Prescriptive Costuming: From Corsets to RoboCop, Bauhaus to Batman

Some time ago I began a study for playing a robot. I began this research because I recently had to opt out of potentially playing a robot, and dang it - that sucks hard. Sometimes having the cookie taken away just makes me want to bake, if you catch what I'm throwing down.

There's some exciting new stuff going on in robotics right now - particularly with regard to androids and their movement and balance. I wanted to see if I could emulate some of the uncanny-valley movement that robots like Big Dog are up to, and the somehow too-measured balance correction this bugger wields. To quote myself in an email to the director:

When I first started fantasizing about this I was very keen on emulating some of the uncanny-valley stuff you see in contemporary robotics - very agile, self-balancing things that defy how we think of "doing the robot." This also seemed in keeping with what we discussed about the voice, about ARGUS reflecting some engineer's best efforts to imbue humanity ... which really just results in "GAH. No. No, please stop that..."

Then, when he has power moments like lifting the guy one-armed, or preparing to knock in a door, he kind of transforms into a shape/posture that is designed to utilize mass - like a battering ram.

All for naught. The yield and time-to-effort ratios of this modest sci-fi film would up-end my efforts at effective parenthood far too much to contemplate. So all my research and nifty ideas (if I do say so myself) for robotic perambulation were to go untested.

But I caught a break, of sorts. The director of the project - working title: Dead Residents - needed a few stills for promotional purposes. He knew I wanted to wear the suit at least once, and so we had a fateful meeting for some promo photos on a Saturday morning back in October.

I expected a reality check when I donned the armor that was meant to transform me into an android. There's a good reason, after all, for rehearsal shoes, skirts, and especially corsets. We often say that we don't really find our characters until we've donned their clothes, and - having worked in a commedia dell'arte context or two myself - I know how radically a shirt can redefine a character, much less how a codpiece can.

 See you...

See you...

What I wasn't quite prepared for was an experience that seemed to mirror Peter Weller's, albeit without a budget, stakes, etc.:

When the RoboCop suit arrived on set, Peter Weller discovered that his movements had become very restrictive in the suit after Paul Verhoeven began watching the raw dailies. He and Moni Yakim had envisioned Robocop moving in a snake[-]like fashion but the suit would not allow it. Moni then informed him that it would be best to slow down his movements so that he could gain the ability to move in the costume. Production was then halted for 3 days in order for Yakin, Verhoeven, and Weller to discuss the new approach. Tempers flew and arguments started over this decision, but in the end, Verhoeven thought Weller deserved the right to express his opinions and go forth with this decision. Verhoeven was happy with the end results.- IMDB

Yakim is a Julliard founder who was Weller's mime coach. Yep: The guy who played RoboCop had a friggin' mime coach. I cannot love that factoid enough, it seems. I keep waiting to break it out at parties. I should probably get invited to a party.

The thing is, I love what Weller did in that film. My opinion is no doubt influenced by having idolized the movie at a young age, but on repeated viewings I'm more than impressed by what a guy in extremely testing and frankly ludicrous circumstances did movement-wise to make me forget he's a guy in a suit. A very heavy suit.

 All photos by Andrew Bellware.

All photos by Andrew Bellware.

That was my main difficulty with the "stealth" suit made by Nightmare Armor Studios. (Tertiary difficulty: It didn't have those nifty elbow-turbine-thingies that are part of it in the website image.) I assumed it was made of some kind of plastic - possibly substantial, but certainly not heavy, per se. But as it turned out, the armor was essentially made of a kind of plaster on a fiberglass mold. To wit: HEAVY.

And big. The greaves were less greaves and more like roomy plaster casts that go all the way 'round one's lower leg. The cuisses were perhaps intended for a taller person (though on reflection, I don't think I wore the belt that held their upper end quite as high as it was intended) and made intrusion on the greaves and plackart with every twist of my hips. Never mind the pauldron!

All this Frenching about is just to say that the armor was designed and built entirely for looks, not movement. It fairly well dashed my aspirations for too-smooth, super gyroscopic balance, or deft little footfalls. When you added the severe sensory deprivation of the full helmet, I was lucky to even find doorhandles and avoid uneven floor tiles.

But limitation can be an amazing source of inspiration.

Not many people outside of the arts know much about the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s, and even fewer are aware of its manifestation in theatre, or the Bauhausbühne. The Bauhaus movement at large sought to find unity in the combination of crafts and fine art, and this manifested in some very interesting ways in the fine art of performance. I won't do the questions - much less the concepts - justice here, but suffice it to say that the Bauhausbühne took ideas of form, space, and the "transfiguration of the human form" (Oskar Schlemmer's essay Man and Art Figure) and made bold experiments on stage that continue to influence our art and entertainment today.

