Some of the most memorable costumes from our shows include the gowns and dresses made by our Ladies' Costumes department. Each costume is cut and made bespoke for the actor, with designs covering everything from Roman dress to contemporary 21st-century styles.
Three members of the team - Emily, Helen and Kathrine - talk about their experiences in the department.
From start to finish
Working on the Anne Boleyn costumes for Wolf Hall (2014) was particularly satisfying for the team, as they had plenty of time to make everything and got to see things through from start to finish - working from the inside out, from the underwear to the finished costume.
The shapes of the costumes and corsets for The Empress (2013) were also memorable: "Beatie Edney who played Queen Victoria said her costume helped her with her performance. All the ladies in the Company had a base costume and then elements were added depending on who they were playing – a skirt, a jacket, etc. We made rehearsal bustles for the actors so they could get used to the feel and weight of them before we made the full costumes."
A feat of engineering
Amazingly, bustles are made of 12m of inch-wide steel and wheel farthingales around 20m: "There is far more metalwork in ladies’ costumes for the
corsetry, etc. As we are making them, we
are aware of the weight of the costumes, often worn on stage for quite a long
time. The actors have to be pretty strong and physically fit.
"If we have a costumes that needs to have a harness installed for the actor to “fly” we create bespoke holes to be practical but to also hide the harness. We’ve had situations where the type of harness gets changed, or a harness is added or removed, which can be a challenge to make or remove holes in a fully-made costume!"
For Gregory Doran’s Hamlet (2008), the Player King and Queen costumes were very exaggerated and there were challenges
to work out the engineering to make the costumes wearable. The Queen wore a
huge wheel farthingale costume requiring a 45-second quick
change – from jeans and t-shirt to this elaborate costume – which added
Historically, sewing hasn’t changed a lot, so while technology is changing across the RSC, our costume team still depends on the simple thimble to sew through layers of fabric without pain. Kathrine has also made herself a utility apron with a special space for everything, including her thimble!
They recommend The Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing for learning the basics: "It is comprehensive and gives clear, detailed step-by-step instructions to teach you how to put in a zip, attach a sleeve and so on. For many items, like making a corset, we make them so often we don’t really have to think about it, but for other items we are known to refer to our student notes for tailoring!"