1963 - 2014

Costume at the National Theatre

National Theatre

“Laurence Olivier would put on his costume and when the wardrobe was right, he was in character.”
Michael Mann, film director, writer & producer 

The Costume Department is where each element of what an actor wears on stage is brought together.

This exhibit explores the work of that department and the skills that go into making the world of a play.

“Our main protagonists and the things that happen to them are the matter of the story. As we’re watching the show we’re aware of their emotional journey through it and a lot of it can be seen in the visual world of their costumes.”  

Rae Smith, Designer

A short film introducing the Costume, Wigs and Make-up department at the National Theatre.

Costume informs the audience about a character, their social position, personality, and contributes to the creation of the world of a play.

For many actors, putting on their costume is an important part of getting into character before going on stage. It can affect their posture and how they move. Sometimes they will change costume several times during a show, demonstrating the passage of time, a transformation of their character, or to become different characters.

The costume department of the National Theatre has fifty-four members of staff who work in four main areas: Costume Production; Running Wardrobe; Wigs, Hair & Make-up; and Costume and Prop Hire. It is home to a rich mix of skills including: tailoring; dying and printing; wig-making; costume props; ladies making; hair-dressing; buying; alterations; dressing; make-up; supervising shows and maintenance of the costumes. This team service the 20 – 26 shows staged at the National Theatre each year as well as the West End and touring productions.

A ladies maker in the costume workshop at the National Theatre
The wigs department at the National Theatre

“As a maker, you’ve got to be very brave, open-minded and confident. The whole idea, I believe, is that the realising of the design happens throughout, responding and adapting to the rehearsal process.” 

Rae Smith, Designer

“Actors rely on their costume to help create their character. When they put their costume on, they get into character. It is part of their ritual, getting into costume every night before the show, even sometimes doing the warm up in their costume.”

Carol Lingwood, Head of Costume

From period plays to productions that employ doubling - where an actor plays multiple roles - the shape of a costume helps an audience establish when a play is set and differentiate between characters.

Costumes frequently change the shape of an actor, and at times those shapes are used to challenge traditional ideas about sexuality or gender, or create a twist on traditional period shapes. This can be done with the structure of undergarments, extravagant wigs, prosthetics, or costume props such as head gear or armour.

“The silhouette tells you what period you are in. Period silhouette has influenced costume, but it’s actually the clothes that are influenced by the living conditions of the period. People wore their under garments for huge swathes of time. They didn’t take baths because they weren't available. Wigs were worn because people couldn’t wash their hair, so it was in a poor condition. Men’s silhouette is particularly influenced by the period of history and whether men were fighting, riding a horse, or living in the city."

- Carol Lingwood, Head of Costume

A traditional 18th centry frock

“Most of what we do, is about shape-making. That’s where the knowledge of sculpture comes in. It’s about taking somebody’s flat design and make it into a three-dimensional object.”

Reuben Hart, Costume Props

"There are historical aspects to costume: the crinoline, the bustle, the different shapes of corsets, what that does to the figure – brings in the waist or accentuates the bosom. You’ve got to bear in mind the anatomy of the body and movement. We take the essence of the silhouette and make it into a more practical item, that an actor can move in, can have fights in, run up and down stairs in, and quickly change out of.”

Sarah Mercer, Head Ladies Cutter

A ladies maker in the costume workshop at the National Theatre
Traditional 18th century dress, She Stoops to Conquer, 2012

18th-century dress is known for elaborate wigs, detailed embroidery, corsets and full skirts for the women, a full-skirted knee-length coat, breeches and long waistcoat for the men.

For period productions, large quantities of fabrics and trims are often need to be sourced and samples dyed to perfect colour matches. Every detail of each costume will be discussed right down to the very last button. Wigs may need to be made, so heads are measured and styles and colour of hair decided.

She Stoops to Conquer poster, 2012

Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer is a comedic play in which the hero mistakes a private house for an inn, the woman he is intended to marry for a barmaid, and his future father-in-law for the landlord.


