Tucked away in a corrugated metal bunker on a Warwickshire industrial estate is the biggest 'dressing-up cupboard' you could ever imagine. Three floors are packed to the rafters with approximately 30,000 costumes that have graced the RSC stage over the past 40 or so years. This is the Costume Hire warehouse, and when a show is finished, the costumes come here for the next stage of their life.
Up ladders, mending in corners, talking to customers and rummaging through rails of clothes is a small team headed by Alison Mitchell which manages one of the biggest costume collections in the country.
Alison never set out to be a Wardrobe Mistress. She did a degree in fine art, but her interest in the theatre led to a job as a dresser at her local theatre. She ultimately ended up working as a costume designer at the BBC then after a career break joined Costume Hire, and has been there for over ten years. The other members of the team have also led varied past lives.
As we set off on a tour of the place, Alison explains that once a costume has been created, then used in an RSC production, it usually arrives at Costume Hire. However, many of the more prestigious costumes never become part of the hire stock, instead they are carefully preserved in the RSC Archive. It's unlikely that you'll be wearing a Laurence Olivier original - Alison makes sure of that!
The rest of the costumes are hired out, or sometimes recycled for later productions. While most of the regular customers are regional theatres and schools, Costume Hire has also supplied costumes to customers in theatres as far afield as Japan, Germany and the US. One of the most unlikely regular customers is the Chicago Rep Theatre, which sends a designer over every year to choose costumes for their shows from the RSC Collection.
You might think that racks of Shakespearean garb dominate Costume Hire. But while the Elizabethan and Jacobean collection is impressive, the often weird and wonderful costumes housed here are a testament to the diverse range of productions staged by the company over the years.
Customers choose costumes from racks that are mostly ordered by period and colour, but there are some things that are very difficult to categorise. Where would you hang an Alice in Wonderland playing card? Or an Elizabethan-style dress made in modern materials and cut to fit a man? It's clear that a member of the Costume Hire team must acquire an encyclopaedic visual memory to allow them to locate a particular costume on one of the 550m of rails that are packed into the building.
Some rails are rather unexpected. For example, there is a servants and peasantry section and A Midsummer Night's Dream has its own rail because the fantasy costumes are so unique to that production. Even more intriguing is the 'bloodied' section. It's mostly hung with gore-stained dresses and costumes rescued from productions of bloody plays such as Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar. Some pieces of costume defy even the RSC's attempts to categorise them, so on the second floor tucked next to a rail of regency dresses you'll find a whole rack of wings and antlers.
Some of the costumes in the collection here are 20 or 30 years old, or even older. Theatrical costumes have to be made to last, sewn so that every sequin and button will last a whole season. The fact that RSC costumes are strong enough to then last years of use in Costume Hire is proof of the expertise and skill that has gone into their initial design and construction in the Costume department.
It's important to note that Costume Hire is not just a graveyard for past productions. It has an important part to play in the creation of new costumes as well. Before they even begin a new play designers often visit to get inspiration from older collections and a feel for what Alison calls the ambience of a new show too. Alison always looks forward to seeing each season's new designs; 'It's exciting for us - we see the designers and what they have planned.'
The RSC Costume Hire has also been used as inspiration for some rather well-known TV and film productions. Photographs of past RSC productions, and lots of other shows the costumes have featured in, are pinned up everywhere, but taking pride of place on the office wall is a photograph of Alison holding an Oscar. She explains that Janty Yates, the costume designer for Gladiator, had visited Costume Hire before a meeting with the film's director, Ridley Scott. She needed to find some breastplates to show him that would demonstrate the style she would be going for on the designs for the film. She chose a distinctive breastplate decorated with winged horses. Scott was thrilled with the suggested 'look' and the breastplate worn by Russell Crowe in the film was made to closely resemble the original made by the RSC Armoury. Janty's designs for the film won her an Oscar, and to show her gratitude she made a special visit to Costume Hire to show off the award.
In fact, Costume Hire has a lot of business from film and TV productions. RSC costumes have appeared in a whole stream of blockbuster films, including Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth and Braveheart. Popular TV and film productions often have a long-term influence on the hire collection. Even in the costume hire business, changing fashions have an effect. Productions such as Pride and Prejudice and Shakespeare in Love have often influenced costume design for months or years afterwards. More recently the Bollywood craze (as exemplified by the West End show Bombay Dreams) has had an effect and the RSC's 'ethnic' rail has been popular with customers.
Over recent years changes in costume construction methods have meant that some modern stock doesn't last as well as the older stuff, and isn't suitable for costume hire. For example, whereas armour was once made of brass, then thin brass mounted on fibreglass, these days it is made of plastic and created using a vacuum-forming machine. The new armour is easier to produce and lighter for the actors to wear, but doesn't last in the way that the older armour did.
Another reason that some modern costumes do not get used in Costume Hire is an ageing method called 'breaking down'. This is a process to stop costumes looking brand-new, but instead old and worn, and therefore far more realistic. Breaking-down can include scrubbing with a cheese-grater, rubbing grease into the collar, and filling the pockets with stones, to get a worn, baggy look. Sometimes a designer will create a costume that is made from scratch, only to be 'broken down' to the point where it is almost rags. The realistic ageing of costumes has become something of an RSC speciality. However, this can mean that some costumes are not suitable for Costume Hire.
The first and second floors are mainly filled with 18th and 19th century costumes. Panniers and sack-back gowns from The Beggar's Opera jostle for space next to rails filled with the sombre garb from The Crucible. These costumes are very different when seen close up instead of from the theatre's auditorium. Many costumes are marvellously detailed, but because they are made to be seen from a distance, they are also masterpieces of fakery and illusion. Close up, the colours that seemed so natural on stage are garish, and the fine embroidery of an 18th century waistcoat is revealed as paint. It's not that real embroidery would be too difficult to create, but that under the stage lights and seen from the audience, it would not have the impact that a bolder, painted pattern achieves.
On the third floor, the frills disappear. This is home to the 20th century clothes and military uniforms. Many directors now choose to stage productions in modern dress, and the battles of plays such as Macbeth and Richard III lend themselves to military garb. Up here there are teetering piles of military hats, boxes of bandoliers, and bizarrely, a wall shef for the storage of severed heads. There are asses' heads for A Midsummer Night's Dream, pigs' heads from a production of The Lord of the Flies, a lion's head from Les Enfants du Paradis, and even a selection of spooky smiling pumpkin heads from The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Our costumes can be hired by theatres, drama groups and schools. To find out more, please call RSC Costume Hire on 01789 205 920.
Sorry, our costumes cannot be hired for fancy dress or parties!