‘Shakespeare-by-Design’ Project – Second Update
Textiles, whether everyday clothes or theatre costume, are at risk of attack from a variety of sources. Light, insect and animal pests, fluctuating levels of temperature and relative humidity – these are just some of the threats that give curators sleepless nights!
One of the key tasks for the ‘Shakespeare-by-Design’ project team is to assess the condition of the RSC’s costume collection, identify specific issues, and recommend how to address them so that the collection survives in good shape for the future. Actions may range from making new padded hangers to support garments which hang in wardrobes, to identifying key items in need of specialist conservation.
So far (fingers crossed!), we’ve found little evidence of insect damage – Richard Burton’s belt, shown in the image at the top of this blog, is a relatively rare example. Pests like moth and carpet beetle prefer organic material such as wool, fur and feather, and much of the collection is made from man-made fibres.
However, modern materials bring problems of their own. Actors playing Richard III have often been padded out with body suits that help to create the character’s shape.Robyn Greenwood with padded body suit, worn by Alan Howard as ‘Richard III’ in the RSC’s 1980 production. This foam is currently stable!
Unfortunately the foam used to create Anthony Sher’s ‘hump’ in the RSC’s 1984 production has degraded into crumbs and dust. There is nothing we can do about this – the foam is self-destructing!
We’ve looked at single garments that incorporate many different materials – fabrics, plastics, adhesives, wood, metal, paint, dye and decorative effects. Over time these can react against each other, and cause the costume to degrade.
The image below shows a detail of a large flag worn as a drape by the character ‘Queen Margaret’, also in the 1984 production of ‘Richard III’. The thin fabric has been dyed red and blue, and then applied to a stiff backing with an adhesive. These areas are now stiff and wrinkled; they have become brittle and are beginning to crack. Like the foam, there is very little that can be done to reverse this process.
Theatre costume is made for its moment on the stage, and not for posterity. This sets up interesting challenges for how best to preserve these wonderful garments for future use and access!
Maggie Wood and Robyn Greenwood
'Shakespeare by Design' Team