Spectacular Storytelling

From flourished capes to feature characters, blindfolded danger to superhuman feats, the spectacle of the circus is present in everything from costume to carriage. Much like a fashion show that spotlights the designer’s garments on a runway, the spectacle of the circus can be found in elaborate storytelling through embodiment of a character in an act or costume, extravagant display through gesture, or the sudden reveal of a costume through the shedding of a cape. The images and artifacts below reveal methods of storytelling through character, suspense, and tricks on the tightwire.

What is "Spec"?

A circus Spec, or spectacle, is a production number in the show that features a grand procession around the ring. Originally developed as a themed production within the show, the Spec has evolved over time and includes a display of pageantry, filled with pomp and extravagance. In his glossary of circus terminology, A. H. Saxon (2000, p. 29) refers to the Spec as including all of the show’s performers occupying the full stage while:

...doing nothing in particular but nevertheless making a brave show of it in their gorgeous costumes

A. H. Saxon

That is to say, rather than the intensity of the individual acts, the Spec is more of a showcase where the theme or story of the production is displayed, and where the circus artists are dressed in finery that may include pieces too unwieldy to wear in their act performance, such as elaborate capes or headpieces.

Costumes for these productions were made of fabrics such as silk, satin, velvet, and taffeta, embellished with rhinestones, sequins, and feathers, and creation of the costumes from sketch to stage could take approximately a year to complete (Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1980). Connecting the circus and fashion worlds, Spec can be interpreted as the finale in a runway show, where all of the looks in the collection are sent back out again to loop the catwalk, usually followed by the grand entrance of the designer for their bows. Comparable to the presentations of haute couture due to their elaborate construction and cost, the display of the circus Spec transcends and entertains through parades of pageantry and opulent excess.

Spec Line Up


Just as the choreography of a show occurs in the ring or on a stage, so too is there a choreography to the backstage of the circus. In this image to the right, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus performers can be seen in costume on the back lot, lining up in preparation for their entrance for a Spec performance. Markings on the back of the photograph indicate that this was the web act, and the performance was in Springfield, MA in 1943.

The silent videos below are from the Tibbals Circus Collection of Moving Images, and are graciously provided for use in this digital exhibition by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Archives. These videos depict the 1951 Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Spec, showing first the hubbub of the back lot line up (in color) followed by footage of the performance in the tent (in black and white). The costumes and floats used in this production were designed by Miles White, and images of this Spec, along with costumes, sketches, and fabric swatches can be found on the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art’s online collections site.

Puss in Boots Spec Costume

Puss in Boots Spec Costume Display
Puss in Boots Spec Costume Detail
Puss in Boots Spec Costume

Photographed by a member of the curatorial team while attending an exhibition at the Circus Museum, part of the John and Mable Ringling Museum campus in Sarasota Florida, these images show a Spec costume from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBBB). In the pictures on the left and at center, a mannequin is dressed in an elaborate gown from the “Toyland” Spec from the 109th edition of RBBB in 1979-1980 (Foote, 1979), and the image on the right, captured by an audience member, shows the gown in action in a 1980 performance. A description of this circus production included an Opening Spec at the start of the show, the “Circus Toyland Spec” at the end of the first act, and a Finale Spec at the conclusion of the show (Yarnell, 1980). The gown was designed by Don Foote, who spared no expense in the development of this garment: part of the parade of showgirls, each adorned in identical gowns in differing colorways, and on the front of each gown a sequined representation of fairytale stories. This orange gown highlights “Puss in Boots” and is covered in sequins, with a historically-inspired silhouette and accompanying gloves and headpiece.

 Memento Mori: Der Equilibrist (The Tightrope Walker)
Memento Mori: Der Equilibrist (The Tightrope Walker)

Fire Eaters, Wire Walkers, Acrobats, Oh My!

Part of the allure of circus performance is, of course, the thrill of seeing the human body complete unimaginable stunts. Though hidden behind the ooh’s and aah's is the looming chance that things just might go wrong despite practicing to utter precision and care. Like the high-wire walker, it is this thin line between success and failure that these spectacular acts tiptoe. Therefore, circus costume plays a vital role in presenting visual extravagance or storytelling that must not distract from the performance’s successful execution. On the contrary, some cases utilize the ensemble to elevate the aspect of danger; hindering movement through baggy garments or obstructing views with blindfolds- and as pictured below, sometimes both! With the advancement of technology, safety training, and risk assessment practiced today, more daring (and safer) stunts are able to be displayed for audiences to come.