It was directed at the National Theatre in 2012 by Jamie Lloyd, and designed by Mark Thompson. His costumes were a central part in the comedy of confusion and mistaken identity, highlighting the difference between city and country, and pointing up issues of class and snobbery.

A video about Mark Thompson's costumes for She Stoops to Conquer, 2012

“It’s an amazing era. The frocks were so big that they affected architecture and furniture. If you look at the doorways they’re bigger so that women with their huge skirts could get through without going sideways. And chairs as well, a lot of them didn’t have arms so the women with their huge dresses could sit down comfortably.”

Liz Honeybone, Senior Dyer

Traditional 18th century male dress in She Stoops to Conquer, 2012
Traditional 18th century men's tricorne hats in She Stoops to Conquer, 2012
Examples of traditional 18th century dress in She Stoops to Conquer, 2012
18th century mantua dress, designed by Mark Thompson for She Stoops to Conquer, 2012

"Even though corsets feel incredibly tight and restricting, it makes you stand differently and sit up. So you actually start to behave – actors say – in a more 18th century way.” 

Mark Thompson, Designer

Between the 1780s and 1800 a noticeable change took place in the female silhouette. The waistline crept higher until it reached the bust. The skirt reduced in width and hoop petticoats, at their widest in the 1740s and 1750s when they could measure over 1.5 metres across, were discarded except at court. In their place crescent-shaped pads were worn at the centre back waist beneath the skirt to help fill out the gathers at the back of the dress. In the 1790s corsets were lightly boned and usually made of linen.

In the theatre, costumes of a period can be used to challenge tradition.

In Mother Clap’s Molly House in 2001, the traditional frock show is turned on its head as the men wear the dresses. The first half of the play affectionately explored transvestite culture of the 18th century, and the second half was set in modern day, commenting on how sexuality has been commoditised. In this production costume plays a central role in presenting the culture of transvestism and challenging traditional ideas of sexuality and gender.

Mother Clap's Molly House poster, 2001
Using costume to challenge traditional gender roles, Mother Clap's Molly House, 2001

“We do things to look historically accurate, but also to suit what the designer wants to say about a play. We change quite a lot to make it look right, to express something artistic.” 

Barbar Fuchs, Head Mens Costume Cutter

Dominic Cooper in Mother Clap's Molly House, 2001
Coram Boy poster, 2005

Coram Boy tells the story of the men who took payment from disadvantaged mothers, offering to take their new born children to the Coram Hospital in London for a fee.

The play is set in the eighteenth century at a time when wealthy families - such as the central Ashbrook family - would have made their fortunes in the slave trade. 

The play follows the stories of Alex Ashbrook and Toby, a boy saved from an African slave ship. 

The production won the 2007 Tony award for Best Costume Design of a Play.

Design sketch for Lady Ashbrook's deconstructed dress in Coram Boy, 2005

The costumes were traditional eighteenth century shapes with a modern twist. Director Melly Still and designer Ti Green wanted to draw attention to the structure of the skirt cages as a symbol for the themes of the play.The traditional layers of Lady Ashbrook's dress were intentionally exposed for both symbolic and practical reasons. The actors didn’t have much time for dress changes, so to achieve Lady Ashbrook's look for the ball scene underpinnings were added over the top of the skirt.

Lady Ashbrook's deconstructed dress in Coram Boy, 2005 

The Light Princess is a modern fable about a princess who cannot keep her feet rooted in reality.

The show featured a corset that helped to ensure that Princess Althea's feet never touched the ground. This was achieved through the use of acrobats manipulating the actress. The corset had to be robust to survive the constant manhandling and also allow the actress to squeeze into and out of very small spaces.

The corset was made using stretchy lycra panels overlaid with plastic boning. A hand hold was required so the acrobats could firmly hold the actress and a clip for a harness was included to create the illusion of flight. All of these practical details were invisible to the audience.

