Behind the Scenes: Costuming at The Royal Shakespeare Company

Once we made it to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Emma Harrup of the RSC's costume department stopped by to give us a quick briefing on all things "dressy."

While most designers try to put out one collection a season, the RSC does 10-14 shows a year. This includes not only men's and women's clothing, but armory, shoes, hats, and jewelry too. Each show hires a freelance designer who works with the play's director to turn his/her vision into a concept that includes period, setting, and props. Most directors have about 3 or 4 favorite designers but stylists are also brought in if the show is modern enough to buy clothes from current stores.

In the actual making of the costumes, literally no detailed is spared--no matter how far from the stage front row seats are. First the sketches are drawn. These are left un-colored in order to remove any influence in the fabric choices. Once the fabric is chosen, it takes about 2-3 weeks to finish the costume. Jewelry to match is hand-made and shoes and hats are often specifically tailored to each actor. Then the costume has to be tested for its technicality in rehersals. Some costumes need to be duplicated for scenes that use blood and some need to be adapted for quick changes. Needless to say, the RSC has many tricks of the trade when it comes to preparing costumes for an entire Shakespearean cast.

So what happens to all these period and character specific costumes after each show? Stratford actually has a 5-story warehouse that stores all of them. They can be borrowed or reused, some are eventually altered for different shows, and a few are actually sold for a very pricey penny.

Emma shared that the most challenging of all costumes are those for history plays. When you think about it, I can't imagine all the work that goes into dressing entire armies and bloody battle victims. Obviously Shakespeare wasn't so considerate of designers when he started writing.

I would love to sit with the RSC's measurement and costume file. All the fabric samples and accessory snapshots are organized by show and actor, giving way hours of character fantasy. The actor profiles aren't so bad either :)