The role of a stage costume is not simply to look pretty. A costume helps the actor to act and physically embody a character. A costume also helps the audience to believe in the character – it adds a whole other layer to performance, and nowhere are costumes taken more seriously than at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Costume Workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon.
RSC’s Costume Workshop is the largest in-house costume department of any British theatre and its 30 staff members collectively count tailoring, costume-making, dyeing, printing, leatherwork, beading, corsetry, millinery, mask-making and jewellery-making among their repertoire. Often, the team only has a few weeks to create a whole set of costumes, but they may be worn for more than 100 stage performances.
Because the RSC’s productions can be set in a variety of historical periods, the costume designers have to do a lot of careful research when coming up with new designs. Even the actors’ underwear has to be faithful to the period, as items like corsets and farthingales ensure that an actor moves and looks authentic. However, even historical pieces need the help of modern innovations – complicated fasteners cannot be used on stage costumes, as actors have to be able to change quickly, so instead they use industrial strength magnets.
The RSC’s Costume Workshop has won awards for its costume-design. However, the department is in need of redevelopment in order to keep up with production demands. Therefore, Sir Patrick Stewart himself has launched the ‘Stitch in Time’ campaign in order to raise funds for this project. Rewards for patrons of the campaign include invitations to exclusive events, a Stitch in Time badge and a thank-you card with details of how your money will help the department.