The Anthropomorphic Costume Designs of John Napier for Cats and Starlight Express.
Cats - The Musical
Cats is a musical that portrays the characters of T. S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” as singing, dancing, story telling Jellicle Cats. The term “Jellicle” came from T. S. Eliot’s goddaughter struggling to pronounce “Dear Little Cats”, and “Poor Little Dogs” was in her parlance “Pollicle Dogs”. The name Jellicle has come to refer to the anthropomorphic Cats onstage in the musical, as opposed to real house cats.
The “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” consists of 15 poems, 12 of which describe individual characters, only one of which, “Cat Morgan Introduces himself” was not included in the musical. Additionally, Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot, provided Lloyd Webber with drafts of another poem, “Grizabella the Glamour Cat”, which Eliot had considered too sad to publish for children.
The characters in Cats fall into two groups – those featured by name in the poems, and those who are ensemble characters. However, several of the ensemble characters – Bombalurina, Demeter, whose names are derived from “The Naming of Cats”, are principal female roles with large singing parts, but featured characters such as “Bustopher Jones” appear once, with the actor portraying several small roles within the show. However the anthropomorphic semiotics are clearly defined, ensemble characters wear the typical painted bodysuit, wig and tail, where the featured characters have far more complex costumes combining both cat and human aspects to their design. This is achieved by a very literal layering of costume, as each featured character adds a coat, a dress, a new wig, to their ensemble costume.
Bombalurina and Demeter are principal female roles. They are both responsible for many of the female solos within the show, particularly singing about “Macavity”, as in this image. There is no textual basis for their characters beyond their names, however the story told through their song and dance describes Demeter as a previous victim of abuse at the hands of Macavity, Bombalurina is her protector and comforter. Bombalurina is very confident, sexual, the female equal to the Rum Tum Tugger’s flirtatious character. While Demeter cowers at the thought of Macavity, Bombalurina sees him as a challenge.
Bombalurina’s costume reflects her character. She is the only bright red cat, not a natural fur colour, and red is a colour that immediately attracts attention. The white bib accentuates her bust, as do the black hatching marks delineating bust, which also give the suggestion of stocking tops on her thighs. Attention to her sexuality tells the audience she is a very confident character. Her above-elbow satin opera gloves however suggest class, being associated with upper class formal wear. These elements together suggest a woman who is flirtatious, confident, but who has class and is not a prostitute. Then she has signs that suggest ‘cat’. First is her wig, which is long haired and smooth, and well groomed. The wigs hide the actors’ human ears behind a flap of hair, and suggest ‘cat’ ears on the top of the head. The wigs generally are considerably larger than a normal hairstyle, making the head seem larger than normal in proportion to the body. Her makeup which has features in common with all the ensemble cats, accentuates the forehead, cheekbones and chin, and lets her jaw and cheeks push back in comparison. This gives an optical illusion of making the face triangular and more like a cat. The makeup design never includes literal whiskers, but sometimes dots to suggest the base of whiskers. This suggestion is a use of Metanymics, indicating the presence of whiskers by a suggestive dot. The collar is a fairly literal representation of a pet cat; however Bombalurina’s collar is decorated with both jewels and spikes, features more suggestive of a pampered pet dog. The collar makes it clear that unlike some other ensemble Cats, Bombalurina has a comfortable home with a family. The tail is probably the most literal sign of “cat” in the costume, however, the tails make no attempt at realism, being clearly made of cord and yarn, and tied at the waist. Most of the ensemble cats have a degree of fluff on their unitard, however this is not fur, but frayed fabric and tied on yarn.(is its intention to suggest fluff. The fluff is mostly on the shoulders, this softens the visual neck/shoulder line, gently blurring the audience’s immediate recognition of the human form. In a similar effort to blur the human silhouette, almost all the cats wear leg warmers, which give a soft, fuzzy outline to the lower leg. This disguises the human outline of ankle and feet, making the leg appear to continue to the feet. The cats all wear small, neat leather jazz shoes, making their feet seem small in comparison to the chunky leg warmers. Many also wear arm warmers, which hide wrists and further blur the human outline.
