Sometimes it isn’t enough to create a costume that looks beautiful – if someone has come back from the dead or traipsed through the desert, their costume can’t look pristine.
Our expert dyers begin by printing or dyeing fabrics before they are made into costumes. They also work on finished costumes, using different techniques to age or embellish them, including adding blood or mud. Applying these techniques allow the final articles to look and feel authentic when the actor steps out on stage.
Helen joined the RSC with a fine art background and is now Head of Costume Painting and Dyeing. She took us through the process of creating costume effects for the stage.
For Helen, making the graffiti suit for our 2016 Hamlet was particularly memorable: "The designer Paul Wills wanted something inspired by particular elements of [American artist Jean Michel] Basquiat’s work, but I then had the freedom to be creative on the specific elements of the costume."
The Vizier’s coat in Arabian Nights (2009) was another special design. She describes it as "covered in gold, hand-painted decorations based on astrological symbols. Each person in the department made a square which was sewn together by the men’s workroom to make the coat. All the Arabic words on the squares were from First 100 Words to ensure we didn’t accidentally write anything rude so it’s gobbledygook and just says things like 'blue… house… apple… car.’. That costume was teamwork at its very best."
An ongoing challenge
One of the biggest challenges for the department is to replicate the effects of a blood bag on stage in a way that allows for the quick laundering of the costume.
Helen explains: "So, an actor 'bleeds' on stage, then leaves stage returning in a costume that we have painted. This painted version does not transfer blood onto other costumes, but it needs to look like fresh, wet blood – so it cannot look dry and the blood cannot look stiff on the fabric. Paint, and particularly fake blood paint, reacts differently on every different type of fibre and the structure of the costume has to be taken into account."
One day Helen’s team can find themselves working with delicate fabrics, and another they are working at the other end of the spectrum.
Helen says: “In Arabian Nights (2009) we needed to dye yak hair in different shades of red. Yak hair is resistant to water, so we had experiment to discover that soda ash and scouring made it more receptive to the dye. These were then used in the Demon's red body stocking. Yak hair is very strong, cheap and robust. If you use human hair it’s extremely expensive.”
Tools of the trade
Helen's prized possession is her Scruffer: "It’s a tool to rough up the bottom of ballet shoes, but we use it for breaking down small areas – edges of cuffs or collars, for instance. It’s much smaller and more precise than the cheese grater we used to use; however, you soon learn to wear gloves – or the first layer of breaking down is your own skin and nails!"
She advises that experimentation is key to getting effects right, but must be done with caution: "Experiment and try things out to get different effects, but always be careful of your health. I’ve been doing this for around 25 years in total and there are substances that are now banned that I’ve used in the past. They were thought of as fairly safe then... so be careful!"
Stitch In Time
Helen works in our Costume Workshop, Stratford-upon-Avon. We are restoring and redeveloping our workshops to give our skilled costume makers 21st century facilities to help them continue to create stunning costumes for you and audiences around the world to enjoy.
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