Monday, 3 December 2012

The Railway Children (or Train Kids!)

I'm back!!

Sorry it's been an age but I've been rather busy. Several enormous plays and not an awful lot of spare time. I'm also trying a different approach to this blogging malarky. Little and often is where it's at, I think.

Anyway, it's coming up to Christmas and our seasonal production this year is E. Nesbit's 'The Railway Children' adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny.

I love working on the Christmas show at the Maddermarket. It always feels so cozy (metaphorically speaking - it's bloody freezing in here).  

Have the first fitting today with the actor playing The Old Gentleman. This will be fairly straight forward Edwardian city gent attire and will only require a few small alterations, hopefully.

Major work in progress though is a sailor suit for Roberta

Friday, 3 August 2012

Ancient and Modern Part 2


It's not all beautiful period dresses at the MMT!

People often assume that it's very difficult to costume a period piece and that a modern play is a piece of cake. It's just clothes isn't it? Well, that's why it is so tricky. With a play like our last production, Priestley's 'When We Are Married' it was very straight forward. The date was 1908, the action took place on one day and in Yorkshire and we had some upstanding members of the community and their staff and some lovely 'salt of the earth' characters. We had a lot of turn of the century costume in stock so the only tricky bits were getting clothes to fit and finding the right accessories

The Rev Mercer and Lottie Grady
Annie Parker, Clara Soppitt, Maria Helliwell and Herbert Soppitt
Fabulous wigs ladies!

However, with a modern play there isn't so much to go on. Audiences are very used to modern clothes and a lot of the costume/character shorthand often employed just doesn't work. A further layer of complexity is added when the designer reduces your palate to black and grey!

This is the current challenge I am faced with on this Summer's Christie 'A Murder Is Announced' The director and set designer are breaking with tradition and are bringing Miss Marple bang up to date.  The main problems I have to overcome are the fact that we have quite a limited stock of modern clothes so I'm having to scour the local charity shops. Also, the family at the centre of the play are quite wealthy in an 'old money' kind of way. This is quite hard to achieve on a limited budget and a diet of Oxfam and Primark so I will have to unleash my inner Gok and do some crafty styling.

I don't very often ask actors to bring in their own clothes. It is important for an actor to get into character and one way of doing this is by getting into costume. But for this play I may be calling in some of the actors own clothes to mix with items from the wardrobe.

50 Shades of Grey!

There is the odd occasion when the cut price clothing emporium is the costumiers friend. Earlier this year we put on an amazing piece of theatre by Shelagh Stephenson called '5 Kinds of Silence'. It is about domestic violence and the director staged it in a very stylistic way borrowing from Japanese Karuko theatre methods. He also had a very firm idea of how he wanted it to look. Again a limited palate of black, white red and grey. The father in black trousers, white shirt and red tie and at one point, a black overcoat with a red lining. His wife and two daughters were to be dressed identically in grey dresses that represented their repressed situation. The script also called for them to wear identical red coats to be in their fathers 'little army'. As luck would have it, a certain high street store had three military style red duffle coats reduced in their sale along with some grey jersey dresses that fitted the directors specifications exactly.

Production photographs from Peter Ashmore Visuals
It was one of the very few occasions that I virtually costumed a play in a day from one shop!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Ancient and Modern


One of the questions I am most frequently asked about our collection of costumes at the Maddermarket is 'What is the oldest item in your wardrobe?' We are very lucky to have quite a lot of original pieces dating from the Victorian and Edwardian eras but we have nothing wearable from earlier than that any more. Several years ago we had a dress known as The Suffield Dress. It was a sack back gown dating from around 1770. It was incredibly small and fragile and was eventually auctioned off. I can't find any pictures of our dress but it looked abit like this

Robe a la Francais, Amsterdam 1740-60

However, we do have a item that dates from about 1760 and it's so small and insignificant looking that you wouldn't give it a second look which is precisely the reason these things are so hard to come by. It is a Dorset Cartwheel button.

An example of the Blandford Cartwheel

If you would like to know more about the history of the Dorset button have a look at this link


After rummaging around in the theatre archives, I came across the Sotheby's auction catalogue from March '97. In it was a photo of the back view of the Suffield dress and a description.

