Our costumes are made by our team of skilled costume makers in our specialist workshops in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Our costumes can be on stage for well over 100 performances, so they need to be made to withstand the rigours of the stage. The skills need include not only tailoring and costume-making but dyeing, printing, leatherwork, beading, corsetry, millinery, mask-making and jewellery-making.

Our workrooms in Stratford-upon-Avon are devoted to Men's Costume, Ladies' Costume and Hats and Jewellery, as well as an Armoury and a Dye Shop. 

Making a ladies' costume for Love's Labour's Lost, 2014
Making a costume for one of the ladies in Love's Labour's Lost, 2014.
Photo by Lucy Barriball © RSC Browse and license our images

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.

They discuss the general requirements of the design, which historical period it draws on, and look at the budget and costings. The designer is allocated a Costume Supervisor who will be their right-hand person through the design and construction process.

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 buy fabrics, visiting shops in London as well as consulting a large pattern room in Stratford-upon-Avon 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 our Dye Department. As soon as fabrics start to arrive they are handed to the cutters in the workrooms. We cut all patterns ourselves 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.

We try to avoid using zips in our costumes - if someone is doing a quick change during a show we can't risk a zip getting stuck. Velcro as it ruins the line of the fabric and is very noisy. So instead we use industrial strength magnets.

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. 

A costume maker working on costumes for King Lear

Ready for the stage

Half of our costumes are ‘broken down’ to look worn. Common tools used include a cheese grater, sandpaper, Stanley Knife, blow-torch, emulsion-based paints and fabric paints.  All costumes must still stand up to the maintenance and washing over a long period.

We have an onsite Armoury where Alan Smith 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. 

We are one of the few theatres to have its own in-house armoury producing breastplates, gauntlets, belts and weaponry made from plastic, leather or metal, and unusual materials such as window blinds and table mats.

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.   

Making it fit, every night

Once the production is up and running all the costumes have to be maintained on a daily basis.

Alistair explains: "'Maintenance of costumes is often looked upon as a bit of washing, drying and ironing, 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. We always have to think ahead as to how we can maintain the costumes."

Everything the Costume Department makes is created to last. 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 cope with the wear and tear of the stage.

RSC Costumes - facts and figures

  • During an average year, the Dye team uses 60 kilos of dye powder, 800 kilos of salt and 1,500 pairs of disposable gloves. 

  • Every item of costume, from hats to socks and underwear, is labelled with the name of the show, character and actor. In an average year 10,000 items are labelled.

  • The average leather breastplate takes 70 hours to make from start to finish.

  •  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. 
  • Costumes from previous shows are hired out from our Costume Store, appearing in films and television programmes including Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, Braveheart, Merlin, Dr Who and Don’t Tell The Bride. 

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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.

Elaine explains: "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.

"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."