Costume at the National Theatre

Written for The Maker's Atelier magazine issue #6, published Spring 2020:


Since opening the doors to its first ever audience in 1963, the National Theatre on London’s South Bank has staged over 1,100 productions. Behind every one of these masterpieces is a team of artists, craftspeople, tailors and dressers: the Costume Department. A new exhibition in the Theatre’s Wolfson Gallery celebrates the fabulous array of garments, props and accessories produced over the years, and gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into creating the magic we see on stage.


Tony Rutherford, the Costume Department’s Head Tailor, has been with the National Theatre for five years. “It’s hard to say how many productions I’ve worked on…” he says, “but probably over 30.” Tony is a self-taught tailor: “My first attempt at sewing was making the Victorian-style costumes for two Super 8 films (it was the 80s!) at Falmouth Art College. From then on it was a case of feeling my way, saying ‘yes’ to jobs and then working it out later - and relying on the kindness of actors, dancers and singers when I accidentally speared them with pins. I taught myself how to cut men’s costumes using two fundamental books; the first was The Modern Tailor, Cutter and Clothier, a fantastic three-volume textbook from the Tailor and Cutter in the UK. The other was Historiche Schnitt, a German costume-cutting book by Müller und Sohn. I don’t speak or read German, so working out the diagrams was tricky, to say the least.”


“My area of interest has always been costume rather than fashion,” Tony says, “although where one begins and the other ends is an interesting point. For example, I’m cutting suits for two characters at the moment who, during the course of the play, grow from 1950s teenagers into stylish mobsters in the 1970s. So, while a fashion tailor today would have some knowledge of the history of cutting techniques, a costume tailor actually needs to know howto cut a suit in different historical styles to achieve the correct silhouette.” One of the costumes which features in the exhibition is the suit worn by Sylvester in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, “an interesting show from a tailor’s point of view,” Tony says. “The designer wanted us to cut all the suits with American 1920s cutting systems and then construct them using hand-cranked sewing machines and hand stitching. It was a very educational process.”


Costumes also carry certain functional requirements which bring with them added challenges. If a character is fighting or dancing, for example, they may need a gusset cut into their undersleeve to allow for more movement, or a bit of extra stride room in the trousers if they are going to lunge. Then there is the issue of longevity: “Costumes can be on stage for months at a time, sometimes twice a day, so they have to be very robust. Most costumes that are handmade are recycled somehow or other; so that a costume can have a life after the production closes, we leave what we call ‘inlay’ in most of the seams. This means extra cloth in the seam allowance so that the costume can be fitted to a larger actor in the next show.”



To demonstrate the technical detail involved in costume making, Tony and his team created two pieces specifically for the exhibition: “We wanted to show the ‘inside life’ of a tailored coat, the canvas and padding that gives the jacket its shape, so we’ve made two jackets that each have one half left unfinished to show the different methods of canvassing. One is a traditional handsewn method, which we used in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; the other is a modern technique we use more frequently.”


One particularly demanding garment, Tony recalls, was a nine-metre long velvet and ermine-trimmed coronation robe, worn by Rhys Ifans in Exit the King. “Velvet is a nightmare at the best of times, but in this case it was particularly challenging because the designer wanted Rhys to make his first entrance through the audience in the Olivier Auditorium. As he mounted the stage to his throne the cloak was to stretch out behind him all the way back up the stairs, to the door he’d just entered through. The velvet was printed with gold emblems to simulate hand embroidery in our Textile Studio here at the Theatre. Dozens of little false ermine tails were stitched in by hand to the fake fur trim. The cape was then lined by hand in satin, which meant it could glide easily down the stairs. In all, I think it took three of us two weeks to finish.”


The items in the exhibition are organised in sections, which tell the story of costume from initial conception through to its life after the production, beginning with ‘Before the Costume’, a display of sketches, moodboards and early paper pattern designs. It follows the journey through fabric selection, experimentation and construction. One section, titled ‘Storytelling on Stage’, demonstrates how each piece of a costume contributes to the telling of the story: ‘How else could we know that the characters have just come inside from a horribly rainy evening, or that their clothes are old and worn, or that they live in the 1780s, without the marks and prints on costumes telling us so?’ Another, ‘Costume in the Wings’, explores the art of changing costume mid-performance, and the extraordinary organisation required from the dressers to keep the story moving seamlessly.


A particularly interesting part of the exhibition, perhaps because it is an area the audience wouldn’t generally think about, is ‘Caring for Costume’, which looks at the revival of the garments from the end of one performance to the beginning of the next. “The Running Wardrobe Department are responsible for the maintenance of the costumes once we hand them over,” Tony explains. A short film in the exhibition shows the nightly restoration of Cleopatra’s dress (from Antony & Cleopatra) which is spattered in blood by the end of one production and must be cleaned and transformed back to its pristine state before the start of the next. Other costumes require more than laundry: where garments have been aged, they must be re-aged to exactly the same effect, where fabrics have been dyed, they may need to be re-dyed. Costumes must look the same on the last night as they did on the first.


Ten years ago, the National Theatre launched National Theatre Live, using state-of-the-art filming techniques to broadcast live stage performances to screens around the world. This was transformational in giving more people access to the theatre. It also tests the perfectionism of the Costume Department: “Saying, ‘don’t worry, they won’t be able to see that from the stalls’ isn’t an option,” Tony says. “When the actor is twelve-foot high on a big screen, wonky top stitching would really scream out!”


Costume at the National Theatre is a fascinating exhibition, as much for the chance to see garments and props from world-famous productions up close, as to find out more about what goes on behind the scenes. Entry is free during opening hours and for theatre enthusiasts, an accompanying book has been published to coincide with the exhibition. Find out more at nationaltheatre.org.uk.



© 2020 rebecca cunningham

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Based in London & Brighton, UK