“In Stitches”

Over New Year I visited my folks in London, which was always very pleasant if something of a shock to the system (going from my peaceful one-woman flat to a house of eight people of whom the youngest is 10 is always a little disconcerting). On the evening of January 2nd we went to the Barbican to see the RSC production of Richard II, with David Tennant in the title role.

It was excellent: Tennant put in a stellar performance, but the support was very strong as the RSC always is, especially with Michael Pennington as Gaunt and Jean Lapotaire doubling as the Duchesses of Gloucester and York. Go if you have the chance, although I fear few now will as the rest of the run is sold out.

It’s accompanied at the Barbican by a mini-exhibition, In Stitches, about the RSC’s costuming department – a selection of standout costumes from past productions, plus notes, mockups, and miscellaneous oddments from the creative process. I had a good poke around at the interval and it packs a lot of intriguing things into a small space. The detail is astonishing – even tiny things, that will never be noticed by any audience member because of the distance to the stage, are done painstakingly and, where necessary, by hand. (One dress required 25m of hand-sewn silk ruffles …)

Theatrical costumes take a lot of punishment: I knew that, sort of, but hadn’t quite appreciated the implications of having to make a suitably gorgeous, detailed, characterful and period-appropriate garment that can also stand up to ~100 three-hour performances, potentially including any number of hurried changes, dramatic falls, fights, stunts, makeup stains and who-knows-what – and look just as good for the last night’s audience as it did to the first night’s.

And of course the costuming department have to clothe every member of the cast for each production, and have spare costumes on hand for the understudies, and a big company like the RSC will have anything up to a dozen productions running at once, spread across the country and the world …

Costuming departments don’t usually get very high on the billing, and unless you go to an exhibition or have occasion to hire out old costumes for your own purposes (most big theatres will do this, for am-dram societies, student productions, or individual fancy dress) it’s rare to see their work up close. Which is something of a shame, as the costumes play a huge role in establishing the look and feel of both individual characters and the production as a whole, and yet are easy to overlook.

(I suppose it lines up with Orwell’s maxim that good writing is like a window-pane: if the costume department have done a sterling job and everything seems harmonious and appropriate, it won’t draw the attention in quite the same way that a really spectacular mess-up does.)

Some things I learned from the In Stitches exhibition:

  • A proper, for want of a better term, “Shakespearean” doublet has five layers of cloth. They had a partially made exhibition example cut to show all the strata. Self, lining, interlining, something that looked like horsehair canvas … and I’m not even sure what the fifth layer was.
  • The costume department take 50 measurements on each actor and draft from scratch every time. (Well, I imagine they have a lot of basic blocks by now and will start from those – but still! 50 measurements!)
  • Theatre costume accuracy is not the same as TV costume accuracy. (Again, this is something I’d thought about but not quite grokked, as it were.) It has to look good from distance, and stage lights do very different things than studio lights. Fabric that looks cheap and glittery very close up can have a gorgeous ethereal sparkle when viewed from the audience.
  • Accuracy bows to practicality. Hooks and eyes, zips, magnets, and other quick-on quick-off fastenings are far more common than real buttons or laces.
  • That said, the quality of the materials on most of the costumes was breathtaking. (Did I mention the 25m of hand-sewn silk ruffle?) Silk – apparently nothing looks quite like it, even on stage. Leather, lots of leather. Gorgeous jacquards. The exhibition was strictly no-touching but the quality of the fabric was making my fingers itch …

The RSC have more fun things from their costume department:

Quickchange – one of a series of 1-minute backstage videos, this one showing an actress changing costumes. Listen for the sound of the zip and keep an eye out for the hooks and eyes fastening the wimple.

Grinding – another 1-minute video, this time about grinding steel components for bodices and similar. Includes a wonderful if brief glimpse into the workroom – sewing machines, swatches, mannequins, sketches and notes everywhere. A treasure house.

Spotlight: Costume – A lot more detail about what their Costume department does and how they do it.

A detail that intrigues me from this page is that the designers, cutters, and makers are three separate teams – on the one hand it seems like it could be frustrating to have a project disappear out of your hands after one stage, or appear part-done by someone else; on the other, it presumably means that the concentration of talent at each stage is higher. (I know I have cut corners when, er, cutting and skipped/skimped on boring stages while making, because I tend to see them as an inconvenient necessity between GLORIOUS IDEA and MAGNIFICENT REALITY. I have not always got away with this.)


I’ve been to a lot of productions of Shakespeare. (Probably 70?) Many, perhaps even most of them, have had gorgeous, evocative costuming; I’m now trying to think of any particular production that really stands out amongst them in terms of costume and drawing a blank – too many to choose from.

Close to the top of the list, I think, has to be the production of Henry VI that was originally done in 2000/1 and revived with minor changes and a partially new cast in 2007/8. I remember Queen Margaret’s (Katy Stephens’) costumes especially: red, all shades of it, glowing under the lights. Red for Lancaster*, but red for all the other things red stands for, too.

The costuming for the whole production struck a whole series of beautiful balances – evocative of a historical period but also capable of being simple and almost archetypal; theatrical and eye-catching without being distractingly overdone; individually well-differentiated but clearly themed; a clear visual distinction between Yorkists and Lancastrians without tipping into garish football-strip contrast. Sadly there seem to be few photos online.

Anyone else have a favourite piece of on-stage costuming? What was it?


About Craft (Alchemy)

I make things and make things up.
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