‘It’s been a huge job in the making. Far out, man!’ John Van Gastel makes short work of summing up the two year odyssey to bring director Simon Phillips’s take on As You Like It to Melbourne audiences. ‘I started drafting patterns in April , but that was kind of a second start because we did do some initial work prior to the pandemic, in 2019. This has been a long time coming.’
Van Gastel was the Associate Costume Designer for the show, on top of his work as the in-house tailor in MTC’s costume department. From pearls and rhinestones to Elizabethan finery, Van Gastel was in his element. As You Like It was the third Shakespearean (or Shakespearean-themed) show he’s worked on for MTC, and his first as Associate Costume Designer. As Alicia Clements, the show’s Set and Costume Designer, was stuck in Sydney due to border closures, Van Gastel became her eyes, ears and hands in the room.
The room is the costume department, where Van Gastel and his colleagues sew and construct all the costumes. For this show, the aesthetic was traditional, classical, but not strictly contemporary with the Bard’s era. ‘We’re kind of floating in 1690, in England,’ he notes of the sartorial inspiration, ‘the comparison is the court of Louis XIV. So it has lots of layers, and very, very heavy coats.’
Elaborating, he explains that the women were in flat-fronted, boned bodices worn with a chemise underneath and long, full skirts that accentuate the hips, while the men were in flared frockcoats with pleating on the side seams and enormous cuffs. ‘Under the coats they wore longfronted waistcoats with buttons from the neck down to the knee, a shirt with a gathered lace cuff and a jabot tied at the neck. Below is a pair of breeches and hose, and then they had the shoe, either a knee-high boot or stacked Louis heel, with square toes and flourishes at the tongue of the shoe.’
Everything was made in the room – ‘from the shirt that they wore under the waistcoat, to the waistcoat, the coat, the pants’ – except the shoes. Sometimes shoes are obtained from stock at MTC. Failing that, the team rely on the specialised skills of a cobbler. ‘We have two people working on our shoes, Claire Best and Brendan Dwyer. Their work is spectacular.’
Cobblers aside, each team member – known colloquially as a cutter – is assigned to look after the clothing for specific actors. ‘Having familiarised ourselves with the period, we start with a piece of paper and a pencil. Having the actor’s measurements, we analyse the design, we analyse the measurements and physique, and then we will draw our first line to start the drafting of the pattern. We will then mark it up and make a calico toile. A fitting will be booked with the actor and then, once we know that everything’s accurate, we will cut into the real cloth.’
Reflecting on the show’s costuming journey, Van Gastel notes that it began with the stark, oppressive black garb of the court before transitioning into more relaxed, earthy and neutral tones in the forest, and then into white and gold for the wedding celebration at the end. To achieve the different tones and styles of these settings a wealth of materials were used, including velvet, brocade, heavy pattern, metal buttons and elegant trimmings – especially for the court, where ‘everything is totally luxurious and over the top.’
Of course, luxury costs. And with the financial pressures on the Company after the past two years, the costume staff had to become especially creative at making ends meet. ‘We typically start by shopping at home, as we call it,’ Van Gastel says, referring to the department’s many racks and shelves brimming with fabrics, boxes of lace and trims. ‘Then whatever we haven’t got, we’ll source. For this show, we used as much stock as possible to help keep costs down.’ On the other end of the scale, Van Gastel says they went to an 11, sartorially speaking. ‘We’ve amped everything up, to heighten how it appears on stage,’ he explains. ‘We’re exaggerating, we’re turning it up a few notches so that the entire theatre can enjoy those clothes.’
Finally in November 2021, after the world’s longest intermission, the entire theatre got to appreciate the incredible effort, creativity and skill that went into making this show a reality. And with the recent release of As You Like It on MTC Digital Theatre audiences can continue to enjoy the costumes from anywhere in Australia, allowing the extraordinary work of Van Gastel and the MTC costume department to be seen up close and in detail.
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Published on 26 April 2022