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Oldham Coliseum Theatre’s Wardrobe team discuss period costumes for Pygmalion

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There’s a palpable excitement in Oldham Coliseum Theatre’s wardrobe department as the team of four are working on the costumes for our forthcoming production of Pygmalion.  Written in 1912, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has been set by designer Michael Holt in 1905 – 1906 as he preferred the fashions from those years.

We interviewed the team as they were working.

Bridget Bartley, the Coliseum’s Wardrobe Supervisor:  “It’s the sort of show that you wait for years to come along because it’s where every aspect of your training comes into play.”

Janet Weston, Deputy Wardrobe Supervisor added: “It’s a treat.  Yes, it’s a show that we all went to college to learn how to do.  It’s historically accurate to a particular year. With a period drama, you get to work ‘bottom up’ so a huge consideration is working with corsets so the clothes sit properly on the female characters.  It’s the real deal.

Bridget agreed: “Absolutely!  Women held themselves so differently during this period.  Charlotte Brimble, who’s playing Eliza Doolittle, was re-learning how to sit in the rehearsal room the other day.  When Eliza’s transformed into a “proper speaking lady” from her previous life as a cockney flower seller, part of that transformation is in the clothing that shows her social position.  Different clothes mean a different etiquette and a new way of moving.

So how do they make the costumes come alive from designer’s drawings to costumes that actors wear night after night?

Bridget describes the process: “It’s a big play.  We’re making a lot of costumes. The designer does research into the period and then we’ll similarly do our research, looking at books, patterns, pictures for detail and inspiration.  But we need to balance what’s historically accurate and what’s easy to get in and out of on a fast moving show where there are numerous costume changes.  During the period, a lady may have had a maid to help her dress.  How we make costumes replaces the lady’s maid. We have all the appearance of the period but we’ll use poppers and Velcro to facilitate getting in and out of costumes more easily. We also need to think about practicalities like the best fabrics for daily laundry.   On this show we’re making a lot of things from scratch, and we’ll borrow accessories like hats and bags from other theatres.  With the menswear, there’s less variation so we can hire costumes or borrow from other theatres.

Donna Allen, Wardrobe Assistant on the show, talks about her role looking after the costumes when the show is on stage

Once we’ve opened, our work is different again.  It’s far more about laundry, fixing wear and tear, setting out the costumes and dressing the actors.

So, how did you get into wardrobe?

Janet and Bridget both have fashion backgrounds but trained in costume at Bournemouth and Liverpool respectively.  Kathryn Ogden, Wardrobe Assistant, got into wardrobe through a fashion degree from Lincoln University.     Donna Allen, Wardrobe Assistant, attended Northern College of Costume, York, where she did work experience at Oldham Coliseum Theatre.

Bridget remarks:

It’s an increasingly competitive field as, sadly, there are fewer regional producing theatres these days so the available jobs are in touring shows, short term jobs.  We’re lucky to have a fully functioning wardrobe department at Oldham Coliseum Theatre.”

And the skills needed?

Janet comments:

Obviously, the practical ones, but also you need a lot of diplomacy.  Costume is so intrinsically linked to how you feel as a person.  An actor absolutely has to be confident on stage so our job is to make them look – and feel – their very best.