ArtsAlive.ca – The Secret Life of Costumes

Iconography as Scenography: The Power of the Iconic Image in Stage Design
By Michael Eagan

The following is an essay discussing ways in which visual symbols and iconic images can be used in costume design to visually represent themes and ideas in a play. Content is targeted at senior high school or university-level students.
image:La Sphinge, Œdipe Roi (1982)
La Sphinge, Œdipe Roi (1982)
Designed by Michael Eagan / © Michael Eagan

Designing for the theatre is the search for the visual metaphor and is always a part of a larger conception for a work of performance art. Visual metaphors generally serve a theme or fundamental idea that is contained in a work and may be represented literally – or taken on a second level whereby they may allude to an idea or have an ironic dimension. Visual icons are symbols that somehow concentrate an idea, or its opposite. The best and most interesting stage designs always manage to function on this second level, thus the potency of the iconic image and its importance in scenography.

Postmodernism in Scenography

Painting and architecture have been subject to various trends and movements. Postmodernism is a movement shared by nearly all disciplines, including stage design. It is a sort of reaction to decades of modernism (in architecture known as the international style) and its cool minimalism. It deals largely in the selection of visual symbols and icons – mostly from the past. The sensibility of postmodernism remains undeniably contemporary, but it also contains references to shared ideas and collective culture. Postmodernism’s success as an intellectual movement is due, in some part, to its feeling of being avant guard, while at the same time possessing a comforting reference to a shared heritage. This notion is of particular interest to the stage designer, who often searches for strong visual symbols and iconic images that refer to a larger truth.