Fire, water and pink togas - stories from working in our historical Costume Workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon.

This week we’re closing the doors of our Costume Workshop in Waterside Stratford-upon-Avon. We’ve been making costumes on the site since the 1950s but the building isn’t fit for purpose so we have moved the team to a temporary site in Stratford while work to restore and redevelop the heritage Grade II listed building takes place.

Our Costume team shared some of their good and bad memories of working in the building:

  • Nature taking over: A tree grows through the roof in Men's Costume, with branches poking through the windows. For several years a blackbird nested in the entrance passage - when the eggs hatched the team had to be careful moving costumes in and out, and pick up baby blackbirds from the floor. Every year a red admiral butterfly flies through one sash window, through the dyeing room and out through the other window.
  • Fire: “Everyone in Costume is safe, but the Wardrobe is on fire.” A lightbulb sparked a fire in the Costume Workshop attic and this was how director Adrian Noble heard the news that the building’s attic was in flames, with some finished costumes for his A Midsummer Night’s Dream inside. The Fire Service managed to save everything.
  • Water: When Stratford was hit with heavy flooding (Easter 1998) the water came up through the passage into the building and through Men's Costume - one staff member came into work in waders. If rain is forecast the team make sure their worktables are clear at the end of the day, as the water will come through the skylights, down onto the costumes below.
  • Pink togas: When the red and cream togas (pictured) were cleaned after the first dress rehearsal of Julius Caesar, some of the red border fabric had stained the cream fabric pink. The team had to unpick the red borders from each of the togas, return them to their original colour and then work very quickly replacing the original red fabric with a more colourfast one, in time for the first performance.
 Woman seated holds up a piece of white material with a red border she is working on
The white togas with red borders used in 2017 Julius Caesar (before they turned pink!)
Photo by Andrew Fox © RSC Browse and license our images
  • Duck and kneel: Low ceilings in the fitting rooms mean actors had to kneel on the floor to be fitted for tall headdresses, the team have to tilt the costume rails to get them through the doorways, and one designer repeatedly banged his head in the stockroom, before we protected the low beams with padding and warning tape.
  • Stories: When he was working in Stratford, the actor Robert Stephens used to come in and sit in a chair in the corner of the Armoury and spend the day telling the team stories of when he was a young actor, as they worked on the footwear and armoury for upcoming shows.
  • Rolling out: The Ladies' Costume workroom is long and thin, which came in handy when they needed to make a giant ruff for the Player Queen in Hamlet (2008). The huge ruff (pictured), worn by actor Ryan Gage, went right around the hooped waist of the dress. To spray the ruff, they stretched it out along the entire length of the room.
  • Overspill: During the recent run-up to Macbeth the fitting room was so full of costumes (there's nowhere else to store them) that no one could get into the room to do fittings. They had to use other rooms in the building, so Christopher Eccleston had his costume fitted in an office.
Two men in elaborate gold Elizabethan dresses stand centre stage wearing crowns
The Player King in our 2008 Hamlet, with the giant ruff made by our Ladies' Costume team.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

There is still £1.3 million left to raise towards the £8.7 million project, which will help us continue to create stunning costumes for you and audiences to enjoy. We need your involvement and ask you to choose an area to support from underwear to armour, from jewellery to shoes. Find out more and make a donation at our Stitch In Time website.