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Setting the Stage

Come One, Come All!

Hand in hand with the costume influence are the apparatus and imagery of the circus tent. As a designed space in which circus arts take place, the tent plays a key role in the immersive experience of the circus. In this exhibition, we place the circus tent as the thin membrane between the real world and the magic of the circus- a textile that not only houses but embodies aesthetics and function. By grounding the exhibition in this liminal space, the magic of the circus can come to life through exploration of photographs, videos, costumes, and the words of the performers themselves.

Appearing as if by magic, the circus tent creates an entirely new world on what was once just a large patch of grass. Though fairly simple in construction, it houses the most spectacular and intricate acts. The vinyl, adorned in stars and stripes, stretches over the metal skeleton and welcomes spectators of all ages. From wasteland to wonderland, it has the power to transport visitors to a temporal reality in which aerialists occupy the sky and every body sparkles in the dark. The way that the simple manipulation of a textile can form a specific expression (like the intrinsic link of the striped tent to the circus) and cause complete transformation in a space is no different from the effect of fashion garments on the body.

Cirque (Circus), from the portfolio Décors de théâtre (Stage Sets), 1926-30 (published 1930)-1
The Ring. Allowing for spectators to view the performance in all directions
Cirque (Circus), from the portfolio Décors de théâtre (Stage Sets), 1926-30 (published 1930)-2
The use of white to be seen in the darkness of the tent
Big Top Tent, 1908
Big Top Tent, 1908
Image by Frederick Whitman Glasier, provided courtesy of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Archives.

For over 250 years, the circus has gathered huge crowds in towns across the world (Davis, 2017). While circuses have since reduced their use of animals within shows, horses played a key role in the beginnings of the modern circus. Known as the ‘father of modern circus’, in 1768 English cavalryman and veteran Philip Astley founded Astley’s Riding School, where he and his wife Patty taught riding and performed equestrian stunts, bringing entertainment like acrobatics, riding, and clowning, into the same space. Determination of the size of a circus ring is attributed to Astley, wherein a circle 42 feet in diameter was found to allow the use of centrifugal force in aiding balance on a horse’s back as it traveled around the ring (V&A, n.d.). Furthermore, the circular stage catered to spectators, allowing for a 360-view of these incredible performances. From its origins in England, the circus ring then traveled to America with John Bill Ricketts, one of Astley’s students, in 1793; transformed into an erected canvas “pavilion circus” due to public amusement restraints in 1825; and finally established itself as a traveling art with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 (Davis, 2017).


Circus Vargas Tent. Image provided by Matt "Toy Store" Zimmerman.

“And, as magically as it appeared, the circus disappears overnight – but not before it has cast its spell.”

The History of Circus: Its Impact on Design and Interiors. Homes and Antiques.

Traveling Act

The idea of the circus as a traveling, ephemeral form of entertainment parallels its already fantastical nature: In just one day, extraordinarily decorated structures and people establish a small village and in the next, they vanish. This is possible due to the use of flexible materials and the force of tension in the tent. Tensile architecture is perhaps the oldest and simplest method of providing shelter- in addition to being economic, portable, and providing protection from natural elements. However, along with the functional needs of temporary constructions, the aesthetics of the circus tent are equally as vital. Unlike many other forms of performance arts (like the opera or theater), the act of touring with specifically designed spatial structures allowed the circus to establish a particular “look”- one that can be widely circulated and is easily recognizable even today. Within the generalized aesthetic of the circus, namely stars and stripes, several notable circuses have developed a signature color and style- much like clothing brands might be recognized by their logo or unique pattern.

“I think of the tent design as part of your branding... I look at them like fingerprints. No two tents are really identical.”

Matt "Toy Store" Zimmerman, Roustabout

Closed captions for this video may be viewed in larger font by playing the video at full-screen size.

The Roustabout

Matt "Toy Store" Zimmerman has worked for the circus since he was 13 years old. After attending the Bindlestiff Family Circus in New York multiple days in a row, he was offered the opportunity to watch for free in exchange for helping to sweep after show. With that simple act, a life-long love of the circus was born. Known to many by the nickname “Toy Store” (earned through his work running concessions), Matt has held many positions within the circus industry: from tent crew to lighting, pyrotechnics to rigging, he is proudly a Roustabout – a term given to those who work on traveling shows:

“A roustabout, per the dictionary, there's 3 definitions: the first one would be a commercial fisherman, I don't fall under that category. The second is a oil rig worker, also not me. And the third one is a manual laborist at the circus or carnival, and that is me. Technically, most carnival workers wouldn't call themselves roustabouts though, but that does, that is encompassed in the definition, really it's any traveling migrant show employee... that is a worker. That is the definition of roustabout. Then there's a little picture of my face next to the definition.”