Demeter’s costume shares many elements with Bombalurina, she wears a similar collar and has a white bib, however the combination of the elements reads quite differently. Unlike Bombalurina’s smooth, groomed wig, Demeter has a short, spiked, dishevelled appearance to her wig. Her gold and black markings indicate both Tabby markings, as well as the classic “warning” colours in nature, such as a wasp. She also has satin gloves, but unlike Bombalurina’s elegant long gloves, hers are wrinkled and dishevelled. She is a beautiful cat, but clearly not bothered about her appearance. This combined with the actress’ movement makes it clear that Demeter is a very nervous creature.
The featured characters appear in their own songs. Some, such as Rum Tum Tugger and Skimbleshanks, retain their featured character throughout the show, others, such as Bustopher Jones or Macavity, are characters portrayed by ensemble members who have a separate ensemble character.
The Rum Tum Tugger is portrayed as a Rock’n’Roll idol, with a quiff in his forelock, black leather biker gloves and studs on his belt. His huge mane increases the bulk of his shoulders which serves two functions: on a feline basis he is clearly a long-haired fluffy cat with an extravagant ruff; on a human basis he is very masculine in having strong emphasised shoulders. His number is fairly early in act 1, so the audience is unlikely to notice his first costume which is a simple dark wig, with no mane, gloves or belt, and brown warmers disguising his leopard spotted ankles. After his solo he remains in his featured costume and in character throughout the rest of the show.
Skimbleshanks, unlike Rum Tum Tugger, does not have his featured song until well into the second act. Throughout act 1 he is an ensemble member, a neat ginger tomcat. The poem “Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat” gives a lot of description of his character and mentions his appearance. He is a busy, controlled and controlling character, with a job to do, he must make sure the train leaves on time and the passengers behave respectably. His song costume reflects this. In addition to his ginger tabby costume, he gains a waistcoat with pocket watch, shirt front, a collar with a bell, and specific arm warmers with elbow patches. The waistcoat and pocket watch are reminiscent of a Station Master’s uniform, a watch being a valuable possession vital for making sure that trains leave on time. The waistcoat is knitted in stripes in shades of brown, which echoes his feline coat pattern. Also rather than wearing a tie, he wears a collar and bell, indicating a kept pet cat. His arm warmers with elbow patches suggest the hard-working labourer who has reinforced the worn out elbows of a work jacket, giving the impression that Skimbleshanks works hard, has a position of authority as signified by the watch and the collar says he is valued and appreciated by the railway staff.
When Cats opened in 1981, the production was unique in its portrayal of cats in this anthropomorphic blend of dancewear and abstract feline features. However the technology and budget were limited, which had the effect of the original costumes being considerably plainer than their later incarnations. Particularly the makeup was much simpler, and less feline influenced.
One particular technical demand of creating the Cats costumes is the technique of painting the patterned unitards. This presents problems as hard-wearing nylon/lycra blended fabric does not easily take dye. The process of painting this fabric has developed considerably since the 1980s, allowing the bright colors used later but were not available to the original production.
The costumes were redesigned for the 1982 Broadway production, making them bigger, brighter, and more cheerful. The general feel of the Broadway costumes is to reduce the amount of human visible within the costume. These re-designs were then used for subsequent world-wide productions, while the London production continued to develop the costume designs in isolation from the Broadway versions.
A new costume is made for each joining cast member, and the unitards wear out quite quickly from the hard use they are put to every performance, so unitards were regularly re-made. The designs were quite flexible, each unitard was hand painted but the London costumes show far greater variety in design than other long-running productions.
In 1998 a film was made of Cats by the Really Useful Group’s films department. This production was assembled using the UK Touring set, principals from the London and Broadway productions, and ensemble from the London cast at the time. The costumes and makeup were especially tailored to suit the close-up filming environment, however they essentially used the London costume designs for the film. The recording has been enduringly popular, and since 2000, new productions tend to reflect the London aesthetic from the film rather than the Broadway, as had been the case from 1982.