From Script to Stage: Macbeth Costume Design


The cast of Macbeth. Photo by Stephen B. Thornton.

From the leather armor and tunics to the moccasins, helmets and other pieces, there is no doubt much time went into planning and crafting these incredible pieces. And the woman behind these extensive costumes is returning costume designer Marianne Custer, the resident costume designer for the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tenn. and head of the MFA design program at The University of Tennessee.

We have launched a brand-new video series From Script to Stage and for the second in the series, we had a chance to sit down with Custer on the inspiration behind the incredible costumes, the patterns and fabrics used, as well as a look at the badges on the armor, the moccasins and more. Check it out below!

The Shakespeare drama takes The Rep stage Sept. 11-27! Book your tickets to Macbeth by calling (501) 378-0405 or visiting

Macbeth Monday: Q&A with Costume Designer Marianne Custer

Our first show of the 40th Anniversary MainStage Season is opening this week!

And a new show means a new blog series. To highlight all of the cool aspects of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we are launching a week blog series called Macbeth Mondays!

This week, we are highlighting the elaborate costumes you see onstage– from the handcrafted leather armor to the plaid capes, linen tunics, moccasin shoes and more. Dramaturg and Assistant Director Paige Reynolds had the chance to talk with costume designer Marianne Custer about her inspiration.

Here is what she had to say:


Designer Marianne Custer’s sketch of a Macbeth soldier complete with a plaid and fur-lined cape, leather armor, handcrafted moccasin shoes and linen tunic.

Q: What did you find most compelling about designing Macbeth?

A: Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays. I’ve designed it once before rather long ago, so it was interesting to me to work on it again from today’s perspective. I think the use of technology in this production will make the supernatural elements of the play more believable and reduce the potential for unintentional humor. The play is a grand ghost story, with hauntings, witches and murder. It’s also a play about how a guilty conscience will betray one’s worst secrets. Would it be the same play if the ambitious Macbeths had been able to rise to power and commit their murderous acts without fear or regret, as today’s ambitious power mongers seem to do?

Q: What can you tell us about your inspiration? Where did you go to cultivate your vision for the overall look?

A: Because this production is to be set in the early Romanesque centuries, my research and inspiration was Celtic costume of this era. Very little change occurred in costume during the first thousand years after Christ. Fashion didn’t exist and news didn’t travel very
fast. The costumes are designed to appear primitive to support the primitive greed and superstition that lead to Macbeth’s undoing.

I wanted to emphasize the Scottish in the play through use of “plaid” fabric and kilts. Early kilts were not made of the clan tartans that we know today, but were solid or plaid, probably depending upon the wealth of the wearer. Shreds of fabric from graves have come to prove that plaid and checked fabrics existed among the Celts during Roman times. (The term “plaid” in the discussion of Scottish kilts can lead to confusion, as plaid is the proper term for the upper body covering of the ancient kilt and the term used for the strip of “tartan” cloth worn diagonally over the torso in more modern times.) Kilts were originally long lengths of cloth that could also serve as blankets. Scots would place their belts on the ground, pleat their blankets over the belt, lie down and belt the pleated cloth around their waists. The bottom would serve as the kilt and the top could be pulled over one shoulder or draped over the head as protection from cold and rain.


Custer’s sketch of another soldier complete with a plaid cape, leather armor, handcrafted moccasin shoes and linen tunic.

The only clothing materials that existed in Scotland at the time were wool, linen, leather and fur. The Thanes in Macbeth are knights and warriors. They live rough and battle hard, as the prologue to our production will demonstrate. The warrior’s clothing is rough, battle worn, and dirty. They were not great bathers. Though metal armor existed during this period, we are using leather armor in an effort to make the costumes appear even more primitive. Long hair with braids, full beards and long mustaches also help to emphasize the primitive nature of our characters.

Q: Is there one particular element of the design that you are especially excited about? Why?

A: I just hope to be able to make all the elements of the costumes work together. The costumes are, in part, invented, so making them all seem part of the same world is a my imperative. I also hope to find a place with the actors in which the elements of the costumes support their characters and the action without them feeling buried in “the Look”. This will be one of my most important challenges in this production. “The Look”, however, is important to maintain, not just in terms of establishing a primitive culture and helping to set the time and place, but because several actors play multiple roles, “ the Look” aids in changing the appearance of the actor from one role to the next.

Q: Where are you from? How often do you work at the Rep?

A: I am from Minneapolis. I left long ago to design costumes and teach. I am a professor of 42 years at the University of Tennessee, where I developed and still head a highly successful MFA program in design for theatre. I believe Macbeth is my tenth production
at the Rep. I love working here with Bob Hupp, Cliff Baker and other talented directors. Working on August Osage County was truly a privilege. I saw the production on Broadway, saw the movie, and believe The Rep’s production better than either. I love working with the Rep’s staff, which I find welcoming, talented and always willing to give their best to help
create a vision.

Pulled from the Macbeth study guide, prepared by Paige Reynolds.

Check back every Monday to uncover a new aspect of this incredible Shakespearean tragedy and book your tickets by calling (501) 378-0405 or visiting

And learn everything else you need to before seeing the drama by checking out our study guide here!