Unknown Wirewalker, View 4

Character Through Costume

In these images of an unnamed tightwire artist, the costume is complementary to the performance without impeding movement. The styling and embellishment of the garments reflect an attention to detail that alludes to the aesthetic visual tricks used in circus costume to draw the eye. For example, the pleated godet at the ankle of the pants would flutter with movement, and when paired with what appears to be rhinestone or beaded trim would act as a magnet to the audience. The placement of the rhinestones along the sides of the pants and the open-front vest would draw the eye down the body, especially when in this particular pose. Based on the styling of the movements captured in these images, as well as the aesthetics of the costume, it is easy to imagine this circus artist in action.

Unknown Wirewalker, View 3
Unknown Wirewalker, View 2
Unknown Wirewalker View 1
Wardrobe of Karl Wallenda

Wardrobe of Karl Wallenda

This image shows a turquoise and white costume with silver trim worn by Karl Wallenda, renowned high wire performer whose family has delighted audiences for decades with their famous tricks, including the 7-person pyramid. The silhouette of the costume is similar to that of the unknown wire walker in the section above, with the addition of a shirt underneath the vest. Comparisons between these costume types demonstrate similarities in the silhouette and aesthetics, including decorative trim on the front of the vest and the sides of the trousers. Star-shaped buttons mimic the trim on the vest, and the costume is tailored with pintucks at the waist and sharp creases down the legs of the trousers. The shirt is cut with added fullness in the sleeves, as evidenced by the gathering at the shoulders and the cuffs.

Brien McCrea, Corde Lisse

Brien McCrea is a multi-talented circus artist who specializes in aerial rope, also known as corde lisse. Through movement, expression, and costume, Brien tells a powerful rendition of the struggle and acceptance in his coming out story, depicted here in the video below. Performed in 2009, this act occurred at a philanthropic event where Brien posed as a member of the audience until his number. Commenting on the adaptations he made to uphold the disguise,

"I had rosin pre-set in a sock hidden under my seat in the audience that I would occasionally grab to build up the tack on my hands since I wouldn't get a chance to warm up before the act. The chatty purple haired ladies I was seated next to during the show gave me a lot of attention. They were very interested in the young 20-something, alone, in a suit at a charity fundraiser. It was a whole other act holding my cover."

To the outward observer, Brien's costume was comprised of a suit and trousers, however, underneath he wore a tightly fitted, skin-toned spandex sleeveless tee that helped to protect his body and to cover the rope burns that are a common byproduct of training an aerial rope act. Leggings were worn underneath the suit trousers to provide an additional protective barrier between his skin and the rope. During the act, Brien's jacket was removed:

"It was definitely a symbolic moment of shedding the suit jacket, the weight of expectation to conform and settle, and to throw it off the cliff instead of jumping myself. The depth of the number was intensely personal, the dark journey to coming out first to myself then to others, through deep depression, alienation, walking the line and finding strength to climb, to fall with grace, and climb again on just a thread, my thread."

While the use of the suit was symbolic in his rope performance, Brien was also able to blend in with the surrounding audience. Through use of fashionable camouflage such as a suit, the shedding of the audience persona and the transformation into performer is one of surprise, where the viewers are temporarily deceived by the character and costume. In the examples below, other deceptions and tricks are discussed, such as the use of blindfolding in a performance.

Triska Troupe, Blindfolded
Triska Troupe, Blindfolded

Tricks on the Tightwire

Increasing the suspense and danger of their act, circus artists could sometimes be found wearing a blindfold or a sack-like garment that covered their face and body including the feet, as seen in this image of the Triska Troupe. In a video of their act, while wearing one of these sack-like blindfolds a performer executes movements that appear as to the audience as though they lost their footing. These types of trips and stumbles are commonly used in circus to heighten the suspense of the act, in addition to the physical blindfold. These visuals demonstrate the mastery required of the skill: not only are they crossing a tightwire, they are doing so with limited or no visibility. In this way, the audience perceives an additional layer of danger, which is augmented by the costumes worn.

