The 28 workers in the RSC Costume workshops demonstrate a diverse range of specialist skills. These include not only tailoring and costume-making but dyeing, printing, leatherwork, beading, corsetry, millinery, mask-making and jewellery-making to name but a few.
The complex of buildings opposite the main theatre building in Stratford includes workrooms devoted to Men's Costume, Ladies' Costume and Hats & Jewellery, as well as an Armoury and a Dye Shop.
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From designing to fitting
Costume design is a complex and time-consuming process. Often the workshops have only a few weeks to make a complete set of costumes. The journey begins when the costume designer meets Alistair McArthur, Head of Costume. 'We talk through the general requirements of the design with regard to period. Then we discuss the budget and costings. The designer is allocated a Costume Supervisor who will be their right-hand person through the design and construction process. The Supervisor is responsible for ensuring that the two-dimensional drawings become a three-dimensional reality.'
Designers and Supervisors involve the actors as much as possible in the design process. To ensure that the costume suits the particular actor many designers wait until the production is fully cast before completing their designs. At the start of each season all the acting company are measured. Over 50 measurements are taken from each actor. Any allergies are noted and taken into consideration.
Next, the Designer and Costume Supervisor begin to sample and purchase fabrics, visiting shops in London as well as consulting a large pattern room in Stratford where fabric samples are kept from both national and international suppliers. If the designer requires a particular colour or pattern, fabric can be dyed or printed by the RSC's Dye Department. As soon as fabrics start to arrive they are handed to the cutters in the workrooms. The RSC cutters draft all patterns themselves according to the specifics of each design. Once the fabric pieces are cut they are handed on to a team of makers who start the construction in time for the first costume fittings.
At the first fitting with an actor, which lasts around half an hour, the designer decides on the visual look of the garment, the length of the hem, style of trim etc., while the cutters concentrate on the basic fit and technical aspects of the costume. The Costume Department tries to avoid using zips in their costumes. 'If someone is doing a quick change during a show we can't risk a zip getting stuck,' Alistair explains. 'For quick changes we try not to use Velcro as it ruins the line of the fabric and is very noisy. We now use industrial strength magnets which work really well.' Sometimes designs change considerably through the making process. There has to be a lot of co-operation between the designer, our team of makers and the actor to ensure actors get costumes they like and feel comfortable with.
Ready for the stage
Before any costume or pair of shoes or boots goes on stage they may be 'broken down' by the Dye Department. Breaking-down is a process of distressing a costume to give it a worn and authentic look. Jacket sleeves are tied up with string, sprayed with water and left overnight to get authentic creases. Pockets are made to sag realistically by filling with paper or stones. Costumes can be rubbed with sandpaper or soap to make the garment look worn or greasy. The Dye Department also regularly covers boots and shoes with specially made 'mud'.
The RSC has an onsite Armoury where Julian Gilbert and his team produce breastplates, gauntlets, belts and weaponry as well as overseeing all the footwear for each production. Specially designed swords are made without an edge, and their lightweight construction makes them easier for actors to work with.
The Costume Supervisor compiles the Costume Description List. This is a document that details every individual item of costume worn by the actor in each scene. This is given to the Running Wardrobe team so that they know what each actor is supposed to be wearing. To aid this, every single item of costume from hats to socks is labelled with the name of the production, character and actor's name.
The technical rehearsal is the first time that the actor gets to wear the complete costume and the first time that the designer sees the costume under stage lighting. This is a very busy time for the Costume Department. Some costumes may need alterations in terms of design or fit, some need extra work in the Dye Shop and sometimes unforeseen difficulties arise as part of the technical process.
Getting it right, every night
Once the production is up and running all the costumes have to be maintained on a daily basis. 'Maintenance of costumes is often looked upon as a bit of washing, drying and ironing,' Alistair explains, 'But it's much more than this. Certain fabrics are very delicate and have to be cared for with very special knowledge. All the shirts, tights, socks and other linens have to be washed after each performance. There is a constant list of running repairs. It's a big job and great care must be taken. Elaborate costumes are dry cleaned as necessary. Most costumes aren't washable so we use inner costumes or 'shields' that can be removed and washed.'
