Dressing a show

With all the photos popping up lately and headlines surrounding two recent shows I worked on (Cinderella and Anything Goes), I thought it would be fun to tell you all about costuming a show. There’s more to it than you think. And if you’re an old hand at Am-Dram, a professional West End show is quite different.

So here is a run down of people involved and why the budgets seem so ridiculous but actually aren’t.

Costume Designer

The main artistic head; the main decision maker and the person with the final say so. The designer will work closely with the supervisor, instructing them on what costumes they need, making decisions about fabrics, details, etc. The designer will often attend most fittings (or at least principal fittings). When shows expand across the world such as Disney shows, Les Miserables, etc. the same designer will be consulted again and again or at least their designs will be reproduced. We’ve just been finishing up Frozen for London and Hamburg and we have photos/designs from both Broadway and Australia as reference.

Sandy Powell with some of her designs and finished costumes

Costume Supervisor

The supervisor is basically the purse of the whole operation. Based on the designers designs, the supervisor will recruit costumer cutters/makers based on their specialities to make a particular character/scene/group. The supervisor will consult what stock they already have, if its a revival or a production which has closed somewhere else, they will always try to use what they have, especially for ensemble.

And don’t forget that it’s not just the clothes, they’ll have to consider jewellery, accessories, shoes, hats, etc. It’s the whole look of each character, there will be shoe makers, textile artists, milliners, etc depending on the designs and budget of the show.

Costume Buyer

The costume buyer will work closely with the supervisor and the costume cutters. The buyer will source fabrics and trimmings based on the designers specifications and the supervisors budgets, which will get sent to the costume cutters/makers. The buyer is also responsible for sourcing items such as shoes, hats, underwear, shirts, etc. Basically anything which can easily be bought for a fraction of the cost of making them.

How many individual costume pieces are in this image for only one scene in Les Miserables?

Costume Cutters and their teams

For a production there could be dozens of costume teams. The costume cutter will liaise with the designer, supervisor and buyer, interpreting the design, cutting a pattern, attending fittings and making construction decisions. Each cutter could have a large team of a dozen people (which I have been working with this year) or they may have a couple of assistants or it may be an individual who cuts and makes the costume. Often with the larger teams, they may have several different productions at once on the go. This year we’ve had Frozen, Cinderella and Anything Goes which have overlapped depending on fitting dates/deadlines, etc.

For Cinderella we had a number of costumes for the queen. We then had her first and second understudy as these costumes were all the same. It makes financial sense for the same cutter to make the same dress for each understudy as you learn from first costume so you’ll be quicker for subsequent costumes. This is same reason that supervisors will recruit the same makers each time they need to remake as they know the costume so well.

Costume Houses

Costume houses such as Angels and Cosprop have a team of cutter/makers as mentioned above but they also supply costumes for short/longterm hire. These houses will supply costumes which they’ve made for previous film/theatre productions but have retained ownership. One cutter who I’ve worked for is always entertained when she sees costumes she’s made for high profile actors/actresses from years ago on extras. Costume houses will also buy costumes from productions if they think they’re a worthwhile investment.

Inside Angels

Running Wardrobe Mistress

Once all the costumes are made, sourced, etc. They are delivered to the care of the running wardrobe. The wardrobe mistress (just to clarify can be male or female but traditionally female, hence the name but also called running wardrobe supervisor) are in charge of all the costumes, wardrobe assistants and dressers. It is up to them to keep on top of the costumes, instructing the wardrobe assistants and dressers on what needs cleaning, adjusting, fixing where necessary for the run of the show. The running part of the title refers the technical crew who operate or “run” the performance backstage.

Wardrobe Assistants

Wardrobe assistants assist the wardrobe mistress. In the lead up to a show opening, they will carry out last minute little alterations and get costumes ready for the shows opening.

Recently I had the privilege of spending a couple days working in the wardrobe department at the Barbican on Anything Goes and it reminded me how interesting it is. There seemed to be a hundred shirts that were having buttons replaced with velcro ready for quick changes whilst last minute fittings were frantically carried out. During the run of a show, the wardrobe assistants will perform general maintenance, alterations, laundry, etc. to keep the costumes looking their best.

Dressers

Dressers are exactly as you imagine, they dress the actors. Some principal actors will have their own dressers while ensemble may share a dresser between a group of them. The dressers will maintain the order of costumes in the dressing rooms, liaise with the running wardrobe for any maintenance issues and arrange the costumes in quick change areas where needed.

And just to show you how slick teams of dressers are, watch this video: 40 seconds and 4 dressers on the actress!

Wow so many!

And thats just the costumes! Just think there’s probably equal number for each of sets, props, lighting, stage management, sound, front of house, marketing, orchestra, etc. No wonder the tickets seem so expensive, they are paying for all these people to make a truly magical theatre experience.

Hope you enjoyed reading this insight.

Rosie xx

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