One specific experiment of the school had to do with what I termed in my title as "prescriptive costuming." That is, they constructed "costumes" for actors that not only limited their movement, but in most cases prescribed certain specific movements as most effective. These costumes (so-called, though in many cases they had more in common with prostheses, puppetry and even set design) are utterly wild to see, even nearly a century on.

As strange as this idea may seem, especially to contemporary Western audiences, it's a mode of thinking that has a long historical precedent. For centuries, performers have relied on creating unique characters "from the outside in" - that is, taking their cues for character creation from the space, their body shape and even seemingly irrelevant mitigating circumstances. From the ritualistic movements of the kabuki theatre to the jaunty archetypes of the commedia del'arte, this approach has yielded powerful and hilarious results by turns. In fact, it's only rather recently in our human history that we have a record of placing a priority on the more detective-like work of starting with emotional or psychological truth, building a character "from the inside out."

And - lest we get mired in the past, blinded by the gleam of supposed "progress" since Stanislavski - allow me to remind you that one of our most contemporary and popular forms of entertainment in this day and age still takes its cues from its costume. Let me give you one of my personal favorite examples: The Batman.

In 1988, Bob Ringwood got together with Tim Burton and tackled a problem that hadn't been approached since the 60s - that is, how to effectively portray Batman's eccentric costume on film. We could write a book on every logistical issue they faced (oh, how I would enjoy that book) but of particular confounding interest was Batman's cowl. How to create something that was so iconic, and so seemingly divorced from functionality? The comicbooks called for it to be all of one piece and intimidating, the modern world demanded it serve as armored protection, and the lack of precedence and budget forced them to use what were essentially set-building and make-up materials.

What they landed on was pure Bauhaus - crafted, architectural, and it subjected the actor (literally) shouldering it to utter misery. The cowl was heavy, shaped in plaster, then coated with a dyed, rubber-like material. It had been designed with Michael Keaton's head and face in mind, but before the technology for precise measurement existed (at least for a movie studio). Every day he wore the cowl, Keaton endured rashes, abrasions and overall discomfort on and off screen.

Most interestingly, their "solution" to Batman's cowl created profound limitations for the craft of the actor. Keaton no longer had his elastic face to use, only his eyes (eyeballs, really - even his eyes were surrounded by black make-up), mouth and chin. Most hilariously, the cowl limited his movement in a significant way. He couldn't move his head. At all.

Consider this the next time you catch Batman on re-run. There's heroism going on, but not the righteous-face-punching sort. These challenges undeniably added to the normally ecstatic actor's new, grim and determined characterization. And though it's not always Keaton behind the mask in action scenes, consider the stunt double and fight choreographer who had to contend with an immoveable head-and-upper-torso. (This as much as anything might've contributed to the "Indiana Jones" moment when Batman fells a fancy-pants swordsman with a snappy kick to the face.)

(You may even recall that this wrinkle in the design of the Batman cowl remains unrequited for some twenty years, until 2008's The Dark Knight. In that, Bruce Wayne requests some modifications of his suit from Lucius Fox, who observes, "You want to be able to turn your head....")

The most hilarious demonstration of the movement adaptions Keaton (et al.) had to make occurs when the Joker flies over crowing, "Look to the air, junior birdmen!" from his custom helicopter. It's a quick shot, but you see Batman look, yes, up to the air. It's a completely unnatural, whole-body movement, by necessity. I think he's probably bending from his lower back and hips more than anything else. I love it.

Cut to me, slowly uniting wide Velcro(TM) straps across my legs, arms and chest, strapping on approximately 25 pounds of limitation. It was like walling myself off from all my hopes for doing something different with the motion of a blockbuster "robot." And then, as impossible as my dreams became just strapping into the suit, there came the isolation chamber of a helmet, with only one eye hole. Then a sensation-dampening glove on one hand. Then a gadget-bedraggled glove on the other hand, rendering my grasper essentially useless for grasping. I was completely cut-off.

Which was kind of great.

Great for comedy, of course. Here I was tromping about an apartment-building hallway trying to be intimidating, but not being able to walk stairs without craning my neck down or open doors AT ALL. But also great for feeling like, well, an android. Isolated. Concerned with practical matters. Even strong, because making a substantial shape out of all that plaster meant using my muscles, pushing back, filling out.

I could no longer perform the swift, minute shifts I had hoped for, but I found something else in my brief time in the suit. Efficiency of motion still served both form and function. I had to use a straight line where I had dreamed of an elegant curve, but a straight line can still have a quality, still make a signature, still speak to a character. Maybe I didn't get to eat this cookie, but that was a sweet morsel to taste.