APAC Study Day: Costume in Detail

Report by Victoria Lane

The APAC Study Day ‘Costume in Detail’ was held on 29 October 2015 at the Royal Opera House’s High House Production Park in Thurrock, Essex. The event consisted of tours of the newly opened costume centre and the production workshops, and presentations from APAC members about their costume collections. Twenty-one people attended.

On the approach to the Park, an impressive, semi-circular building dominates the horizon: the Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop, designed by Nicholas Hare Associates. The creative input that goes on backstage – the painting of sets, the metalwork, set construction, and transit back to the ROH in central London – seamlessly takes place in this vast, efficient, utopian space.

Julia Creed, Head of Collections at the ROH, and her team, Laura Brown, Catriona Cannon, and Paris Hart, showed us around the sparkling new, eco-friendly Costume Centre, which houses the making workshop, the wardrobe for current productions, and the historic costume collection, all under one roof. The centre contained production and store spaces to marvel at, in which every element of the design had been carefully thought out.

ROH Wardrobe's forklift for retrieving costume racks

ROH Wardrobe’s forklift for retrieving costume racks shown at the ground level of the current wardrobe store. Photo: Catriona Cannon, ROH

Wardrobe Department's forklift at the highest level of the current wardrobe store

ROH Wardrobe’s forklift (top left) at the highest level of the current wardrobe store, with the APAC tour group below. Photo: Catriona Cannon, ROH

In the current wardrobe store, we had a demonstration of the bespoke forklift, which can transport racks of costumes up to 7 metres high. The store has four tiers of platforms for costume racks, each with its own overhead sprinkler system. It houses the 20,000 costumes in current use by the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet.

The centre also has separate wig and shoe stores, a well-lit costume workshop, and bespoke workrooms for the Costume Construction B.A. degree, developed in partnership with Essex College and University of the Arts London. The degree has a conservation element, which the historic collections team hopes will mean that students will work on their holdings.

The historic collection spaces include a Collections Office where staff can work and researchers can consult archival items, and the store, which has gas suppression fire controls. The store currently houses 6,200 items, with ample expansion space. The majority is costumes, but the store also holds props, historic furniture, and musical instruments.

ROH Archivist Laura Brown and 'Turandot' costume

ROH Archivist Laura Brown with ‘Turandot’ costume introducing the historic costume store. Photo: Catriona Cannon, ROH

We were privileged to see collection highlights, such as Margot Fonteyn’s Firebird tutu (1954), Peter Rabbit’s head from The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1970), and a psychedelic costume designed by Cecil Beaton for the Royal Opera’s 1963 production of Turandot. We were also shown how tutus are preserved in bespoke boxes with padding.

Once a production leaves the repertoire, some costumes may be selected for the historic collection. Creed explained that the acquisition of costumes is based on three main criteria: if the wearer was significant, if the production was iconic, or if the costume used innovative making techniques.

Dramatically overlooking Dartford Crossing, the 14-acre complex includes an Education Centre, a Backstage Centre with a sound stage, a children’s playground, ACME studios for artists, and an historic house, café, allotments, and gardens where free ROH screenings are presented. The combination of environmentally excellent buildings linking many arts shows how partnerships can create remarkable creative working spaces, have benefits for the local community, and transform the landscape. The project is an inspiring one, which demonstrates how backstage activities can be foregrounded and presented as creative and interesting spaces.

ROH historic costume store © Alan Williams Photography

ROH historic costume store, with bagged costumes hanging at left and tutu boxes at right. © Alan Williams Photography

The afternoon consisted of presentations in a fully restored barn dating from 1700, on the Production Park site. The first two papers demonstrated how innovative digital projects can activate costume collections, while the final presentation provided attendees with practical assistance in caring for their costumes.

Robyn Greenwood, Project Assistant at the Royal Shakespeare Company, gave a paper on the company’s digitisation project Shakespeare by Design, which brings together virtually the RSC museum collection’s costumes with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s supporting archive of designs and photographs. This project involved a wholesale review of the costumes in terms of their significance, condition, and public engagement using UCL’s Collections Review Toolkit. The catalogue is available for in-house use, and its output, for public access, is realised in the HLF-funded permanent exhibition in the Swan Wing called ‘The Play’s the Thing’. The exhibition has digital pods that display the digitised elements of the productions, and visitors are able to ‘try-on’ costumes digitally through a virtual mirror.

Joel Enfield, Assistant Digital Producer at the National Theatre, showed how photography and film have an active part in preserving and making the costume collection accessible. For each production at the NT, actors are photographed in costume at high resolution, and some are filmed on a turntable to provide a 360-degree view of the costume as worn. These digital assets are used in turn for curated content, including online exhibitions of archive materials through the NT’s Backstage App and in the exhibition on the Google Cultural Institute, ‘Costume at the National Theatre’. In addition, exhibitions on the main NT site feature both the actual archival items and supporting digital content, such as the ‘Revolution in Design: Jocelyn Herbert’ exhibition on her stage design.

The last presentation highlighted an aspect of the invaluable work of volunteers. Margaret Boulton, a volunteer from the V&A Theatre and Performance Department, demonstrated how to create a cheap and practical padded coat hanger for costumes, using polyester wadding and a calico cover. Boulton provided a pattern for the latter, which can be downloaded here.

Overall, the study day presented creative ideas for the storage, management, and digital accessibility of our costume collections.

Victoria Lane is Archivist at Shakespeare’s Globe.