Making Historical Costumes Work for Performers

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Making costumes that fit with an aesthetic or historical period that still allow performers maximum comfort is a difficult task for costumers and the two rarely overlap.

Costume designer Fay Fullerton joined the Royal Opera House’s prestigious costume department in 1977 and worked her way up the ranks until 2013 when she was appointed Head of Costume. That was after she received an MBE in 2010 for her services to dance and opera.

Adapt the Fabric and Cut

“I’ve worked in every department, so I know how fabrics work, how they should be cut, what will work best for the dancers and singers – as soon as I look at a costume I know how much it will cost,” she said. “Clothing from the Tudor period is very heavy, with bulky, thick fabrics. But of course that’s not what you want – dancers can’t dance in that. You need to adapt the style. You need to think about the fabrics you’re using, and make sure the cut allows the dancers to perform the choreography properly.’

Research From Portraits

Her main research for Will Tucket’s Elizabeth ballet was done at National Portrait Gallery and The Royal Collections to see original late-16th-century costumes. “You need to take the images with a pinch of salt. They are only references. Modern bodies are completely different from what they were 400 years ago. But the audience still needs to know what period it is,” Fullerton warned. Gwen Russell in an interview with The Costume Rag said this is an important consideration even in film and while Janet Arnold’s pattern books are among the best taken from original garments they still need to be adapted for modern shapes. “I love making a historic period work for modern times. You should be able to recognize what the period is, but it’s my take on it and it’s a take that the dancers will appreciate – because it has to work for the dancers. Whenever you see a coronation robe it always looks really heavy, as if the wearer cannot move in it. Ours is entirely made of organza and net – you could do anything in it, and yet it still has the same impact.”

Print Replica Fabric

Fullerton also revealed an amazing piece of kit in the Royal Opera House arsenal. “Where we couldn’t find the fabric then we created it. We’re fortunate to have a digital printer on-site: it is an amazing machine that allows you to print any pattern on a wide variety of fabrics. The costume for the Earl of Essex was influenced by an armoured portrait of the real historical figure – but rather than using real armour we have hand-painted leather, which was done by our in-house dye department.”


Another aspect of making historical costumes for performance is the rigours these garments are put through. The Royal Shakespeare Company in partiuclar ensures its costume are made to last. “Maintenance of costumes is often looked upon as a bit of washing, drying and ironing, but it’s much more than this. Certain fabrics are very delicate and have to be cared for with very special knowledge,” said Alistair McArthur, Head of Costume. “All the shirts, tights, socks and other linens have to be washed after each performance. There is a constant list of running repairs. It’s a big job and great care must be taken. Elaborate costumes are dry cleaned as necessary. Most costumes aren’t washable so we use inner costumes or ‘shields’ that can be removed and washed. We always have to think ahead as to how we can maintain the costumes.”