“In order to beef up her performance, Mary had decided to present her 2 1/2 salto while blindfolded and with a sack over her head. There was a hush in the packed arena as Mary sat on the second raise, a black sash covering her eyes, and slipped the gunny sack over her blonde head. But damn her, when she mounted the raise and groped blindly for the trapeze, she stopped, waved her hand at the spotlight, and shouted, “Damn it! Turn off that light. I can’t see!”

Lee Stath (2013, p. 215)

Malikova can be seen in this 1956 video, executing part of her act while a sack-like blindfold, which includes footage of her stumbling over her feet as she traverses the wire. The costume she wears in the video can be seen in the image below, paired here with a cape that would have been worn for an entrance and in Spec, then doffed prior to her act. Another costume can be seen in the following photographs, featuring an embellished, long-sleeved leotard and feathered headpiece.

Malikova, in Cape
Malikova Headpiece Detail

However, the dangers of the circus act can also be made known to or hidden from the viewing audience through careful costume choice. In her live video for the song "Sober", Pink wears a blindfold for the beginning of her performance, which she then removes while ascending in a sling to execute a cradle act, wearing a harness over the top of her costume. This is a safety device designed to aid in fall arrest should she slip or miss a catch during her performance. While the harness complements her Bob Mackie jumpsuit, it is not embellished in any way to blend in with the costume. It is important to note that although Pink is trained as a gymnast and aerialist, this safety harness is an integral part of her costume assemblage. The uncovered harness serves not only a functional purpose, but acts also as a visual cue to the audience that while circus costume may serve as aesthetic inspiration, it also necessarily brings with it consideration of safety and function. Fall-arrest devices are particularly important if the wearer has not trained as a circus performer and interacts with an aerial apparatus, as was the case when Philippe Blond decided to enter the fashion event perched atop a trapeze:

“After seeing Moulin Rouge! The Musical! I knew that just had to be my entrance. Everyone was on board from the very beginning and helped to turn that dream into reality. It took training and several rehearsals, and I also was fitted with a custom belt — crystallized, of course.”

Philippe Blond, as quoted in Brookins (2020)

The belt as described is also known as a mechanic, or a single-point safety belt worn to aid in the arrest of a fall from height. Items such as these are standard procedure on any circus costume used in execution of difficult aerial tricks, and are often matched to the costume with an embellished fabric cover. As indicated by Blond’s quote, the belt was matched to the outfit which was covered in crystals. In this way, the illusion of effortless aerial mastery (or making a grand entrance while seated on a trapeze at the start of a fashion event) makes complete the story being communicated to the audience. From a basic visual design perspective, an uncovered harness or safety belt breaks down, rather than complements, the overall look. While this is less important in occasions such as Pink's performance where the focus is on function rather than form, in the circus-influenced fashion show it becomes essential to disguise these safety devices to keep the illusion intact.

Acrobats of the Commedia dell’arte Performing to a Crowd
Acrobats of the Commedia dell’arte Performing to a Crowd

Pierrot: Fashion's Enduring Muse

The “Of Grace and Light” Fall/Winter 2020/2021 collection by Pierpaolo Piccioli features a model sitting in an aerial hoop, wearing a hooded sequin bodysuit underneath a long mantle embellished with circular flower shapes, and finished with a large ruffled collar. This aesthetic is inspired by the figure of Pierrot, a clown character with origins in Commedia dell'arte who has become synonymous to the Western high fashion world with circus, with designers from Dior to Viktor and Rolf taking inspiration from the character for their couture runways. It is important to note, however, that the character designs attributed to Pierrot by the fashion industry are often conflated or confused with those of Harlequin/Arlecchino, another of the Commedia dell'arte stock characters. An article from Vogue magazine online, for example, references 16 'Pierrots' where the designs highlighted show markers of both Pierrot and Harlequin.

Pierrot's iconic costume is comprised of a fitted skull cap or short conical hat with brim, a large ruffled collar, loose-fitting jacket and pants or jumpsuit finished with large ball-like buttons down the center front of the torso, which are sometimes repeated on the conical cap. Harlequin's costume is representative of patchwork in a diamond pattern, and can be found reflected on runways from Vivienne Westwood to Christian Dior.

