My work uniform usually involves denim, cotton, and never a heel higher than two inches. It’s comfortable, easy, and low-maintenance (I haven’t even looked at an iron yet this year). But every time I visit Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, I find myself inordinately curious about the actors whose jobs could reasonably involve wearing a corset to work every day. How do they breathe in all those layers of fabric? What about sitting down? Why hasn’t that massive helmet fallen off? I wanted to experience what it was like first-hand.
A 10 minute walk away from the theatre, on Swan Street, is the Royal Exchange Costume Hire department. And here, on the second floor of a nondescript red brick building, accessed via an industrial service lift that we got stuck in, is surely one of the most exciting wardrobes in the country. With many productions only running for a short time, this is where costumes come to find a new lease of life. Private hire (full outfit with accessories) is just £60 for a week. Outfits are worn at themed parties, charity balls, and occasionally get a second go at stardom when they’re hired for TV and film productions.
Inside, rails stretch all the way to the ceiling and the length of the room. Garments are organised by era and bust size; I wandered from simple, economical 1940s tea dresses through full-skirted Victorian gowns and into the large fantasy section, replete with bubblegum-coloured fairy dresses, suits of armour and tough, Daenerys Targaryen-esque leather gowns. The department is run by Luda Krzak and her 30-strong team of volunteers, many of whom have backgrounds in textile production, and are on hand to alter, repair, and even custom-make garments. The Royal Exchange’s intimate in-the-round stage means that you’re almost always within sniffing distance of the actors (Maxine Peake has great perfume), so this team are responsible for making sure all the costumes can stand up to close scrutiny.
This care and intricacy became clear when I tried on my first costume of the day, a decorative soldier’s uniform based on an early 19th-century style – a rich blue velvet jacket trimmed with gold brocade, a ruffled shirt, and a helmet with a big black plume. As introductions to an actor’s wardrobe go, I had predicted this would be an easy start – nothing to trip over, no high heels – but it had its share of problems. The shirt buttoned up at the back, so I needed help getting into it, and the helmet kept slipping off my head. It’s a less fidgety person than me who could keep this in place for hours and show any emotion other than “must concentrate”.
Next, the medieval section, and a gown reminiscent of my own prom dress (though, less flammable). Made from heavy red silk, it had a gathered A-line skirt, delicate golden embroidery, a high stand-up collar and pointed long sleeves. With a flower headdress wedged firmly on my head, it was instant Maid Marian. But also remarkably warm. Pressing on, and into the Elizabethan era – this bunch really had an eye for excess. It was a two-person job to lace up the corset and fasten the ruff, and remarkably tricky to navigate stairs when I couldn’t see my feet beneath the hooped petticoat and massive skirt. I was more comfortable and less sweltering than I had imagined, but – word to the wise – it does take a while to get used to the feeling of icy blasts of wind on your bare behind.
Skipping forward just over 300 years, we arrived in the 1920s – one of the most popular periods for the department. The dresses, Krzak says, are “comfortable and practical – that [interest] definitely picked up even more after The Great Gatsby was released.” Sure enough, my outfit – a mid-calf golden silk slip, beaded oil-slick blue gown and a bronze beaded jacket – was the first women’s costume of the day I could sit down in without my skirt taking up three seats. My final ensemble came from the 1950s, a full-length gown with a white skirt, black spotted mesh upper and sleeves, topped off with a wide-brimmed black hat. Finally – something I could work with (and in). I felt like Audrey Hepburn, or as if I should be off to the polo. I could pitch features to my editor in this!
So what did I learn from my day of playing dress-up? That actors – on top of leaving their talent open to stinging criticism every time they stand on a stage – are capable of more focus than I had ever imagined, because they’re doing it under layers of tulle and stiffened linen and heavy hats. That to do it, there is a team behind them who don’t often get the same kind of recognition. And that – fun as it was – I couldn’t wear this stuff and nail work at the same time. They deserve a round of applause.