Hi, I am Adele, and I have run a large fancy dress shop in Essex, England, since 1998. I'm happy to pass on my knowledge to help others.
Pantomime - An English Seasonal entertainment
In the 'Costumes by Letter' Hubpage information series, Pantomime costumes are often mentioned, and given the Hubpages’ international audience, perhaps the term needs some explanation. There are some excellent articles on other Hubpages on Pantomime, its history and eccentricities. Here we’re trying to put pantomime costuming in context. Props n Frocks can supply all of your Pantomime fancy dress costumes and give you loads of fancy dress theme advice. We have been established since 1998 and we know everything about fancy dress.
Pantomime is a peculiarly British theatrical tradition with its roots in the Italian Commedia Del'Arte, but with other aspects which are uniquely its own. Some Pantomime stories may be familiar to you through the works of Disney (eg. Cinderella and Snow White), although these in turn are based on European fairy and folk tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm. Other 'pantos', such as ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Dick Whittington’, have story elements or characters which are based on real events. Recently Hollywood has been taking some of these stories and updated/reimagined them, but for this hub, we are sticking to the basic storylines.
Pantomime can occur anywhere from the West End of London (and involve famous actors or celebrities) to the local halls and schools of a local community where an acting group may be formed just to put on a panto. Traditionally the British Pantomime season starts 26th December (known as Boxing Day in Britain - nothing to do with the fighting sport, it was when the boxes of church collections taken over Christmas were distributed to the poor).Like many traditions in modern times, this convention is now rarely observed, and with Christmas becoming busier, pantomimes can happen almost any time, but typically from mid-November to February.
Whilst the central story of any given pantomime is usually well-known to the members of the audience, most productions use it as a vehicle for ‘in’ jokes, satire and contemporary local references, with a sprinkling of ‘pop’ tunes. For many, the annual pantomime is a major community event, but one might equally well find ‘mini-panto’s’ with smaller casts touring clubs, pubs and smaller venues in the spirit of social entertainment.
Pantomime traditions and eccentricities
The distinguishing features of a pantomime production are:
a) Cross-Dressing: The main male/hero role is usually taken by the Principal Boy, a female playing a male, but dressed in a way which does not exactly hide her true gender. With short tunics and fishnet tights a feature, pantomime was doing short and sexy costumes well before it became more widely popular!
Similarly, the main comic female part, the Dame, is usually played by a male in a parody of ‘femininity’. The original reason for this is said to be that given that messier elements of the Pantomime tradition (see Slapstick below), it was unseemly for females to be involved, However, in these days of equality, whilst tradition may still have the Dame as a male, females may take on other comedic roles such as the Ugly Sisters, and get in on the fun.
b) Audience Participation: The audience may become involved in several ways: A character (e.g. Buttons in Cinderella) may 'befriend' the audience and help him/her with a particular task (such as helping 'guard' an item on stage by calling out if it is approached); A character may seek vocal support from the masses ("You can't do that!", "Oh yes I can!"," Oh no you can't", etc.); They may be encouraged to hiss the villain or his/her henchmen, or be involved in the Singalong (below).
c) Slapstick: In Italian Commedia, the main romantic story of Harlequin and Columbine was interspersed with comedy intervals from the clown-based characters. During these, the 'sound-effect' slapstick was used in knockabout routines. Pantomime has developed these interludes into scenes where several characters Get Messy, originally using white-wash-style 'Slosh', these days using either foam or gunge. (Examples: 'At the Beauty Salon' (Cinderella), 'Making the Cake' (Dick Whittington); 'Washday at the Laundry' (Aladdin)).
d) Front-of-curtain scenes: To keep the action going whilst the stage is cleaned after the above, or scenery is changed, some panto scenes with only two or three characters may occur in front of the main curtains, especially.....
e) The Singalong: Immediately prior to the finale and Walkdown (below), two of the characters, will organise an audience participation sing-along with the aid of a giant song-sheet either dropped from a gantry above the stage or held up by the characters. Children may be invited up onto the stage to help, the audience may be divided up to see who sings loudest, some may be asked to provide sound-effects and the song may be gone through several times, until the stage has been prepared (usually with an elaborate or colourful set) for the Walkdown.
f) Walkdown: Starting with the chorus and minor characters, the stage is gradually filled with cast members taking their bows and applause. Characters then appear in order of importance, culminating either in the hero and heroine in wedding outfits (anticipating the 'Happy Ever After') or the lead character/principal boy taking centre-stage and finishing the performance with a rhyming couplet, of which the last or 'tag' line is never spoken in rehearsal, only performance.
