This week Fiona Lindsay talks about the wardrobe department in theatres and how costumes transform the way a story is told...

Wardrobe

A number of blogs ago I reminisced about the yellow plastic laundry basket that served out its last days in our house as a dressing up box and was the entry point to a world of imagination and endless possibilities.

I’ve always been drawn by the transformative nature of theatre and performance and fascinated by the power a hat change or that a particular fabric cut can have to suspend our disbelief. My sister, Katrina Lindsay, is an award-winning costume designer and I believe that her love of it began with delving into that yellow plastic basket. Although that’s not the area of theatre that I’ve found myself in, I’ve always spent huge amounts of time with wardrobes teams, costume supervisors, and dressers.

These days most regional theatres have to outsource wardrobe work but the larger producing houses are still lucky enough to be able to maintain this vital area of the production process. The bigger ones enjoy male and female departments, cutters, distressers, makers, dyers, fitters, supervisors, dressers, cobblers, milliners, jewellers, maintenance, and runners, all of whom respond in their different ways to the costume requirements of the designer. Although each area is specific, the common theme is that those working in it have to employ patience, attention to detail, discretion and humour in order to endure the long and unsocial hours.

A production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in which I was involved a while back used copious amounts of stage blood that was splattered about over 30 pristine white shirts. The stage moment lasted under a minute but the wardrobe maintenance team worked until the early hours to get rid of all traces of red in preparation for a full launder and steam in the morning. They did this every day for six months and their room was a warm and Lenore-smelling place to sit and watch and get the inside knowledge on what was going on behind the scenes.

Fitters have to be the most discreet with an innate ability for small talk. One of the first things they have to do is take the full body measurement of all the actors in a show. It’s not just a case of inside leg and waist; absolutely no area of flesh is left unobserved with all measurements finally noted down in the wardrobe bible. At the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, actors returning to the company year after year dread measurement day, as there, in black in white, is evidence of how fat or thin they’ve become as time passes.

Dressers, especially those who specialise in running the quick changes, need to be quick and fit and able to work intuitively with their allocated actors in stripping and dressing them from top to toe in complete silence and in the dark. There’s no room for modesty or holding your stomach in and it’s a time when actors are quite literally at their most naked.

One of the running jokes in wardrobe teams is the phrase "I’ve a job to dye for". The dye team are true artists, mixing all sort of things to make up pigments that change the colour - and sometimes the texture - of fabric. Raspberries, coffee, mud and whiskey have all been used to transform plain fabrics into the requisite à la mode hue.

"My job is distressing" is another bit of banter from the wardrobe. Distressers work with cheese graters, crochet hooks, forks, knives, scissors and their job is cruel. They break down the fibers in modern made fabric to try and make it resemble more crude weaves of older textile forms.

Although it all goes on behind the scenes, the work of a theatre wardrobe team takes centre stage in all shows.

This week we publish conversations with specialist costume practitioners who talk with passion and pride about the roles they play.