Poster for The Light Princess, 2013
Rosalie Craig as Althea, The Light Princess, 2013

“For The Light Princess there was a mixture of costume influences from Napoleonic through to 15th Century  Venetian dress.”

Reuben Hart, Costume Props

“The original references were true period, but we also knew that the style of that piece had to appeal to a family audience. It needed to have colour references and to look stylised. And there was the challenge of a corset that allowed the actress to fly while remaining within the confines of a period costume.” 

Carol Lingwood, Head of Costume

A video about making Althea's costume
A video about creating King Ignacio's costume

“I think the job of a costume maker isn’t to just reproduce a period costume. Even if it is historically correct on stage, the actors have got to do so much more in it.”

Sarah Mercer, Head Ladies Cutter

Design sketch of the flying corset
Prototype mock up of the flying corset
Rosalie Craig onstage in the flying corset, The Light Princess, 2013
Rosalie Craig flying in the flying corset, The Light Princess,  2013
Reuben Hart making costume props

“As the rehearsal process went on, things would come out - that the cast need to wear flowers and lilies in a lake - so that meant trying to create things that people could put on, to use their hands as puppets.”

Reuben Hart, Costume Props

In A Small Family Business Gerard Monaco played the roles of all five brothers. 

In order to distinguish between characters it was decided to incorporate a larger frame for one of the brothers. 

The actor had a very quick change into this costume and so a pull-on fat suit was used.

Poster for A Small Family Business, 2014
Actor Gerard Monaco in rehearsal for A Small Family Business, 2014
Gerard Monaco, centre, as Orlando Rivetti, A Small Family Business, 2014
Gerard Monaco as another sibling, A Small Family Business, 2014
Gerard Monaco as another sibling, A Small Family Business, 2014


Using the actor’s full measurements, an all-in-one body suit is made from neck to knee, including arms and fitted snugly on to the actor.Picture references are used for the body shape the designer requires and knowledge of anatomy on the part of the maker, from life drawing, is useful to understand how the flesh forms.

To make the fat suit, poly-wadding is glued together in layers, cut into shape and sewn onto the body suit. 

The actor then comes to a fitting with the costume maker, designer and costume supervisor. Here the figure shape was agreed and the necessary adjustments made. 

The fat suit is then steamed with an iron to smooth and refine the curves of the body. This creates a denser, solid body shape and fixes the folds in the flesh exactly as wanted. 

Then we make a slightly bigger Lycra body suit which is fitted over the wadding holding everything firmly in place. This is sewn together with the under body suit at the wrists, knees and neck. Extra stitching is added at various points to accentuate the folds of the flesh and to ensure that they stay fixed in place. 

Finally a zip is inserted in the back of the suit to make it easy to get in and out of quickly.

The costume workshop at the National Theatre
A video of the quick change into the Fat Suit

Military uniforms can vary greatly between regiments, historical periods and countries.

Period uniforms are often neat and well tailored, whereas, modern uniforms are less formal, more battle-ready and camouflaged.

Uniforms can be cut from different fabrics, have particular pockets, wear a recognisable shape of cap or helmet, feature epaulettes or specific badge insignias. When creating a military costume all these differences are observed and replicated correctly, as well as tweaks, such as introducing shoulder-pads to square the shoulders and create a more masculine body shape.

Poster for Othello, 2013

William Shakespeare’s Othello is set in the late sixteenth century during the wars between Venice and Turkey. Othello is a general in the Venetian military and Iago is his captain. Most of the action occurs on the island of Cyprus, where Othello and his army are dispatched to defend against the Turks, but battle is averted by a storm that destroys the enemy ships. 

The director, Nicholas Hytner, staged the play in a contemporary world using modern military dress, familiar to audiences from media images of western troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ready-for-combat costumes suggested the tension amoungst soldiers confined to barracks with no battle to fight. In this way the costumes give context to the fights and skirmishes that break out within the play between soldiers. The actor playing Iago used minor mistakes in his uniform to reflect his character’s casual attitude to the importance of rules and regulations.