Pantomimes and Potential Couples
Story recap: Ella's mother died young, her father has remarried and she has acquired a stepmother and two step-sisters who treat her like dirt and have her sleep by the hearth in the kitchen (hence Cinder-ella). Meanwhile the Prince of the kingdom is seeking a potential wife and holds a Ball to which all eligible females are invited. The sisters tear up Cinders' invite but a Fairy Godmother intervenes and provides a dress (and coach and horses in which to arrive). The Prince is impressed by Cinders, but unfortunately the Godmother's magic is time-limited and Cinders has to flee the Ball, leaving only a glass slipper. The Prince then vows to find the slipper's owner and, despite best efforts by her step-relatives, he does so and the Prince and Cinderella are married.
Cinderella and Prince Charming
Cinderella is usually a female, but in pantoland, Prince Charming is usually also played by a female, as is the Prince's friend and confidente (usually called Dandini)! The Cinders costume is either a stylised 'ragged' outfit (with soot/grime facial markings) or the full-on ballgown and accessories with court-wig – depends how much space (and budget) you have. The Prince and Dandini wear similar male-style outfits, but without the trousers (pants) so that legwear is usually down to fishnet tights and boots!
Cinderella and Buttons
If you want to keep within panto tradition and need a female/male pairing, the alternative choice is Buttons. Buttons is another servant within what is supposed to be a poor household and is Cinderella's close friend and confidente. He is also generally assumed to be in love with Cinders but as events turn out, his love is unrequited. His costume is a uniform, not dissimilar to that of the American bellhop (hence the name).
The Ugly Sisters
Whilst most pantos have one 'Dame' – a male playing a comedic female part - Cindrella can have three. In fact the roles of the Ugly Sisters are potential more 'Dame' than the step-mother. In these days of equality, they can just as well be played by girls, but the roles are designed to be grotesque parodies - over-the-top make-up, outrageous wigs in wild colours and outfits in clashing colours and styles.
A story perhaps less well known outside Europe as it is not one that Disney has done, although the Puss-in-Boots character has appeared in the Shrek movies
Story recap: A miller dies leaving his 'wealth' to his sons. For the youngest, this is the mill cat, but the cat reveals hidden talents (including the ability to speak) and sets about improving his master's situation. This includes persuading the local King that his master is a titled noble, the Marquis of Carabas, and that he (the cat, having kitted himself out with hat and boots) is the Marquis's servant. His best trick is to outwit a man-eating shape-shifting Ogre and seize the Ogre's lands in order to further impress the king and pave the way for his master to marry the princess and live happily etc.
Puss-in-Boots and the Marquis
Despite all the forgoing (and the portrayal in Shrek), the part of Puss is usually played by a female, possibly due to the need for a lithe look, and the Marquis, for once, can be a male. So we have a purfect pairing, assuming the female is up for the catsuit look. At least she can wear something over the catsuit (the hat and boots – usually cavalier/knee-length style- can be supplemented with a jacket for extra style) and whether she goes for the full-face cat-make-up or a mask is down to practicality (like the ability to eat, drink and see clearly) and personal preference. The Marquis can be either in 'poor' miller clothing or the rich trappings of a nobleman.
Aladdin and his Magic Lamp
The Aladdin story is supposedly the best known of the 1001 Arabian Nights tales told by the Princess Scheherazade to avoid execution by her husband (another of the tales is 'Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, also sometimes done as a panto.). Her ploy was to to break-off at a ‘cliff-hanger’ point in the story so her husband could not have her killed if he wanted to find out what happened next.
Some doubt its authenticity as an ‘Arabian’ tale, but it’s a good story.
