Ladies' Costume

Out of the Spotlight #5

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.

A pregnant woman in a red and gold dress and red headdress rests her hands on her stomach.
Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall (2014).
Photo by Keith Pattison © RSC Browse and license our images

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 woman with a white hat and a black dress.
Beatie Edney as Queen Victoria in The Empress (2013).
Photo by Steve Tanner © RSC Browse and license our images

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 practical challenges.

A man in an ornate black and gold gown, with a high collar and jewelled crown.
The Player Queen in Hamlet (2008).
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

Trade secrets

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!"

hands in a workshop making a crown

Out of the spotlight

Out of the Spotlight gives a voice to the people who work behind the scenes to make our onstage magic happen. From costumiers to carpenters our skilled teams of people are working in our Stratford-upon-Avon workshops to create and build costumes, props and sets that help bring our shows to life. We share the challenges and triumphs that take place away from the spotlight.

You may also like