Production image from Othello, 2013. The cast wear contemporary military uniforms in a state of battle readiness. 
Interview with Major-General Jonathan Shaw, military advisor on Othello, 2013
Iago and Othello, Othello, 2013
Iago and Othello, Othello, 2013
Rory Kinnear as Iago and cast, Othello, 2013
Adrian Lester as Othello, Othello, 2013
Poster for The Silver Tassie, 2014

“For The Silver Tassie, we copied a uniform jacket from the First World War we had in our costume archive. The costumes we created have no lining and no canvas inside, so they're different from the original uniforms, which have a lot of canvas inside and are quite heavy.”

Barbara Fuchs, Head Mens Costume Cutter

Ronan Raftery as Harry Heegan,The Silver Tassie, 2014

The Silver Tassie is an anti-war play about a young man with hopes of becoming a footballer.  His dreams are crushed when he joins the army to fight in the First World War in 1918 and is injured. 

The four acts of the play move between the boy's domestic environment to the front lines of the battlefield, to a veteran's hospital. The costumes were realistic, recreating the uniforms worn by the young boys conscripted into the army.

World War I military dress in The Silver Tassie, 2014 
Production image, The Silver Tassie, 2014

John Bright designed The Silver Tassie. He had very clear visual references for the Costume Department to follow. He highlighted the John Singer Sargent 1919 painting ‘Gassed’ as a visual guide for the soldier’s uniforms. The painting shows soldiers from the trenches following a mustard gas attack.

Bright wanted to achieve the gritty realism of the impact of going to war on the characters in the play. He oversaw the intense observation of detail in the creation of costumes to help show this.

“The painting has this lovely warm evening light. John Bright honed in on the fact that you can see the lightness on the shoulders and the depth of colour on the trousers. We used ombre to achieve this, a dye technique that creates a shadow effect and makes fabric look faded and sad. Uniforms and gas capes were dyed a base colour and then ombred. Trousers were dyed one solid colour, while tunics were dipped into the dye vats and slowly pulled out, so that they matched the colour of the trousers but became much lighter towards the shoulder.” 

Liz Honeybone, Senior Dyer

Production image, The Silver Tassie, 2014

John Bright spent some time matching the correct type of mud from the trenches to create the world of the play. There is one scene set in the trenches where the characters are sat about talking for a long time. The scene shows the worst elements of the First World War: the cold, the wet and the mud. The uniforms are muddied and bespattered to convey the gruelling experience of young soldiers in the trenches. These aspects of the costume were vital in helping to create sympathy for these men sat about in filthy, damp lice ridden clothes.

“John specifically wanted ‘Somme mud’ which is very chalky and pale. We mixed Fuller’s earth, rosco and PVA. Then we wet the capes to see what colour they went when they were wet. We mixed that colour and painted it on to create the wetness. The mud was the same recipe, but John wanted it to look rained on and really shiny with rain water, so we used clear silicon sealant.”

Liz Honeybone, Senior Dyer

“Of every character, you ask ‘How does he wear his clothes?’ It makes a difference to how we make them, so if someone is a lieutenant, for example, we make him look more square, give him a second shoulder pad, or a more padded chest, so he looks really square and rigid.”

Barbara Fuchs, Head Mens Costume Cutter

Production image from War Horse, 2007
Poster for The Captain of Kopenick, 2013

The Captain of Kopënick is a satire about respect for uniform.

Set in 1910 Prussia, the play follows a petty thief, Wilhelm Voigt, in his struggle to get identity papers. He finds an abandoned military uniform in a fancy-dress shop and discovers that when he wears the uniform people obey him.

The military uniforms in the production emphasise the central theme of the play and the contrast between citizens and military officers. At the end of the play, in a burst of surrealism, a disembodied uniform dances on its own. 