Story recap: Aladdin is a poor boy who is tricked by a wicked sorcerer uncle into helping him retrieve a magic lamp from a cave. When Aladdin refuses to give the lamp to the uncle he is shut in the cave, but he is wearing a magic ring and the genie/djini of that ring transports Aladdin and the lamp home to his mother. Using a more powerful genie, found to be living in the lamp, Aladdin acquires fame, fortune and the hand of a princess in marriage but the wicked uncle tricks Aladdin’s new wife into handing over the magic lamp and takes over the palace built by Aladdin. Fortunately, Aladdin is again able to use the lesser genie of the ring to outwit the uncle and all ends well.
Aladdin & His Princess
Although Disney’s version is set in the Middle East, the story and pantomime are set in China (which the British seemed to think was more exotic). Given that panto Aladdin is another Principal Boy part (ie played by a female), the traditional Chinese coolie get-up is easier for him/her to wear than the waistcoat and bagged pats middle-eastern equivalent. Obviously as Aladdin’s fortunes improve, his clothing becomes more ornate, but this is a matter of choice.
Traditionally the Princess will wear oriental-style outfits, and given the way pantomime works, it may even be possible to use an adapted geisha-style costume for this role. On the other hand we have seen occasions where the Princess has been modelled on the females found in Chinese Opera with an elaborate head-dress and stylised make-up. It involves a lot more preparation time. but if there are prizes at stake, then it may well worth the effort.
Aladdin & The Genie
There are, of course, two Genies (Djinns) involved in the Aladdin story. Opinions differ as to the gender of the Slave of the Lamp – traditionalists favour a male, and this may work better if your Aladdin is a female. Disney’s was large and blue, but the waistcoat, harem pants and turban look can work well, even in a supposedly oriental setting. Similarly, the Genie/Slave of the Ring tends to be female and is usually kitted out in a belly-dancer or harem-girl outfit. She may have also enhanced the fantasy oriental look with some exotic skin colour and make-up!
Widow Twanky and Wishee-Washee
Widow Twanky is Aladdin’s mother and a classic panto dame part.
Wishee-Washee, usually said to be Aladdin’s brother, is dressed in typical Chinese coolie costume and often acts as a foil to Aladdin’s pranks
Dick Whittington & his Cat
The story of Dick Whittington is based on a real person who actually was Lord Mayor of London, although the ‘Cat’ is thought to derived from Whittington’s dealings with ‘Achat’ French sailing trade vessels.
Dick Whittington sets out to seek his fortune in London, accompanied by his cat (who is given different names in different versions). Although he finds service in the household of Alderman Fitzwarren and is romantically involved with the Alderman’s daughter, Alice, his efforts to improve himself are undermined by the Forces of Evil personified by King Rat. Dick is eventually falsely framed for theft and he has to flee the country by ship, although Alice and the others stow away too. They are shipwrecked on an island where Dick’s cat rids the land of an infestation by King Rat and his followers. Dick is bestowed with riches, his name is cleared and he returns to London in triumph.
Dick & his Cat
In panto tradition, both Dick and his Cat are female, although for party purposes the couple can be played with whatever mix you want. Dick is in a typical tunic top, shirt and breeches ensemble, whilst the Cat can be fur or catsuit based with a mask or make-up according to preference - in this panto, Dick's cat does not speak, so a mask causes no problems, but for a party the mask might be less practical.
Fairy Bowbells and King Rat
In his fight against the forces of evil, Dick has a ‘fairy-godmother’ watching his interests. The name may vary but the Bowbells name (a reference to the famous Bow church bells of London) given here is typical. Fairy-godmothers are usually attired in longer, more glittery gowns than their standard fairy counterparts, but obviously you can play it anyway you wish.. Representing Evil, King Rat is dressed head-to-toe black, with a rat mask (or make-up) and long tail. A large cape or cloak for swirling in an evil manner is also useful.
Other Panto Costume Ideas ...