While elements of Pierrot and Harlequin's costume canon do appear in circus costume and clown characterization, such as the whiteface clown, singling these characters as identifiers of circus creates a narrowed lens that does not exhaustively encompass the rich history or symbols of the circus. It is undeniable, however, that the character of Pierrot has long acted as muse for the Western fashion industry, particularly in haute couture.

Clara Faurens as Pierrot
Clara Faurens as Pierrot
Théâtre des Funambules, Deburau en Pierrot
Théâtre des Funambules, Deburau en Pierrot
Pierrot Laughing
Pierrot Laughing

The images above represent different versions of the Pierrot-style costume. On the left, an image from the Postcards of female and male impersonators and cross-dressing in Europe and the United States, 1900-1930 collection in the Rare and Manuscript Divisions of the Cornell Library shows actress Clara Faurens dressed in costume for her portrayal of Pierrot at the Théatre de l’Odéon in Paris. The postcard is dated 1905. This stylized version of the Pierrot costume features a close-fitting silhouette on the bottom of breeches and tights, a jacket with peplum, ruffled collar and cuffs, and a black cap. Large buttons are seen on the jacket front, pocket, and center back.

The center image shows Jean-Gaspard Deburau, credited with revising the character of Pierrot into the version commonly depicted today, particularly in his modifications to the character's costume. According to Jones (1993), these costume adjustments came from functional needs:

Traditionally Pierrot had been played with a large floppy collar, a ruff, round his neck, but not only did the footlights throw up shadow over his face, but it got in the way in his tumbling. He had a naturally long and mobile neck which he highlighted by discarding the ruff and cutting his neck-line lower.

We can see from contemporary pictures that Pierrot’s early costume was often close-fitting, with narrow sleeves too long for the arms, and big buttons. Deburau needed a loose costume for his acrobatics, so he wore the loose, too-large floppy costume that we now associate with him. He got rid of his predecessor’s hat which cast shadows over his face and wore the black skull cap, which, together with black eye-liner and red lips threw his face into sharper focus.

Desmond Jones (1993)

The final image on the right shows Charles Dubauru, son of Jean-Gaspard, as Pierrot in a photograph by Nadar from 1855. Duburau the younger was asked to pose for a series of photographs dressed as Pierrot, including Pierrot Running and Pierrot in Pain.

Ring to Runway: Spectacle and Story on the Catwalk

Thierry Mugler's Fall 1995 tour de force at the Cirque d'Hiver was a veritable parade of fashion, featuring an hour-long event that employed the runway as play space rather than stoic stomping ground. While the fashions on display took no inspiration from the storied venue, the production was itself evocative of the types of grand spectacles integral to any traditional circus show, such as those discussed at the head of this page. Held at the same venue two decades later, Jun Takahashi's Spring 2016 Ready-to-Wear line for Undercover showcased circus inspiration in the clothing on the runway. From the closely-cropped curls, ruffled collars, ribbons, and makeup evocative of the enduring Pierrot-style clown to the final trio of matching looks, the circus influence underwrote the theme of the presentation. Interestingly, the choice to feature matching looks at the end of the show is reminiscent of the dancers in circus Spec, who would often wear nearly identical outfits but with differences in color. In Takahashi's fashion Spec, the final looks are comprised of printed jackets, collared shirts with neckties, cream-colored trousers with open-fronted and layered tulle skirts, finished off with winklepicker-styled boots. The ensembles are identical save for the colors of the skirts and boots, which symbolically portrays individualism in unity while hearkening back to the dance troupe costumes of the traditional circus.

The fashions of the Christian Dior Fall 2007 Couture runway were an opulent display of historical influence, sumptuous fabrics, and theatrical details. The models wended their way throughout the space on a runway designed as an elaborate, immersive fantasy world painted white. Against this backdrop the exquisite designs read as characters in a play rather than models on a stage. The promenading of majestic finery around an elaborately designed space while viewed by an audience is reminiscent of the circus spectacle, where conceptual themes would be translated through the detail of the costumes such as the Puss in Boots gown pictured at the top of the page. Each individual look in Galliano’s presentation for Dior can be ‘read’ and interpreted, and it is a simple step from catwalk to circus tent for many of the theatrical looks. While some examples were overt connections to circus costume, such as the Harlequin-inspired ensemble or the crystal lyre headpiece, others hinted at the escapism and fantasy of a grand spectacle.

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