It was a unique challenge for the costume department to make a uniform that dances.

The dancing uniform costume, The Captain of Kopënick, 2013
The dancing uniform costume sketch


Inside the uniform was a hidden dancer. A panel of black mesh, set into the costume at her eye level, allowed her to see without being seen, and she carried sticks which allowed her to move the arms. A frame was made, for the costume, that was strapped to her body, so the structure would stay put. The collar sat on her head with a black insert across the top so that we couldn't see the dancer's hair, and the shoulders of the costume sloped down from the top of the dancer's head. The military uniform was then fitted around this frame.

Fitting for the dancing uniform costume
The first layer of the dancing uniform illusion

‘'Generally you have to make a prototype and you have to road test it with the actor to see that it’s going to work. We go to the fitting with the prototype and the tailor will fit their costume over the top of what you’ve made. Then the tailor can carry on with their job, and I can carry on with mine and no one is holding each other up.’'

Reuben Hart, Costume Prop Maker

Video of the dancing uniform in performance
Creating the layers of the dancing uniform costume

A character on stage is always in costume even if that character is seemingly naked, smeared in mud or blood.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar disguises himself as ‘Poor Tom’, explaining to the audience that he will create the disguise by matting his hair and covering his naked body in mud and filth.

Sometimes an actor may appear naked, but actually have a flesh coloured fabric covering their whole body, or just their genitals.

If a character appears on stage covered in blood they will need two identical costumes, one without blood and one treated in the dye shop to look blood spattered. 

The make-up department will create a mud or  blood effect on an actor’s body and face.

Poster for King Lear, 1997
Paul Rhys as Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, King Lear, 1997

“Theatre designers love stains. Directors do as well. Peter Hall absolutely adored big amounts of blood.”

Liz Honeybone, Senior Dyer

Tom Brooke as Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, King Lear, 2014
Poster for Theatre of Blood, 2005

Theatre of Blood was a stage adaptation of a 70s horror movie of the same title.

It's a bloody tale of retribution about an actor who takes revenge for a lifetime of bad reviews by murdering theatre critics in a series of Shakespearean deaths.

The critics variously meet their end by stabbing, spearing, burning, drowning, having their heart cut out, and being forced to eat a pie with their pet poodles in it.

“With the murders in this play, the illusions had to be integrated into every aspect of the action. For example, a character’s costume has to work with a piece of set or a prop, then, on top of that, the character has to get covered in stage blood. This involves negotiation between four different departments: the costume supervisor, the designer, the propmakers and the illusionist. We all have to talk to each other at every stage, in addition to watching the rehearsals to see what’s going on and what might have changed.” 

Rae Smith, Designer

Rachael Stirling and Jim Broadbent in Theatre of Blood, 2005

“The whole idea, in an Improbable production, I believe, is that the realising of the design happens throughout, responding and adapting to the rehearsal process.”

Rae Smith, Designer

Blood and gore stage effects in Theatre of Blood, 2005
Sally Dexter and Jim Broadbent in Theatre of Blood, 2005

‘'I had to make intestines that fell out of one of the characters and reveals his innards. That was an interesting research project. I solved that problem with phone cord and bathroom silicone sealant.’'

Reuben Hart, Costume Prop Maker

Poster for Medea, 2014
Performance image, Medea, 2014
Performance image, Medea, 2014

The National Theatre dye shop has vats for creating fabric dyes. If, as with the 2014 production of Medea, a costume needs to be blood spattered the dye shop will create the colour of  blood that the designer requires. Blood can appear to be many different colours depending on what colour fabric it is on, whether it is fresh or dried, so the designer will be specific about precisely what shade they want.

Dyer and Textile Artist Rosie Maccurrach demonstrates the dyeing of Medea's bloodied and mud-stained dress, worn by Helen McCrory in the final scenes of the 2014 production of Medea.

