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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 (Former Assistant Content Producer (News and Social Media))

7 August 2012 at 12.58pm | 19 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.

By Lottie Butler (Former Assistant Content Producer (News and Social Media))

7 August 2012 at 12.58pm

This article has been categorised Ballet, Off stage and tagged archive, Ballet, behind the scenes, costumes, La bohème, Ninette de Valois, Onegin, opera, Royal Opera House Collections, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Costume Department, The Nutcracker, theatre

This article has 19 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 (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 15 October 2012 at 10:09am

      Apologies, this has been amended.

      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

  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 (Former Assistant Content Producer (News and Social Media)) 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:

      All the best,


  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


    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,


  8. Amy Phillips responded on 12 May 2015 at 7:59pm Reply

    I am from Wallington High School for girls and for my GCSE textiles I am creating a product from the design brief: 'The costume department of a national theatre company has commissioned you to design and make a costume for a modern production of Grease which is set to appear in the West End next year. The emphasis must be on modern and not be a copy of costumes used in the past.'

    If possible please could you answer the questions below so I am able to create a further understanding of the types of costumes worn in theatres and how I may produce mine.


    1) Where does your inspiration come from when designing costumes?

    2) On average, how much does it cost to make each costume?

    3) What are the most popular types of materials used to create the costumes?

    4)Where do you source your fabrics from?

    5) Do you typically use recycled/sustainable fabrics?

    6)Are there any particular decorative techniques you would suggest avoiding when creating a costume?

    7) Are there any particular types of fastenings that are advisable so that the actors/actresses can change quickly?

    Many thanks, Amy Phillips

    • Mal Barton (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 19 May 2015 at 11:18am

      Hi Amy,

      Thank you for your questions. In answer to them:

      1) The Director or Choreographer will give a brief to the designer, describing period, style, emotion, movement etc.The designer will then research these subjects and draw from his experiences to produce a new and original design.

      2) The cost of making a costume varies tremendously, it may be a contemporary piece which is possible to buy from the High St for as little as £50, or it can be a very elaborate period dress which could cost £4,000-£5,000

      3) Stretch fabrics are very popular because they allow complete freedom of movement, however they are only suitable for very limited number of designs

      4) Our fabrics come from all over the world, but mostly from the UK, Germany and Italy

      5) Wherever possible we recycle old costumes, fabrics braids and buttons, and when buying new fabrics always attempt to use that will last, some of our productions are over 40 years old

      6) We can use most techniques, but the important thing to remember is that all decorative techniques must be very securely applied and able to withstand washing and dry cleaning. We always test any applique before making up the finished costume. It is important that they do not inhibit the wearer, no sharp sequins, no loose jewellery or ribbons.

      7) We use poppers, hooks and bars, elastic laces, ties and occasionally Velcro or magnets but never zips!

      I hope these answers are of help.

      Head of Costume Workrooms

  9. Hannah Morley responded on 1 October 2015 at 5:00pm Reply

    I found you video really inspirational as I'm a dancer myself but I'm also taking GCSE textiles so i like to hear about costumes are made.

  10. Jenna Deacon responded on 3 April 2016 at 9:01pm Reply

    I'm currently making a classical tutu for my final year project before I go on to do a costume construction degree. For my coursework I have chosen The royal ballet as my client and was wondering if possible if you could answer some questions I need to complete a client profile please?

    1) What is the most important component of tutu making?

    2) How long does it typically take to make a classical tutu?

    3) Which is a more popular choice of bodice, Russian or Classical?

    4) My tutu is based on the Rococo period (just before Marie Antionette), do you think this a suitable theme for a Classic looking tutu?

    5) What fabric is used most for tutu panties and why?

    6) How many people usually work in the costume department at one time?

    7 Do you think there is a market for a classic looking tutu but with stretch inserts to aid movement? (such as inserts at the side which makes bends easier)

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 11 April 2016 at 11:01am

      Hi Jenna,

      I've forwarded your questions to our Costume Department. I'll get back to you as soon I hear more.
      All best wishes,

  11. Nieves Allen responded on 29 September 2016 at 9:18am Reply

    I was just wondering whether you do work experience placements for aged 17 as i am looking to doing a placement in costume design and i saw you do offer placements but for 18+ ?

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 30 September 2016 at 12:01pm

      Hi Nieves,
      Thanks for your comment. There are some work experience placements for 15+, however the costume one is strictly for 18+ applicants as they require someone to have a certain level of skills to work on the costumes in the workroom.
      You can find out more details by emailing or you can call our Work Experience Officer Sarah Foxlee on 020 7212 9632.
      Good luck!

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