Item 148. A brocaded silk sack backed open robe 'The Suffield Dress' circa 1750, of ivory silk, densely brocaded with silver and gold file and frise metal threads and scattered with large blooms in 
predominantly purple and pink silks, triple engageants with gold lace, has been re-lined, silk is fragile in places; the stomacher is formed from matching fabric. This gown was donated to the theatre by Dowager Lady Suffield after the 2nd World War. Est £800 - 1,200

At the same time, our local paper the Eastern Daily Press ran this cartoon

There was also mention made of the Sotheby's costume sale in the Independent here;

Monday, 26 March 2012


It's been a while since my last post. The last show,'We Happy Few' was so big (118 costumes if you remember!) that it took a week to put away. We still haven't got to the bottom of the laundry pile.  One of the major problems in returning the costumes to the rails is that the clothes are so tightly packed in, that whenever a large chunk is removed the remaining clothes breathe out and fill up the new space. This means it is very difficult to get things back on to the rails. Times like this call for drastic action. We have to clear the rail and have a bit of a cull

8 feet of rail space
The coat mountain

We actually got rid of four bin bags full of rather unpleasant coats and a couple of bags full to the charity shop. I now have my ladies 20th century coat rail beautifully arranged by decade and have unearthed some coats that I've never seen before. They all have a bit more room to breathe and I don't dislocate my shoulder every time I need to get a coat down.

I've also had a bit of time to investigate some recent donations, the most stunning of which was this Edwardian mourning mantle. Absolutely perfect condition

Detail of jet beading

It is made from black watered taffeta and machine made lace

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Other ventures and plugs

Not content with being a full time Wardrobe Mistress, a good friend of mine managed to persuade me to costume his show. I urge you to go and see it. It has everything including the kitchen sink, cake baking and on stage bathing. Its at Dragon Hall on King Street, Norwich and runs until Saturday 3rd March.

Book tickets here:

Cast photos by the excellent Chris Hylton
Stan Mann
Mr Bryant Beattie Bryant
Jenny Beales Jimmy Beales

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

New Costume Talk - Fashion at War

I'm giving another one of my periodic costume talks at work this Thursday. Do come along. It will be spiffing. Lots of lovely frocks and accessories to pass around and examine.

I'll also be on Future Radio on Thursday morning around 11am

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

We Happy Few

The current in house show I'm working on is 'We Happy Few' by Imogen Stubbs. It's about a group of enterprising women that start a theatre troupe called The Artemis Players and tour around the country performing Shakespeare to the masses during World War 2. To say it has been a challenge from the start would be putting it mildly!

The play has a cast of 12. The 7 main female characters not only move through '39 to '45 changing costume accordingly but also have their theatrical costumes, dance costumes and some film costumes. Most of the girls in the cast have about 12 changes each and a majority of them super quick too. In addition to this we have a male and a female actor that take 12 bit parts each. Once again, quick changes so under dressing and over dressing required. The remaining 3 characters only have a paltry 3 or 4 changes so I make that a grand total of approximately 118 costumes! Phew!!

However, one of the great things about having the Maddermarket wardrobe at my disposal is that I don't have to start from scratch and pretty much all of the costumes are genuine 30s and 40s clothes. Some of them are even authentic CC41 government issue Utility designs.

Check out these gorgeous shoes. They are in fantastic condition and hardly look worn at all. Beautifully made and very comfortable. About a modern size 6 (39) and Dawnie gets to wear them as Hetty.
Suede with leather broguing

Check out the CC41 Utility stamp

Another exciting find was what at first seemed like a rather dull, nondescript blouse. But closer inspection revealed it to be unworn and in mint condition, complete with labels. Another utility garment. This one has a distinctive label so it must be fairly easy to date. 

The fabric is Moygashel and has a linen appearance

Never seen a colour woven CC41 label before

On the other side it has a 'Garlands of Norwich ' Label. Garlands was a department store on the site of the now  defunct Habitat

More war time fashion to come along with some glorious 1930s gowns

Friday, 10 February 2012

More treasures

Halfway up a very narrow staircase is a cupboard called 'The Betty Dutton Cupboard' (I think all cupboards should have names). It is named after a predecessor of mine who ran the wardrobe for a very long time between the 60s and 80s. Before the staircase existed, there was a step ladder through a hatch into this cupboard and you had to crawl about (it's only about 4 feet high) to find things hidden in trunks and wicker baskets. There was another level that you reached by squeezing through a small gap and hauling yourself up. As you can imagine, this didn't make it past health and safety so we now have the narrow staircase and easy access, smoke alarms and lights!
We still use this cupboard to store things that don't get used very often and Chrissie found some amazing things on her last sorting out session.
 This is a silk dress ensemble, very fragile now, dating from the 1890s. I wonder if it did belong to Queen Alexandra and how it came to be in our possession.  The work on it is incredibly fine and detailed.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Look what I found in a box on top of a dusty cupboard

I've no idea how long it had been up there. Lots of 1920s beaded pieces and some wonderful bits of Victorian and Edwardian trim