Henry Gissey’s Costumes for Psyché (1671)

John S. Powell

presented at the international conference “Fashioning Opera and Musical Theatre,”
Cini Foundation, Venice, 29 March to 1 April 2012

          During carnival of 1671, on the eve of the creation of French opera, the court and Parisian townsfolk flocked to the Salle des Machines in the Tuileries Palace to see Psyché—a production that combined spoken tragedy (verses by Molière and Pierre Corneille), songs and choruses (lyrics by Molière and Philippe Quinault), music (by Jean-Baptiste Lully), ballet (by Pierre Beauchamps), stage machines (by Carlo Vigarani) and costumes designed by Henry Gissey…and created by the royal tailor Jean Baraillon and Claude Fortier.

          This production featured an unprecedented number of characters onstage—300 by one count—the identities of which had to be made immediately evident to the audience through music, dance, costumes, and accessories.  To gain insight into the sartorial splendor of this production, we are fortunate to have 36 of Gissey’s drawings, which were bought by the Swedish ambassador Carl Gustav Tessin (image) in 1742 and now reside in the National Museum in Stockholm. 

          To complement Gissey’s drawings, we have the Official account of the expenses for performing Psyché in 1671, which now resides in the British Library.  Signed and approved by the King and Colbert on 23 November 1672, this report shows that a whopping 334,645 livres were expended on the production.  The greatest cost were the sets and machines, designed by Carlo Vigarani and constructed in the Salle des Machines in the Tuileries Palace (image).  The second most expensive items were the costumes, most of which were designed and created by Henry Gissey, Claude Fortier, and Jean Baraillon, tailor to the King.    Here are some of the costume-related expenses (image), where we see that over 35,000 livres were paid to costume the musicians and dancers, over 4,700 livres were paid for the actors’ costumes, and 800 livres were paid to Gissey (image) for his drawings.

          Other expenses relating to costume accessories—specifically masks, wigs, feather headdresses, costume jewelry, gloves, silk hose, garters, and shoes give us an idea of the amount of attention lavished on the details of this production (image). Noteworthy are the eight vases provided by a sculptor and used in the second intermède...together with the donkey ridden by Silenus in the final intermède (image), various painted devices, armor, and a wooden horse for the entrée of Mars and his warriors (image).

          In Psyché, costume design serves a clear purpose:  namely, to portray different levels of theatricality.  Costumes, accessories, and props distinguish human beings from gods, the natural from the supernatural, and the comic characters from the serious ones.   Unfortunately, we lack Gissey’s drawing for the costumes worn by the title role of Psyche, which was created by Armande Béjart, the wife of Molière (image).  From the above expense account we know that she had at least 3 costumes.  One of these is depicted in the engraving by Pierre Brissart, that was published in the 1682 edition of the Œuvres de Molière (image). This frontispiece depicts Act 3, where Cupid entertained Psyche in his magnificent palace.  Here Psyche wears a courtly costume:  a large headdress of plumes, a pearl necklace, a bodice of embroidered material decorated with a cluster of gems at the center of the neckline, large pendant sleeves, embroidered retroussis,  a floor-length embroidered skirt, and a long train.

          We have some more information about Psyche’s costume from the inventory that was taken of Molière’s possessions after his death in 1673.   His theater costume wardrobe contained at least 3 costumes worn by his wife in Psyché:

Item, the costumes for the presentation of Psyché consisting of a skirt of gold linen cloth decorated with three silver laces with am embroidered bodice and furnished with a tonnelet  and sleeves of gold and real silver, another skirt of silver linen cloth whose front is decorated with several laces of real silver with a mantle of crepe embellished with similar lace and another skirt of green and silver watered silk, garnished with fake lace and with an embroidered bodice, the tonnelet and sleeves embellished with gold and real silver, another skirt of blue English taffeta,  decorated with four laces of real silver, appraised all together at 250 livres (“Inventaire après décès de Molière,” in "Cent ans de recherches sur Molière, sur sa famille et sur les comédiens de sa troupe", ed. Madeleine Jurgens and Elizabeth Maxfield-Miller, 554-584, at 570).

