Inside the Royal Opera House Costume Department
From costume bibles to snowflake skirts, we take a peek at what goes on behind-the-scenes.
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.