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Inside the Royal Opera House Costume Department

From costume bibles to snowflake skirts, we take a peek at what goes on behind-the-scenes.

By Lottie Butler (Assistant Content Producer)

7 August 2012 at 12.58pm | 12 Comments

There may be no productions on stage in Covent Garden this August, but things are as busy as ever at the Royal Opera House. The Costume Department, in charge of preserving and fitting the thousands of costumes that appear on stage at the Royal Opera House, is already hard at work getting ready for the forthcoming season.

The team is currently preparing for The Nutcracker, re-making skirts for 36 snowflake ballerinas. Each skirt will be double-layered and decorated with more elaborate detail. At a rate of one skirt per day, it is already over a month’s work. In addition, the costumes for John Cranko's Onegin and the dresses for the 40 swans that will dance in Swan Lake are being altered and adjusted.

Working on five to six opera and ballet productions at a time, carrying out around 6,000 fittings per season, it pays to plan ahead. Mal Barton, Costume Department Manager, explains:

“At the end of the season we tend to fit the first three or four productions of the next season so that the costumes are ready to go in September. Every production revival involves a refit, and each production can have some 500-600 costumes.”

However, despite such planning, unavoidable last-minute cast changes for The Royal Ballet can lead to the department starting refits at 5.30pm, for a performance at 7.30pm. Soraya Parsa, who has been working with the Costume Department for eight years, explains:

“Fittings can take anything from five minutes to two hours. Towards the end of the season, there are always lots of last minute re-fits to do and we often have to make adjustments just before performances or from the side of the stage.”

The Costume Department is focused on heritage, as well as performances, and works hard to maintain costumes true to their original designs. Faded colours are re-dyed, worn darning is repaired, and shapes and patterns are revised to ensure that costumes can stay in use for decades.

Tailors work from a “costume bible”, a hefty volume that meticulously details original designs and subsequent revivals, to make sure that costumes stay accurate to their original design. The oldest costumes still in use include those from La bohème, which date back to 1974, and Swan Lake, which are from 1986.

Find out more with a look at Soloist Claire Calvert’s Lilac Fairy costume from The Sleeping Beauty.

The Royal Opera House is home to the largest collection of theatre costumes in the UK, a selection of which is available to view online. The earliest opera item in the collection is a pair of shoes worn by Italian soprano Adelina Patti from her debut in 1861. The earliest ballet item in the collection is a single pointe shoe worn in the 1930s by Royal Ballet Founder Ninette de Valois.

This article has 12 comments

  1. clive hasnip responded on 29 August 2012 at 9:31pm Reply

    a delight to watch

  2. Nina responded on 12 October 2012 at 8:10pm Reply

    Isn't Clare Calvert a Soloist? Your article says First Soloist (?)

    • Chris Shipman (Content Producer (Social Media and News)) responded on 15 October 2012 at 10:09am

      Apologies, this has been amended.

      Chris
      Social Media Manager

  3. how we can make ballet tutu?i need ur help

  4. Really loved looking at the costumes and wondering if you could give me any help in making a tutu for my student
    Thanking you
    Brenda

  5. Susan Caley responded on 5 February 2014 at 1:20pm Reply

    Is it possible to visit the costume department.? My daughter studied costume design at The London College of fashion and I would like, if possible, to give her a birthday gift of visit to the Costume Department.

    • Lottie Butler (Assistant Content Producer) responded on 6 February 2014 at 11:17am

      Dear Susan,

      I'm afraid we can't organise private visits to the Costume Department. However, we do run backstage tours that offer a glimpse behind-the-scenes at the various departments in the opera house. You can find out more here: http://www.roh.org.uk/visit/tours

      All the best,

      Lottie

  6. Anna Twyford responded on 22 April 2014 at 6:43pm Reply

    Hello, I am just inquiring if there are any opportunities to intern at the Royal Opera House costume department please? I am currently studying Art Foundation and am enthused to gain experience in this area of design. I have extensive experience in theater and dancing from a very young age and enthused by my success studying fashion design would adore to gain experience merging these disciplines.

  7. Rebecca Tinley responded on 8 July 2014 at 4:15pm Reply

    Hello,

    I was just wondering if you did any costume design work experience for year 10s in March 2015? I will just be starting my GCSEs and our school has a work experience programme set up. I am really interested in going into this kind of business in the future.
    Thank you, I look forward to hearing from you,

    Rebecca

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