Artwork for Costume maintenance
A costume from Shakespeare in Love. Photo: Tim Grey
Costume Design

Costume maintenance

How we look after costumes that are worn eight times a week, for multiple weeks, often during highly physical performances.

By Keryn Ribbands

Costume Manager, Keryn Ribbands, is responsible for supervising the overall manufacture, purchasing, construction and maintenance of costumes, millinery, wigs and art finishing.

The costumes we make need to be robust enough to withstand all the wear and tear associated with running eight shows per week as well as touring, but also be delicate enough to portray the character wearing them. When making them, we also take into account how the garment will be laundered and the specific physical requirements that will be demanded of it. For example, when manufacturing a period dress or men’s frock coat, we make sure all the collars, cuffs and front inserts are removable so they can be washed daily, or as required, with ease.

To look after the costumes during a show’s run, we employ a dedicated costume maintenance person to undertake the daily laundering and upkeep of a show. This may only take four hours on a small show but on a large production such as Shakespeare in Love, it takes two people eight hours. They need to have an understanding of fabrics and textiles, be able to hand and machine sew, and to have knowledge of jewellery repair and art-finishing techniques.

On a contemporary show we always have doubles and sometimes triples on various undergarments, shirts and blouses – particularly silk and chiffon ones. We can’t have them looking like a rag at the end of a run so having multiple versions helps alleviate this problem. For period shows, we rarely use original vintage clothing because it’s too delicate for the stage. We prefer to make these items in-house, using stronger and more durable fabrics.

Vodka, sphagnum moss and eucalyptus

When the costumes arrive at the theatre, the maintenance staff assess each garment to determine how and what daily maintenance or laundering is required; this is then documented in a show folio or ‘bible’. If the costumes have been made in-house, spare fabric, buttons and other haberdashery is sent down as well so running repairs can be done quickly and easily.

Most garments are laundered daily or spot cleaned; and dry cleaned weekly. As mentioned, garments such as tailored jackets and dresses are often fitted with removable, washable cotton ‘dress shields’ that can more easily be laundered daily. We avoid over-laundering structured or embellished costumes, however, and instead spray them with vodka! This alcohol kills germs, eradicates smells and doesn’t leave a pungent odour that can irritate an actor on stage. We buy it by the case, but make sure it’s only the cheapest and harshest brand so as not to encourage an afternoon tipple!

Another natural deodorising product we use is Sphagnum Moss. This excellent product can be used as a prewash or as an odour-reducing disinfectant.

For general laundering, we only use hypoallergenic eucalyptus products, because some performers have allergies to certain laundry detergents. For the more delicate fabrics, such as silk and chiffon, we have a special silk wash. If appropriate, we hand-wash these garments in lukewarm water; otherwise they are sent to the dry cleaner, who picks up and delivers back within the day. And we use specialised cleaning products to wipe down other garments depending on what they are made from – leather or metallic fabrics, for instance.

Washing, drying and repairing

Once the costumes are washed and dried, they are ready to be ironed or steamed; we also have a large drying room for garments that can’t be tumble dried. Then there’s the shoes to be cleaned, and we’ll also provide any touch-ups that need to be done to art-finished costumes to achieve a broken-down look. If there are any naked flames on stage, such as candles, the costumes also have to be sprayed with a flame-retardant solution, which has to be re-applied after every wash; this is done in a special chemical spray booth we have at the theatre.

In addition to laundering, we also have the repairs list. Once again, in the manufacturing process we take into account the physical nature of what is required of the costume. Pants are reinforced, with double layers of fabric at knees and other stress points for instance, or gussets added in for extra movement – particularly if dancing is required and the fabrics don’t stretch. The prison uniforms on Kiss of the Spider Woman are a good example of this.

Generally, the repairs are simple: replacing buttons or a zip, or fixing small tears. We have a well set-up wardrobe department at the theatre for these. But for any bigger issues, or more difficult repairs, the garments are taken back to our HQ workroom where we have the appropriate equipment and staff.

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