A subsequent entry accounts for three cluster of plumes accompanying those costumes:

Item, three bouquets of plumes, one black and the two others of different colors used in the costumes for Psyché, appraised at twenty livres (Cent Ans, 554-584, at 573).

No doubt the black plumes were worn in the fourth act, where Psyche is sent to Hades.

           During most of the play Cupid appeared not as a naked child as depicted in Brissart's engraving, but rather in the guise of a young man.  The "adult" Cupid was played by Molière protégé, the 18-year old actor Michel Baron.  Cupid’s costume makes it immediately clear that he is no ordinary mortal (image) Gissey drawing shows that he is dressed in a tonnelet, the antique Roman theater costume traditionally worn by tragic actors.  In addition to the bow in his left hand, arrows in his right, and wings on his back, we see various other identifying motifs—such as the flaming hearts that adorn his headband, collar, sleeves, and belt.

          Cupid’s confidant is Zephyr, the role created by Molière (image).  His tonnelet (image) identifies Zephyr with godlike beings, while various motives suggest airiness:  a set of four fairy wings, a row of feathers on the headdress, around the collar, the arms, the top and edges of the tonnelet, and the knees.  Moreover, Zephyr has various elements drawn from nature:  an inverted cross of flowers decorate the bodice, and garlands of flowers adorn the shoulder, elbows, wrists, and knees. 

          So far, we may presume that costume design distinguishes mortals from gods:  17th-century court dress for mortals, old Roman theater costumes for gods.  This holds true for most Olympian gods--Apollo, Bacchus, Mars, and Jupiter--which appear in the final intermède.  For example, the sun's rays are the principal motive of Apollo's costume (image), as seen on his headdress, collar, shoulders, and tonnelet.  The costume of Bacchus (image) is covered with small bunches of grapes and grapevines...which also adorn the back of his knees and the top of his ankle boots, while his right shoulder is covered with a tiger's head--those being the animals that usually drew Bacchus's chariot.   Mars (image) wears a magnificent Roman-style costume befitting the God of War:  a helmet with a pointed visor decorated with plumes along the crest, an ornate breastplate with a stomacher,  andand ankle-boots.   Jupiter (image), dressed as a Roman general, grasps lightning in his right hand.  The royal crown recalls his sovereignty among the gods, while the sumptuous bouquet of feathers that adorn his headdress and the great cloak that falls from his shoulders to the ground is large folds confer an aura of grandeur and majesty.

          The one god who stands fashionably apart from the Olympian pantheon is Momus (image), the god of the god of satire and mockery.  His costume appears more modern than the tonnelets worn by the other gods, and yet a bit old-fashioned by 1670 standards:   a tight-fitting doublet  with leg-of-mutton decorations on the shoulders, a knee-length cape, and breeches,   with a flat hat decorated with some plumes and feathers and placed jauntily on his head.  Momus would have been more in style in the court Louis XIII, or even Henry IV. 

          The final intermède of Psyché concludes with a sumptuous ballet à entrées, in which each god enters with his entourage of demi-gods, woodland creatures, and commedia dell’arte characters.  Apollo is accompanied by nine singing muses, of which one, Urania (image), is depicted in Gissey’s drawings, and by ten “gallant shepherds” (image) portrayed by professional dancers.  Accompanying Bacchus is his foster father and tutor Silenus (image), who sits astride a life-size sculpture of an ass that is draped with garlands of vines.  His bald head is adorned with a crown of ivy, and the pointed ears, hair-covered breeches, and bare feet confirm his role as leader of the satyrs who accompany him.  Gissey depicts two of these satyrs playing pastoral musical instruments:  an oboe (image) and an unidentified aerophone (image)

          Momus leads his company of clowns, who are also dressed in a more modern manner than the followers of the other gods. Gissey drawing shows in profile a Punchinello, or Polichinelle (image)…who is easily identified by his two humps.   Polichinelle wears a tall hat ornamented with tall feathers at the back, a ruff collar, and striped doublet emphasizing his humps and large belly.  He strikes a sistrum decorated with bells on either side. 