‘We have a rinsing vac at the side which heats so you can dye in that. And then we’ve got the mixing desk, which is an industrial stove where we boil up the dyes and do pan dyeing. On the other side there’s two medium sized vats and a very small one, which is useful for little bits and pieces and the odd shirts and things.’

Liz Honeybone, Senior Dyer

The dye vats it the National Theatre Dye Shop
The Dye Shop at the National Theatre

In the 2011 production of Frankenstein actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller played both Victor Frankenstein and the Creature, alternating in the roles from one night to the next. Each actor needed costumes for both characters.

Victor Frankenstein's costumes were relatively ordinary for the period, but the Creature was more complex. Frankenstein makes the creature from the body parts of dead people, sewing them together and then sending electricity through the creature to animate him. So the Creature is, in effect, 'born' during the course of the play, and comes into the world as we all do: naked. 

The stitches, showing where different body parts are sewn together, needed to be visible and the overall effect is of a horrific creation.

Costume design for the Creature in Frankenstein, 2011
Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature
Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature

In Frankenstein there is a unique relationship between the Creature and his creator, Victor Frankenstein. Director, Danny Boyle, wanted to highlight the sense in which the Creature is an aspect of Victor Frankenstein and Victor Frankenstein is a part of the Creature through the doubling of the roles.

Victor Frankenstein costume design, Frankenstein, 2011
Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein 
Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein

The costume for Frankenstein’s Creature was very complex. The creature is created made by Frankenstein sewing together body parts from different bodies and animating this form with huge surges of electricity. So the Creature is covered with horrifying scars.

The Creature starts the play dirty and naked except for a loin cloth covering his genitals. As the actors are naked for a large part of the show it is a very revealing performance, so two make up artists were required to create the Creature before each show. 

These two makeup artists prepared the many scars, bald caps and makeup during the day because they take a few hours to get ready. The application process took two hours as there were lots of different, small aspects to the makeup which had to be layered on. On the head alone there was a bald cap, silicon prosthetics and small clumps of hair and bruising make up. 

There was approximately eight major scars and lots of freehand ones too, applied directly using a kind of liquid silicon. The smaller stitches had to be untied everyday and applied one stitch at a time into the prosthetics. This is a time consuming delicate craft that requires precision.

To add to the complexity, everything had to be double glued to prevent the scars falling off during the performance. This means gluing it, drying it then gluing it again to form a waterproof layer. A special concoction of different chemicals was created to achieve this.

Just as the creation of the costume was lengthly, so was its removal. The actor had to wait while removing agents were soaked in to the make up. The make up artists had to convince the actor not to rip the makeup effects off because it would make their skin sensitise, making the next performance’s application and removal painful.

Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature
Frankenstein's Creature head scars design sketches 
Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature

After a production has ended all the costumes are cleaned and archived in the costume hire department. 

The production designer submits a costume bible to the archive, which itemises every detail of each costume and costume prop in the production. If the National Theatre needs to recreate anything from the show, the process used to create it is well documented. The costume bible includes information about which fabrics were used, where they were sourced from and any bought items.

The National Theatre costume hire department located on the Brixton Road

The hire department houses in the region of 80,000 - 85,000 elements of costume. This rich archive is so vast that it is kept in a different location on the Brixton Road. 

The hire costumes are maintained and managed by a dedicated team. They arrange the hire of costumes to films, to television, to other theatre companies and amateur dramatics societies, schools and companies. The archive costumes are also sometimes used in National Theatre productions, being adapted or used as inspiration for new costumes. It is a valuable resource of inspiration for designers and our costume team.

Treasures in the costume hire department
A member of the costume hire department and customer
Credits: Story

Digital Producer and copywriter — Hannah Gabrielle
Assistant Producer — Emma Reidy
Curator — Carol Lingwood
Senior Digital Producer — Maya Gabrielle
Filmmaker — Joanna Coates

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