Royal Shakespeare Company Costume Exhibition

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon will this month open its doors for a different sort of show – an exhibition dedicated to costumes.

From left to right: Rosalind costume from Love’s Labour’s Lost worn by Nina Sosanya, 2008; Adriana costume from The Comedy of Errors worn by Judi Dench, 1976; Prospero costume from The Tempest worn by Derek Jacobi, 1982

In Stitches is a display of Royal Shakespeare Company costumes – and will give visitors the chance to see and celebrate 35 rarely displayed pieces from the past 60 years.

The costumes were all hand-crafted in Stratford-upon-Avon and have been worn on stage in performances by some of Britain’s most accomplished and popular actors, including Sir Ian McKellan, Dame Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart.

“We know from our theatre tours and open days that people love to know how we create our costumes,” says Alistair McArthur, RSC Head of Costume. “From the industrial strength magnets we use for quick changes, to the techniques used to distress fabric, boots and shoes, people often imagine that costumes are held together with a bulldog clip, but nothing is further from the truth.  All of our costumes are made exceptionally well as they can be on stage day after day for well over 100 performances.  The skill and expertise that goes into making them is extraordinary and it’s wonderful that we can share these skills through In Stitches.”

The costumes are just a small fraction of  the items in the RSC’s Collection and Costume Store, which houses 30,000 garments.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon ©VisitBritain

The exhibition is compartmentalised, with the first show Into the Wild opening first on 20 April to coincide with Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations in Stratford.  This part will show how designers answered themes of nature from Shakespeare’s plays – a highlight is the resplendent 1976 costume worn by Judi Dench in The Comedy of Errors, which incorporates an intricate butterfly motif.

Then, from 4 May, a further part of the exhibition opens. Costume Craft details the process of costume and wig making from start to finish, as well as showing how garments are maintained. Techniques that the costume team have in their repertoire – from tailoring to corsetry and millinery – are explored in depth, reminding visitors the range of craftsmanship that is used on a daily basis in the RSC’s costume department.

Visitors can even try on a professional theatre costume in a dedicated ‘dressing up’ area. The entire experience offers a fascinating insight into the creativity and skillfulness of the RSC costume team.

In Stitches also marks the launch of the Made in Stratford appeal, which aims to raise £1 million to support the RSC’s costume-making legacy and all the skills and training that continue to be needed. You can donate here.

In Stitches from 20 April at Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Tickets: 0844 800 1110

What’s the best costume you have ever seen on stage? Let us know by tweeting us @BritainMagazine