shows human characteristics. Anthropomorphic costumes are challenging artistically and technically, and require collaboration between designer, maker, director, and actor to create a convincing non-human creature onstage. I find this level of technical challenge interesting and rewarding to understand and achieve creatively as a maker.

Cats is a musical setting of T. S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, set and costume designs by John Napier, directed by Trevor Nunn, and choreographed by Gillian Lynne. It premiered in London’s New London theatre on May 11th, 1981. T.S. Eliot’s poems were written for his godchildren, and each poem describes a character. The creative team for the show constructed a world for these ‘Jellicle Cats’ to hang the poems together, creating a loose storyline in which the tribe of Jellicle Cats meet once a year for a ball, during which the leader chooses one cat to be reborn. The resultant show is not a traditional musical such as West Side Story, being character and movement driven with far less emphasis on the plot.

Starlight Express is a Rock Opera, telling the story of a child’s dream about his toy train set coming to life, and staging the final of the world championship railroad race. Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the music, the lyrics were written by Richard Stilgoe and, like Cats, it was directed by Trevor Nunn and designed by John Napier. The cast play the engines and carriages of the toy train set, performing on rollerskates while singing and dancing Arlene Phillips’ choreography. Starlight Express premiered in London at the Apollo Victoria theatre on 24th April 1984. The show has undergone many re-writes, with significant quantities of plot and characters removed in order to streamline the show over the years and various productions.

As a very young child I was fascinated by the costumes used in performance, particularly glitzy ice skating competition dresses. I have always viewed costume as part of performance, and performance requires an element of costume, as even a nude performance shows conscious decision on the “costumes” of the performers. A costume requires function and movement. As such the practicalities of costume are very interesting to me. For example, a skating costume needs to allow the performer full movement, it is essential the costume will not be a risk to the performer, such as causing a trip hazard, however the costume also needs to move well, flowing with the skater’s speed and accentuating movements.

The original London production of Cats ran for 21 years, and has had worldwide success, many of these productions using John Napier’s designs. Over the years of the London production the interpretation of the costume designs developed and changed constantly. Starlight Express experienced similar development within the London production; however other productions using John Napier’s designs have not had such development. This is something I shall explore in more detail. The freedom and experimentation in both shows’ London productions led to a fascinating variety of costumes, some more effective and pleasing than others. Yet in the non-London long running productions of both Cats and Starlight Express the costume designs have remained static, the only slight development being in materials used due to technological advances. (The only exception to this is the most recent “Dinah” costume used in Germany, which has been re-designed as of June 2008 with alterations remarkably similar to my version of June 2007) I want to discover why the London productions of these two shows had so much development while other productions by the same creative team did not. I want to discover the process for this flexibility, why it is that the successive generations of costumes made were not strict copies from the “costume bible”. For example, this flexibility allows the design to alter to flatter an actress of significantly different proportions to the original, or the colours used to flatter different skin tones. This information on the process may be of use to other long-running productions.

Another area of great interest to me is the imagination shown in John Napier’s work. In general the costumes are not a literal representation of their subject matter, the cats are not furry, they do not have whiskers. The costume designs are more multi-layered than that level of literal representation. The level of suggestion, references and semiotics included in these designs fascinates me, as even with great familiarity with the designs, I am still discovering new details and references within the work.

The language of the references in the costumes is defined by Semiotics. In The Signs of Drama, Martin Esslin sets out the three types of signs used – Icon, Index, and Symbol. An icon is a straight “picture” of its meaning, for example a sign warning of deer in the road, an Index sign is indicating towards something, such as an arrow giving directions, and a Symbol requires a shared knowledge between the creator and audience, for example an understanding of a written language, to make the connection between the sign and its meaning. Without the knowledge of the language, the writing is meaningless. He also speaks of “deictic” signs, which indicate the hierarchy of the subjects. The use of semiotics is generally subtle to the audience’s perception, as Martin Esslin specifies: “Yet it must always be kept in mind that this decoding process is only partly conscious: many members of the audience will tend to react instinctively to the “general impression” produced by the confluence of a multitude of subliminally perceived characteristics” (Esslin 1987: p70)

I will analyse each show in detail, beyond the general audience’s perception, to tease out some of the “subliminally perceived characteristics” which overall create the perception of anthropomorphic cats and trains.

Next - Cats the Musical