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How the ROH Costume department create Tudor costumes for Elizabeth that are light enough to dance in

Head of Costume Fay Fullerton on the challenges of re-creating Elizabethan costumes for 21st-century ballet.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

6 January 2016 at 11.48am | 2 Comments

Costume designer Fay Fullerton has long been an integral part of the Royal Opera House’s prestigious costume department. She joined in 1977 as a costumier and worked her way up the ranks. In 2013 she was appointed Head of Costume – having received an MBE in 2010 for her services to dance and opera.

As Head of Costume, Fay is responsible for running a large and busy department, managing a highly skilled staff and ensuring budgets and deadlines are met. Alongside this, she continues to work as a designer – most recently for Will Tuckett’s Elizabeth, a dance-theatre work on the life and loves of Queen Elizabeth I.

Costume design is a very different job from Head of Costume, but Fay’s experience is invaluable: ‘I’ve worked in every department, so I know how fabrics work, how they should be cut, what will work best for the dancers and singers – as soon as I look at a costume I know how much it will cost’.

It was crucial to the atmosphere of Elizabeth that Fay’s costumes evoke the Tudor period – but they also needed to be suitable for dance. ‘Clothing from the Tudor period is very heavy, with bulky, thick fabrics. But of course that’s not what you want – dancers can’t dance in that. You need to adapt the style. You need to think about the fabrics you’re using, and make sure the cut allows the dancers to perform the choreography properly.’

As part of Fay’s creative process she visited the National Portrait Gallery and The Royal Collections to research portraits of the time, and her designs contain numerous references to specific paintings. But ‘you need to take the images with a pinch of salt. They are only references. Modern bodies are completely different from what they were 400 years ago. But the audience still needs to know what period it is’.

It’s a process Fay finds very satisfying. ‘I love making a historic period work for modern times. You should be able to recognize what the period is, but it’s my take on it and it’s a take that the dancers will appreciate – because it has to work for the dancers.’ She takes the first coronation robe as an example: ‘Whenever you see a coronation robe it always looks really heavy, as if the wearer cannot move in it. Ours is entirely made of organza and net – you could do anything in it, and yet it still has the same impact.’

Fay used the amazing facilities at the ROH Costume Department to make her vision a reality. ‘Where we couldn’t find the fabric then we created it. We’re fortunate to have a digital printer on-site: it is an amazing machine that allows you to print any pattern on a wide variety of fabrics. The costume for the Earl of Essex was influenced by an armoured portrait of the real historical figure – but rather than using real armour we have hand-painted leather, which was done by our in-house dye department.’

Elizabeth stars Zenaida Yanowsky and Carlos Acosta, each of whom has worked with Fay throughout their careers with The Royal Ballet. For Fay, ‘at first it was more intimidating than anything else, because they know me in a different role and then I was designing for them. But it’s also a dream having two people like them to design for. For me it’s very much an honour, and it makes it even more special that it’s Carlos’s final performance.’

Elizabeth runs 8–17 January 2016. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available.

The production is being supported by the J P Jacobs Charitable Trust.

Elizabeth is part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, coordinated by the London Shakespeare Centre and Culture at King’s College London.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Could you please email to Fay Fullerton, I would be happy to start £29 plus £65. I am return on the 15th April for Giselle.

    • Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media)) responded on 10 April 2016 at 2:31pm

      Hi Joseph,

      I've passed your message on to Fay.

      All best,

      Mel Spencer

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