THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
By John Webster
Conceptual Costume Design
Written at the height of the Jacobean era in 1614, John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi presents a dark and pessimistic view of mankind. Webster’s use of vibrant imagery to describe the demise of his protagonists is an endless source of reference for costume with diabolic backdrops and natural analogies giving the tragedy a hugely visceral quality.
When approaching the text I realised that the values of honour, familial loyalty and violence represented by the Arroganian brethren hold many parallels with contemporary organised crime groups. The Mafia is defined by a strictly adhered to hierarchy and the absolute authority of a small group of men. Manipulation corruption and violence are all ways in which honour is upheld and loyalty between close knit groups kept. Honour is a word much used by Ferdinand in Malfi. Fittingly, the role of women in these patriarchal societies is first and foremost to carry the family line. They are sacred symbols of virtue in a corrupt world and so this gave context to the Duchess in my adaptation.
I wanted to give a sense of the disgusting wealth that Websters alludes to and so the setting is a heightened version of Italian mafia Naples mixed with high finance Italy. I focused on the three main themes of the diabolical, the human being reduced to the bestial and the diseased mind as a way of informing my silhouette and textile work.
By introducing textile motifs drawn from brain diseased imagery which are first seen on Ferdinand’s clothing and filter through to other characters, I am able to visually map how Ferdinand’s tyrranous and psychotic behaviour ultimately infiltrates a whole system and progressively destroys it.