'For example, in the 2004 production of House of Desires most of the men wore leather 'catsuits'. Leather and suede cannot be washed or dry-cleaned so each actor wore a Lycra body stocking underneath to absorb the sweat and which could be washed. In fact, due to the high energy levels in the show, each actor had two leather costumes plus two washable bodies so that they could change at the interval. We always have to think ahead as to how we can maintain the costumes.'
Everything the Costume Department makes is created to last. 'People sometimes imagine theatre costumes are held tight with bulldog clips but nothing could be further from the truth. Whereas an everyday shop-bought suit might be worn a few dozen times, an RSC costume will be on stage for well over 100 performances and so must be made to much higher standards to live up to the rigours of the stage.'
When a production closes, the RSC Costume Store can then hire costumes to Theatre, Film, TV, Schools, Amateur Dramatic Groups and for Corporate and Special Events.
Costume department - Facts and figures
- During an average year, the Dye department goes through 60 kilos of dye powder, 800 kilos of salt and 1500 pairs of disposable gloves.
- For As You Like It in 2005, the Ladies department made two 1950s haute-couture ball-gowns, one of which used 22m of silk taffeta. The trains were so long that the actresses had to hitch them up for a dance sequence using special magnets.
- For The Histories Cycle, the Hats and Jewellery Workroom made 27 crowns; some out of metal and some out of plastic.
- An average set of armour uses 53 sets of buckles and straps - all individually made to specification and approximately 350 sets of rivets.
- The costumes for all eight plays in the Histories cycle in 2008 filled over 100 4ft-long dress rails.
- The White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe wore a headdress made with 60 ostrich quills. Each quill had to be stripped, glittered and painted by hand.
- As well as many UK suppliers, the Costume department also buys fabrics from Germany, Italy and France; metal for crowns from Bavaria; crystal beads from Austria; fans from Spain; specialist haberdashery from New York and is always sourcing new manufacturers.
- In 2004, the Costume department constructed, altered and fitted approximately 646 costumes over 11 productions.
- In the 2008 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon's coat was constructed from over 320 individual pieces.
- All our hats, boots and costumes make their way to the RSC Costume Store after the end of a production and are available to be hired by schools, dramatic societies and other theatres.
To find out more, read the Spotlight on Costume Store »
A career in Costume
There are many routes into a profession within the Costume Department. All staff are trained to a high standard. Although some learn these skills on the job, most have a relevant degree-level qualification in addition to specialist professional training.
Alistair McArthur, Head of Costume, originally trained as a stage manager. He worked his way up in the costume field with positions at the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Opera House, in addition to employment as a freelance costume supervisor. 'Once you leave any costume-making course, the best thing to do is to find a freelance maker who is willing to take you on as an assistant. You can only learn so much in a college and you learn much more actually doing the job.'
'Anyone who wants to become a milliner has to start by really wanting to do this, as it's a very different skill to making and sewing costumes,' says Head of the RSC Hat and Jewellery Department, Elaine Moore. Elaine has a qualification in theatre design from West Sussex College with a specialism in millinery.
Other members of her staff have degree qualifications in fashion and costume. Previous members of staff have trained in embroidery and 3D design. 'Theatre millinery is completely different to fashion millinery because the hats have to be much stronger. Our hats might be worn every day for two years, even though they perhaps need to look like they are made out of cobwebs,' Elaine explains. 'Also, just because someone is a fantastic street hat-maker does not mean they will be a good costume hat-maker. Most successful people start with an interest in theatre first. Flexibility is important as we do both delicate and big butch work. We also style and heat metal as well as work with intricate beads.'
Julian Gilbert came to the RSC Armoury in 1967 when he was 17 and he is now Head of the Armoury. 'It's hard to train for this area of work,' Julian says. 'We deal with so many types of fabrics and materials, and many different processes that it can be better if someone comes in without any preconceptions. What we are really looking for is the right attitude to the work and flexibility. There is a lot of repetition involved in our work, and it can be very demanding at times. One set of armour might have over 50 sets of buckles and straps and these can be very time consuming to make.'
Interested in our vacancies and work experience placements? Find out more in our Work with us section »
Photograph by Ellie Kurttz © RSC