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Shakespeare-by-Design: That Essential Support

By comparing costumes in the RSC collection with production archives held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the 'Shakespeare by Design' team was able to find some discrepancies and correct documentation.

Robyn Greenwood

Costumes are subject to a rigorous life on stage but what happens to them after the end of a production? At the RSC the life of the costume continues and it is transported to a new home. Typically, costumes will make their way to either:

  1. The Costume Store where they are washed and hired out to film, TV and theatre producers, schools, amateur dramatic groups, etc.
  2. The Collection if they are deemed ‘iconic’ or have a strong association with a famous actor, designer or director.
  3. The Stage where they are re-used to create new costumes for future productions.

We have learned in the past six months, however, that the costumes’ journey is not always straightforward. It is not uncommon to find a garment in the collection that does not relate to a famous actor/director or vice versa in the costume store. In fact, some items in the collection are not associated with a particular person or have been mislabelled altogether — somehow losing their way in transit from the stage to the collection.

One of the aims of the Shakespeare-by-Design project is to check each costume we review against the production’s original archival material held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. These include costume designs, costume bibles, production photographs, promptbooks, programmes, videos and records. We call these resources the ‘essential support’ for the garment as they provide us with a context for the costume and allow us to link those that have gone astray back to their original associations.

Take for example Stella Gonet’s coat from Adrian Noble’s 1994 ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ [image 1]. In the collection this garment was labelled as having belonged to Alex Jennings as Theseus in the same production. It was not until we checked the coat against the production photographs held at the SBT that we caught the discrepancy and were able to re-catalogue it under the correct name. This will allow us to use the costume more effectively in future interpretation and study.

Image 1: Stella Gonet [left] and Alex Jennings [right] as Hippolyta and Theseus in Adrian Noble’s 1994 ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. ©SBT
Image 1: Stella Gonet [left] and Alex Jennings [right] as Hippolyta and Theseus in Adrian Noble’s 1994 ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. ©SBT

A similar situation occurred with Judi Dench’s costumes for Greg Doran’s 2003 production of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. Here, we discovered another cataloguing discrepancy where the headdress worn with the red and black embroidered dress shown in image 2 was said to be part of the dark blue costume shown in image 3. After consulting the costume bible— a comprehensive list of costumes worn by actors in a production— and the production photographs, we learned that this was not the case. Although the headdress for the embroidered dress appeared in the collection, the dress itself is kept in the costume store. Identifying this discrepancy has allowed us to flag-up gaps in the collection policy and will be of use in future collecting decisions.

Image 2: Judi Dench in Greg Doran’s 2003 ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. Costume consisting of red and black dress with headdress. ©RSC
Image 2: Judi Dench in Greg Doran’s 2003 ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. Costume consisting of red and black dress with headdress. ©RSC
Image 3: Judi Dench in Greg Doran’s 2003 ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. Dark blue dress. ©SBT
Image 3: Judi Dench in Greg Doran’s 2003 ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. Dark blue dress. ©SBT

The ‘essential support’ archival documents held at the SBT allow us to enhance the information we hold on all of the costumes held in the RSC Collection and allow us to see new potential ways of accessing and using the collection.


Maggie Wood and Robyn Greenwood
‘Shakespeare by Design’ Team