Costumes tend to be a little overlooked, but to me, they are an important element of a performance. Costumes give us clues to the character’s identity; they convey information about the character, even before the actor has opened his mouth to speak.
According to Ann Curtis, who designed the costumes for the 1972 production of Antony and Cleopatra, the world of ancient Egypt (in particular the ancient Egyptian script) provided inspiration for her designs. However, she did not want to be slavishly accurate. The costuming was meant to signify two opposing worlds: the heavy-handed, bureaucratic world of the Romans, and the sensual world of the Egyptians. Ann Curtis explains: “The Romans in the togas were the equivalent of men in grey suits whereas Egypt had the allure of magic, heavy perfume and foreignness about it which tried to get away from Roman governance.” Colours were also used to emphasise two opposing worlds, which Charles Lewsen of The Times commented on: “While the stark black and white of the Romans’ clothes was modified only by a formal purple, Cleopatra’s court disported themselves in pinks, mauves and oranges.”
Talking to Jean Hinton, who worked in the RSC costume department during the late sixties to mid seventies, made me aware of how much work went into the making of the costumes, in particular the costumes for the 1972 production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’.
In those days, Jean told me, all the costumes were handmade. One person worked on one costume from start to finish in contrast to current practice where one person completes the same part of each costume. The job satisfaction of creating a whole costume and not just individual parts must have been much greater back then than it is now. Jean remembers: “In those days it was more haute couture but today it’s more like factory line. Going to the opening night was so exciting. I wore long beautiful dresses and seeing my costume on stage was so satisfying.” Jean particularly enjoyed working with delicate fabrics like the costume for Cleopatra, which was made of silk jersey and had a hand-stitched gold braid. Creating the costume worn by Cleopatra in the combat scenes was very challenging. Made of many metal discs, Jean had to find a special thread, which wasn’t cut through by the metal easily. And of course all the metal discs were sewn together by hand; no machines were used.
In our collections there are costume designs, sketches, costumes, and production photographs of actors wearing the costumes so you can trace the journey from that first sketch to the finished costume.