We have mentioned the majority of the main characters, but no pantomime is complete without the 'ensemble'. These are groups of men, women and children, who appear throughout the panto in various costumes and sometimes, as different characters. Because of the varying plots of every pantomime, you can really have a free license when deciding on one of these costumes, for example, an Elvis song may be played at some point, and some of the cast come on wearing Elvis costumes - basically in Panto. Anything goes! However, below are some more costume ideas that may help you with your costume choice...
Villagers - Most Pantomimes will have a Village Scene with men, women & children dressing up in peasant style costumes. Again, depending on the actual Pantomime being performed, these costumes will vary. For example, in Aladdin, the villagers would wear Chinese / Japanese style costumes, in Hansel & Gretel it is more likely that Alpine costumes will be worn
Walkdown Costumes - These are normally 'posh' variants that suit the theme of the pantomime. The 'Walkdown' is always at the end, when good has beaten evil & it is celebrated with a wedding of 2 of the leading characters i.e. Cinderella & her Prince Charming. Most common are Medieval / Tudor Costumes.
Animal Costumes - a lot of pantomimes include an animal costume - for example in Jack & The Beanstalk, Jack has a cow. These animals tend to take on a comedy performance and often will do a dance routine at some point in the pantomime. A Goose is obviously a lead role in Mother Goose.
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More Pantomime Characters
Hansel & Gretel - although some will call this a fairy tale, not a pantomime, a version of it is sometimes performed as 'The Babes in the Wood' with other characters such as Robin Hood (a well-known English folk hero) and Red Riding Hood, her Granny and The Big Bad Wolf getting involved. Major characters Include:
- Hansel & Gretel- Alpine style costumes
- Robbers - wear a convict costume
- Stepmother (Dame)
- Old Woman/Witch - the villainess of the piece, often depicted as a Witch who lives in a gingerbread house!
Red Riding Hood - Characters include:
- Red Riding Hood - lots of costumes available to purchase
- Woodsman - use a peasant man costume
- Policemen - plenty of costumes & accessories available to purchase
- Lord & Lady Bertie - Wear rich clothing
- The Wolf! Lots of wolf masks available to purchase. There's also a 'Wolf in a granny outfit' on the market.
Peter Pan - A more modern panto, but an old favourite with great costume potential. The writer JM Barrie arranged that royalties from performance of the play should benefit the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London.
- Peter Pan
- Captain Hook
- Pirates - Smee & Crew
- Indian Men & Women (notably Tiger Lily) - plenty of indian costume & accessories on the market
- The Darling children- Wendy, Michael & John
- Nana, the Darling's dog
Jack & The Beanstalk
- Jack - wear a peasant's costume
- Jill - his sister
- Squire - rich Georgian style costume
- Good Witch
- Bad Witch
- Snow White - plenty of costume choices, just add a black bob wig
- Prince Charming
- Seven Dwarfs (the Disney names for these -Sleepy, Grumpy, Doc, etc are copyright)
- Evil Queen
Alice In Wonderland - A major story involving a large number of characters. These are the key players, but thee are plenty of others.
- Queen of Hearts
- March Hare
- Mad Hatter
- White Rabbit
- Pirates - why not take a look at our huge range of pirate accessories
- Robinson Crusoe and, of course
- Friday - a fugitive from his own tribe (often said to be cannibals) and Crusoe's assistant, although the 'coloured native' concept makes this panto potentially non-politically correct.
The Wizard of Oz- An American story, but about the closest the Americans come to a pantomime, regularly performed as such because of the popularity of the Judy Garland film
- Dorothy Gale
- Glinda, Good Witch of the South
- Wicked Witch of the West
- Flying Monkeys
- The Wizard of Oz
Let us know what you wore to a Pantomime themed party and if you thought that this hubpage was useful for you.
cindylael malt on February 10, 2012:
DErizzela too as well then as in a costume for M iss cindy malt of the one of the cinderellas stepsisters
would you gie an examples of it on display will you plese im a sister not actully cindetrs a nice Drizela oh my gush id give to it then
Conor Kindel from United Kingdom on February 28, 2011:
I have found your hub informative and innovative. I too have wrote a hub on the history of Pentomime. Take a look and you will enjoy!!