The whiteface clown – clown types

Character of the white face clown

Francesco Caroli, famous European whiteface circus clown, in costumeThe white face clown, a.k.a. the classic clown or the whitefaced clown, is the clown most people first think of when they hear the word ‘clown.’ Associated with the circus, the whiteface clown is the most intelligent of the clowns, and is typically at the top of the pecking order. The Whiteface clown will typically be the ringleader, who will order around the other clowns, and who has his ‘clownishness’ revealed either by his own ineptness or by that of his underling. The whiteface clown, however, shouldn’t need to feel constrained by this; as with any clown, he can be any personality (slow, fast, quick-witted, dull, quickly angered, coming to a slow burn, etc.) that would be funny. This is the oldest of the clown types, with many excellent examples, including Francesco CaroliFrosty LittleBob Bell as Bozo the clownBobby KayeFelix AdlerBlinko, Duane Thorpe as Uncle SoapyGeorge Fox and Joseph Grimaldi and many others.

Make up of the white face clown

Bozo the Clown, portrayed by Bob BellThere are two major classes of the white face clown, and thus two styles of make-up. The first is the standard, or classic, whiteface clown. This consists of a white base, with make-up to accent the eyes and mouth. This is the clown type many people associate with the circus. Francesco Caroli and Glenn “Frosty” Little is a good example of this type. A zanier, less-intelligent style of clown is the comedy, or grotesque, whiteface. Here the make up is more exaggerated, to emphasize the more outrageous nature of this clown. Bozo the clown is a good example of this type. Both styles may be with a bald cap, with hair, or with partial hair. Note that the more outrageous hair style typically belong to the comedy whiteface. With either style, the object is to enhance the natural features of the face, never to hide them. The clown takes his or her natural facial features and exaggerates; also, don’t forget that many in your audience (in a walkaround, for example) may be further away—this is why the features are ‘outlined’—study the eyes and mouths of Bob Bell‘s Bozo and Frosty Little for examples. For more detail on make-up, I recommend Strutter’s Complete Guide to Clown Make-up.

History of the white face clown

Court Jester - painting by Jim HowleClassic Whiteface, demonstrated by Frosty LittleThe whiteface is the oldest style of clown, dating back to Greek theatre. Contrary to popular belief, the clown does NOT wear make up to hide or disguise his figures, but rather to reveal them. In Greek theatre, lighting was poor (compared to modern day theater), and so a white background with black markings served well to illuminate the actor’s features. A well-known ancestor of the whiteface is the court jester of the middle ages (though authentic court jesters often performed with little or no make-up at all). The comedy troupe of the commedia del arté popularized several clown characters, including Pierrot, Columbine, Harleqin and Clown (yes, that was the character’s name!), all of whom where originally masked characters, several of whom eventually evolved into whiteface clowns.

A major subtype of the whiteface has also evolved. Unlike the court jester or classic whiteface, who can be considered quite intelligent (given a clown’s unique perspective ;), the “Comedy” or “Grotesque Whiteface” is more buffoonish, with more outlandish and mismatching clothing, and a more exaggerated style. In the comedic partnership of Abbot & Costello, Bud Abbot would have been a classic whiteface; Lou Costello either a comedy whiteface, or an Auguste.

Costume of the white face clown

Traditionally, the whiteface clown would wear a one-piece outfit, decorated either snazzily or outlandishly, depending on the clown’s character. Today, that is no longer the case. The whiteface clown can wear virtually anything that fits in with his character—for examples, I suggest that you look at some of the costuming ideas at Costumes by Betty (run by Betty Cash, professional clown & instructor at the UW LaCrosse Clown Camp).