Matt "Toy Store" Zimmerman

In addition to his formative experience with the Bindlestiff Family Circus, Matt has also worked with such companies as Circus Smirkus, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and Circus Vargas, just to name a few. In these positions, he has learned the ins and the outs of what goes into running a circus, and spoke with us about his expertise on the circus tent. Above and beyond his experiences and work prowess, Matt also has adorned his body with numerous tattoos related to circus, including a full circus tent on his stomach. To him (and to so many others), the circus tent isn’t just a structure where performances occur: it is home.

On the Back Lot
Cecilia Rosenbloom practices circus arts on the shoulders of roustabout Matt "Toy Store" Zimmerman during a break on the back lot of a show.
Matt at Vargas
Roustabout Matt "Toy Store" Zimmerman pictured on the lot during installation of the Circus Vargas tent.

Ring to Runway: Fashion and the Circus Tent

Just as circus costume provides inspiration for fashion designers, so too does the setting of a circus tent. This unique space is instantly recognizable, provides an immersive environment, and has acted as muse for many designers seeking to convey their collections in appropriately designed surroundings. It is therefore possible to situate circus tent fashion runways on a spectrum ranging from tent-as-inspiration to full immersion in the theme. In this example, Fashion as Circus is situated on one end of the spectrum and is operationalized as maintaining clear lines between the brand or designer’s fashion identity and the aesthetic influence of circus in the clothing or set design of the runway presentation. At the midpoint, Fashion and Circus represents the point where the two concepts converge, and the circus becomes less solely an aesthetic influence and instead serves as a lens through which a fashion story can be told. On the far end of the spectrum, Circus as Fashion represents the complete immersion of a fashion collection within the world of circus, where the clothing is akin to costume and the brand or designer’s fashion identity has become enmeshed with a circus mindset. The selected fashion presentations listed below begin with the aesthetic inspiration of fashion, and progressively become entangled until there is no clear delineation between fashion and the circus.

Fashion as Circus

The 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show opened with a circus-themed runway. Although it was not situated within an actual circus tent, the prop design and use of aerialists as dynamic set dressing complemented the symbols of circus worn by the models. This adaptive type of setting allowed for other themes to be expressed throughout the rest of the performance.

Stefano Ricci’s 2013 Menswear collection was an invited presentation during the Art Week Style celebration in Uzbekistan, and was staged at the Tashkent Circus in a production that was interspersed with circus acts in the ring. The Tashkent Circus is housed within a building, rather than a tent, but the layout is the same: a center ring surrounded by the audience. The models circled the ring, wearing fashions that were not influenced by the circus. In this scenario, the setting of the circus was that of backdrop, rather than inspiration.

Fashion and Circus

Maison Margiela’s Fall/Winter 1995Red Show” was held at the Cirque Santus. Similar to Ricci at the Tashkent Circus, the Cirque Santus is an operating circus that was utilized as a venue. Where the comparison ends, however, is with the immersion of Margiela’s models into the spectacle of the circus. The fantasy of the environment was supplemented by the models traversing the bleachers, winding their way through the audience while wearing head coverings. These head coverings were removed for the finale of the show, similar to final bows in a circus or theatrical production where the performers might remove a headpiece or mask to reveal their faces to the audience, shedding the character at the end.

Dior’s Spring/Summer 2019 runway was presented in a circus tent, with harlequin-inspired diamond shaped flooring and acrobats as set dressing, creating arches over the runway with their bodies for the models to pass through. The fashions themselves were styled with a Pierrot clown influence in the makeup and skull caps, as well as ruffled collars and cuffs on some of the looks. By inviting the viewing audience into a tented space and adding a layer of entertainment to the show through collaboration with acrobats, the world of fashion was imbued with the fantasy of the circus, and the garments and styling demonstrated how the circus influence can be translated into a fashion dialogue without reading as a costume.

Circus as Fashion

Jeremy Scott’s Moschino Spring/Summer 2019 Resort fashion show was presented in a circus tent, with models who circled the ring wearing garments designed with clear references to circus. At the start of the show, Scott emerged from backstage dressed as a ringmaster in the signature top hat and red tailcoat and welcomed the audience to the Moschino Circus. Scott’s embracement of the ringmaster character symbolized his crossover from fashion into the world of circus, and the runway looks could be viewed as costume. In this final example, the situating of the designer’s fashion presentation within a physical circus tent, the aesthetics of the garments parading around the ring and the designer inhabiting the role of the ringmaster culminate in an immersion and conversion from fashion to circus.

For source information, please see the References page under the Final Bows tab.