          Mars heads a band of warriors dressed in Roman military costumes, which include trumpeters (image),  pike bearers (image), and enseigns.  
        Whereas Olympian gods dominate the final intermède, the Prologue introduces us to the old Roman gods and goddesses of nature.  For Flora (image), Goddess of Spring, flowers adorn her headdress, her costume, and her shoes. Vertumnus (image), the God of Trees and Fruit, is represented here as a gardener.  Bunches of fruit, leaves, and wheat adorn his costume, and he holds a spade as an emblem. 

         Demi-gods of the seas and rivers have naturalistic costumes assembled from sea plants.  The water-god Palaemon (image) sports a costume decorated with algae, coral, and seashells; in his right hand he holds a sea shell, and in his left hand a sea plant.   The River God (image) who appears sitting on an urn in act 4, sc. 5, at the point in the play when Psyche, in despair, is about to drown herself in a river. His costume bears some resemblance to that of Palaemon's...however, it is adorned by only one shell (in his headdress), and is otherwise made up entire of water plants.  He holds an oar in his left hand, which identifies his profession.

          Gissey’s most striking costume designs were seen in Psyche's funeral cortège, as dramatized in the Premier intermède.  The set changes to "frightful rocks, with a terrible solitude in the distance."  A cortège of mourners come to lament Psyche’s sacrifice with touching laments and "lugubrious concerts", while others express their desolation by all of the indications of violent despair.  Here, the costumes capture the overall desolation of the scene and the mood of the music and dance, and their designs are clearly inspired by Greek antiquity (image). The draped effect of the costume, the branch which the mourner holds in his left hand, and the boughs of his headdress--all signal a funeral garment.  Another drawing (image) depicts a male flutist, dressed like a priestess.  This evokes the aulos players that headed funeral precessions in ancient Greece.  A third drawing (image) depicts the femme désolée who sings Lully’s Italian lament.  She holds in her left hand a handkerchief to dry her tears.

          Gissey’s costume designs are ordered to evoke a succession of moods.  The second intermède is comic, to the extent that the premier intermède was heartwrenching.  Psyche has been snatched away by some zephyrs and taken to a magnificent palace that Cupid has built for her.  There, eight cyclops and eight fairies work on golden vases to adorn the palace.  Gissey's drawing of their cyclops overlord (image) shows the single eye in the middle of his forehead; his beard, long mustache, and stocking hat with the cockscomb brim gives him an air of age and rusticity.

         The fourth intermède was the spectacular centerpiece--the horrific enfer scene which had been recycled from the 1662 performances of Cavalli’s Ercole amante.  As one of Psyche's trials, Venus has sent her to Hades to receive a box of unknown contents from Persephone.  There, twelve dancing Furies rejoice at Venus's anger and her forthcoming revenge over Psyche.  Gissey's costume drawing for a Furie (image) is dominated by two motifs: flames and snakes.  Snakes appear in her hands, in her hair, around her collar and shoulders, and at the belt.  She wears a terrifying mask, with an open mouth and drooping eyebrows.  These furies are accompanied by "four goblins making perilous leaps.”  Gissey's drawing (image) shows a headdress of flames and a grimacing mask, with flames shooting out of his headdress.  In the goblin's left hand is a spinning toy decorated with bells.   Bells also decorate the headband, the collar, the sleeves, the body, the knees, and the ankles.  No doubt their leaps created a frightening jangle of noise, thereby giving this costume a sonic dimension.

          In conclusion, one may discern a clear aesthetic plan in the succession of costume and set designs throughout Psyché.  It begins with the bucolic Prologue and its nature motives, and progresses to the desolation of the premier intermède where they act as sartorial reflection of Psyche’s lamentation.  Then on to the comic relief of the second intermède and followed by the erotic third intermède—depicting Cupid’s delight in and love for Psyche.  Then on to the depths of Hades for the hellish terrors of the fourth intermède.  Finally to the festive sumptuousness of the celestial final ballet and the Olympian wedding of Psyche and Cupid, shown depicted in a Gobelin tapestry (image).  Throughout this tragicomédie et ballet of Psyché, costume design serves as an integral component of the overall dramatic plan.