23 Responses to “The whiteface clown – clown types”

  1. […] Although gainfully employed, Emmett Kelly had dreamed of joining the circus since he was a young boy, as many of us did. Emmett, however, worked to make that dream a reality by purchasing a trapeze, and learning how to become a circus … aerialist. His first performing circus job (he had previously worked painting circus wagons) was as a trapeze artist with Howe’s Great London Circus — with Emmett doubling as a clown. Emmett agreed, and began performing, not as Weary Willie, but as a white-face clown. […]

  2. […] skit for 2 speaking clowns, typically a white face and an auguste, although any 2 clowns would do. Clown Props: A large (or foam) Bible, a slapstick […]

  3. […] the audience) That just doesn’t sound right. (at this point, either a third clown—probably a whiteface—or ‘normal’ minister walks by, and tries to straighten them out) Minister: Fellows, that’s […]

  4. […] good point for a whiteface clown, youth minister, etc. to talk about our tendency to do things just because “that’s the way […]

  5. […] you might want to think about as well is the type of clown—is he the whiteface clown, an auguste, a character or hobo clown? Don’t feel boxed in by those definitions, […]

  6. […] there is virtually no single unifying characteristic about a clown’s costume. For instance, a Whiteface clown performing in a circus may wear a one-piece suit with a ruffled collar. An Auguste clown’s […]

  7. […] Francesco hastily put together a number, in which Francesco took the role of the elegant white-face clown in sequinned costume.  The act was a success, and the Caroli brothers began incorporating clowning […]

  8. […] and followed the Ringling Bros. circus to Georgetown Texas.  He eventually joined them as  a whiteface clown.  Over the years he was with several  top name circuses. Ernie appeared in 17 scenes of the movie […]

  9. […] such as working with a Chinese acrobatic team. His clumsiness and blunders turned him into a white face clown in a very short time. During his early years with the circus, Felix stayed close to the clowns as […]

  10. […] The history of clowning is a history of creativity, evolution, and change. Harlequin started off as a Second Zany, the victim of Brighella. Performers portraying Harlequin gradually made him a smarter character until he eventually usurped Brighella’s position. In English Pantomime, a style of theater based on the Commedia del Arte, John Rich completed the evolution of Harlequin elevating it to starring position. New characters evolved to assume the position of Harlequin’s stupid victims. One of these was the whiteface clown. […]

  11. […] a life-long love, although he didn’t follow that path for many years. “All the clowns wore white faces, white-starched suits and red caps. I remember thinking I`d like to look like those […]

  12. […] of a flesh tone, as can be seen from the illustrations on this page. Like the comedy (grotesque) whiteface, the make-up is exaggerated. Note the large mouth and eyes of Lou Jacobs on this page, or […]

  13. S. Weasel says:

    […] it, bright red ears, sparkly rhinestone coat. I gather he’s like the Chief Nazgul of clowns. Associated with the circus, the whiteface clown is the most intelligent of the clowns, and is typically at the top of the […]

  14. […] expressions need to be seen even from the back row—that’s why the oldest style of clown is the whiteface clown – black on white simply shows up best from a distance (there’s probably a joke in here […]

  15. […] are three main types of clown faces – whiteface, auguste and character clown (typically tramp or hobo clown), and each has its’ own […]

  16. […] red nose. Bear in mind that you don’t need to be enslaved by that expectation; there are many Whiteface clowns that have just a red ‘dot’ of make-up on their nose, and many more that have no red nose at […]

  17. […] & mouth. (a tramp or hobo would be similar, ending with a gray ‘muzzle’ — a whiteface clown would actually do the entire face, except for areas that will be filled in with other colors. […]

  18. […] with the Downey Bros. Circus in 1923, Bobby Kaye became a famous whiteface circus clown who toured with a number of shows, including the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. In […]

  19. […] free to change things in the future. As I mentioned in earlier installments, my wife changed from a Whiteface clown to an Auguste clown at Clown Camp 1998; Bobby Kaye‘s make-up evolved slowly over […]

  20. […] to change things in the future. As I mentioned in earlier installments, my wife changed from a Whiteface clown to an Auguste clown at Clown Camp 1998; Bobby Kaye‘s make-up evolved slowly over […]

  21. […] Bros., and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Although in early years he was seen as a whiteface, throughout the past decades he has been a unique tramp clown. He spent four years working with a […]

  22. […] is considered by many to be the funniest man of his time. His white face character became an important part of popular American imagery, being used in advertisements and […]

  23. […] Whiteface Clown: Oh, no—nobody’s perfect. […]

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