Costume at The National Theatre - an exhibition

By Victoria Haddock

Since its foundation in 1963, the National Theatre has been staging over twenty new productions a year in its home on the South Bank, and for each of these productions the National Theatre’s Costume department have sourced, constructed, altered, repaired, organised and maintained the costumes that we see on the stage.

A new exhibition celebrating the craftsmanship that goes into designing and creating these unique costumes has opened in the Wolfson Gallery and is on until June 2020. Costume at the National Theatre has been curated by Dr Aoife Monks and designed by set and costume designer Tom Paris. Monks spent a year working with the forty-six skilled members of staff in the Costume department, overseen by head of costume Carol Lingwood. The exhibition explores the work undertaken by the five teams who make up the Costume department; Ladies’ Making, Men’s Tailoring, Alterations, the Textile Studio and Costume Props.  The exhibition invites us to learn more about the wealth of craftsmanship that goes into producing the costumes seen on stage.

 ‘Costume is one of the first things we see on stage, telling us immediately about the world of the show we are about to watch,’ says Dr Monks. Costume at the National Theatre takes us through the process of how a costume goes from a design idea to a fully formed garment. The Costume department usually begin working on a show about two months before it is due to start, when the designers will come to talk through their concept and ideas (sometimes in the form of mood boards) with the costume makers. A costume supervisor is then appointed to project manage the collaboration between the designer and Costume department, with Carol keeping track of the costings and logistics.

The National Theatre’s costume makers then begin translating the design ideas on to paper patterns, before cutting the fabric to shape and constructing the garment. As the job of a costume is to tell a story on stage, costumes will go to the Textile Studio to be printed, dyed and even ‘broken down’ to help create the magical illusion of the passing of time. The sculptural work of the Costume Prop makers is superbly shown in the Caterpillar costume that is on display from wonder.land.

Through their knowledge of materials and their expert skills, Costume Props create fantastical costumes that are also feats of engineering. As not all costumes need to be made from scratch, there is also a team of buyers who have an unrivalled knowledge of shops and suppliers, ready-made clothing and accessories. Finally, just weeks before a show starts, the Running Wardrobe team and the Dressers join the project. During a show’s run, Wardrobe will launder and repair the costumes whilst the dressers work with the actors and their costumes backstage to ensure that changes are seamless and that the audiences understand the change of time and action in a production.

  With over 1,000 performances given at the National Theatre every year, Carol and Aoife narrowed down the choice of costumes to display in the exhibition to 15 productions that showed a cross section of costume craft and techniques.  It is a credit to the Costume department that the costumes in this exhibition look like they have just been made even though they have all completed a show’s entire run and have then been consequently hired out for use by the National Theatre Costume & Props Hire that care for and maintain 90,000 pieces.

There are costumes and accessories (including hats and even a mechanical fox tail!) from shows including Antony and Cleopatra, Follies and War Horse that are displayed in a large space alongside videos showing how costumes are cleaned and how the dressers achieve a quick change with an actor in under twenty-five seconds. I personally liked taking time to stop and read the quotes from Costume staff and actors that are placed alongside the costumes, as these give the costumes a personable quality that isn’t often seen in dress and costume exhibitions.

   The exhibition is accompanied by a beautiful new book, Costume at the National Theatre that takes the reader through the step-by-step collaborative creative process of designing, crafting and then staging a costume. With an introduction by Dr Aoife Monks, the book is overflowing with behind the scenes images, sketches and quotes from some of the Costume staff and actors who work at the National.

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