[Warning- waffly reminiscence post coming up!]
For a few years, back in the 90s when my kids were small, I made costumes for a local amateur opera company.
I’d always been interested in historical costumes, loving the covers of my mum’s extensive paperback collection! In 1970. I watched ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ with my mum, and she took me to see the costumes when they toured the country. I was hooked! It was absolutely amazing to see these amazing pieces close up, and to read about how they’d been made…the thing that sticks in my mind is that Anne Boleyn’s necklace had been made from a bit of loo chain.
I think that if I’d been given the freedom to work in different media while studying Art at A level, I’d have gravitated towards textiles, and indulged my theatrical side quite early. As things happened, options were limited, and nothing really happened until many years later, a friend joined the opera company, and mentioned casually that they neededhelp in thewardrobe ‘department’. [Actually one harassed and over-worked volunteer.]
I went along to the dress rehearsal of ‘Faust’ and pitched in. Blimey. Chaos doesn’t describe it! Roughly 60 chorus members, half a dozen principals and gawd knows how many dancers and extras all needing costumes sorted out immediately. Some hired, and therefore extremely ill-fitting [as I found, costume hire is very hit and miss], some from stock or cobbled together by helpful ladies of the chorus, and a very few made especially.
I grabbed a load of old net curtains and doilies from a box of tat, and sat making little caps and bonnets to cover all the nice middle-aged lady perms. I’m firmly of the opinion that you need to get heads and feet as right as possible if you want costumes to look halfway decent!
I was in! I helped out backstage during the three performances later that week, and found all the mayhem absolutely hilarious, especially the way that all these nice Sutton ladies of the chorus turned into divas about every little detail…even if they were standing right at the back of a mob. Brilliant.
Over the next few years, I gradually made more and more costumes, and the original wardrobe lady packed it in and went elsewhere. I became great pals with the director, Hazel, and we had some brilliant days out at the RSC costume hire near Stratford, choosing ‘key pieces’ to improve the general look from panto…
Things had to be made for as near zero cost as possible. Operas were chosen by size of chorus, and preferably with easy costume requirements, ie loads of peasant rags. We had boxes and boxes of rags…
The company did one main show a year, staged at the local town hall, and sometimes a much smaller summer show at a community theatre.
My kids became extras, starting as the apparitions in ‘Macbeth’, and then becoming peasants in ‘Carmen’ and ‘The Force of Destiny’. David also got to be a drummer boy in a uniform that nearly drowned him. In ‘Eugene Onegin’ they managed to be peasants again AND were promoted to children of local nobility in the first ballroom scene. Pretty dresses for the girls at last!
I made my first major costumes for our beautiful plus-size, self-conscious leading lady in ‘Carmen’: the company paid a designer to draw up sets and costumes every year, and for that show she drew lovely costumes…as long as you were a sylph-like dancer. No hope for someone with a 50″ bust… so I designed and made all her costumes but one. And learned to make corsets- thanks to Nora Waugh!
Ooh, fan girl moment: for ‘Onegin’ [known backstage as You Jean One Gin] we went to the BBC costume hire to find some appropriate frocks…and found the ‘Poldark’ costume set. We snagged a few, but OMG, Angharad Rees was TINY- the only cast member to fit into her dress [just] was a fourteen year old.
During all of this, I went to college, did an Access course, and completed my degree and PGCE. My final production was in the year I started teaching, and that nearly killed me. So I bowed out, and managed to console myself over the years with a few school productions…and even got to go to the RSC again, and hired the same red silk skirt and bodice that I’d originally used for one of the side kicks in ‘Carmen’, this time for a lad playing Nancy in ‘Oliver Twist’.
Here are some pics of [some of] the operas: [sorry I had to take digital photos of old prints for these, excuse any camera glare!] I think I may do another post at a later date for other costume fun…