One of the most common questions we get as part of the Live History team is “What about costumes?”. With a regular roster of almost 20 actors that are very different from each other, and theatrical seasons that cover anywhere from the late 1200s to the late 1900s (and counting), it can be a little daunting to make sure that everyone is costumed appropriately for each show, as well as somehow make sure that you have enough back up pieces in case you accidentally iron through your costume shirt five minutes before the show (has happened) or have three performers who were all planning on wearing the same pair of pants from the costume suitcase and had not told each other until an hour before the show (Please refer to this interview for the Blue Pants Stand Off). So how do we do it without travelling with 18 wheelers full of costumes, and where do they all come from?
Let’s start with the HOW:
“Basics” or “Base Pieces” are the first part of this puzzle. Our historical performers are asked to show up at the venue with their base pieces ready to go. These pieces, which are usually black slacks, black dress shoes and a white dress shirt for the male characters, and characters shoes, nylons and a white camisole for the female characters, make up the base of any costume. They work well under long skirts, blouses, corsets, dinner jackets, and military uniforms, and they help to make sure each actor is comfortable and able to move well through the venue (There’s nothing like helping actors in and then out of long boots that are a size too small, especially when you have a plane to catch. There have been many conversations about just wearing knee high military style boots through security if they don’t come off on the next try). These colours also double as our out of costume “uniform”. If you are ever waiting at the door for Live History performers, and you aren’t sure who is coming, just look for the group of people approaching you in monochrome, usually with many bags.
If you are wondering how we pack it all, I would refer you to “My Backpack”, in which I explain that your base black leggings can double as PJ pants and work out clothes, as well as hand wash and hang to dry over night. I also encourage our performers on tour to consider wearing maxi skirts and top hats as part of their regular attire.
In addition, we also rent/buy/acquire what we call our “generics” . Long plain skirts, non descript blouses, cravats, suit jackets that could cover several decades with a button addition, etc. The actors generally know which generics fit them, and we also know which generics fit the same actors, to make packing for a show easier. Of course, these days, with Co-vid measures in place, sharing costumes will not be protocol. However, the generics will still show up in shows, as they are used, along with the bases, to build costumes and change characters, by adding jewellery, scarfs, cravats, different hair styles, all while using the same piece. A hat and an unbutton jacket can change an outfit from formal to informal, and change a character from wealthy to not well off very quickly.
1.There are many places that we source our costumes from. In the first year or two, when the venues and time periods were not as plentiful, we just rented them all from local theatres, or borrowed them from the venues themselves, as many historic houses had some left over from when they had multiple historic interpreters working there. However, as the teams began to travel more, and split up, as well as work in venues that didn’t have costumes, we started to build a stock pile. We’d rent them from local costume houses, and other theatres that have a permanent location and more costumes than they know what to do with(A blessing!) . We still rent from time to time these days, when we get a show that will be a one off, such as the need for a nun costume, or a show in the 1970s when the majority of our shows take place before then. The local costume houses at headquarters are very used to my random emails that start with “I’m hoping you happen to have a…” followed by a strange request (the strangest I can think of was asking for a crystal ball, which we ended up buying and now lives in the collection).
2. Buying. These same costume houses tend to have once a year sales, in which one of our lucky roster actors usually get a budget, a wish list, and some what of a free pass to buy up whatever they saw the need for in the previous season, as well as anything that catches their eye. A lot of our generics have come to us this way, as well as jewellery and our cravats. We will also purchase generics from regular stores, both online and in person, if we feel like they are going to be something that are used time and time again (Refer to the Blue Pants Stand Off, above) , as well as from garage sales and thrift stores. Some of these places have amazing finds!
3. Donations. It doesn’t take too long when running a theatre company when people happen to “think of you” whenever they are cleaning out their closest, having a garage sale, have acquired a strange piece from someone else, or are simply inspired while shopping. I love these pieces, because there’s almost always a story attached to them. My Grandmother, who is the reason for Live History (a story for another post), has donated jewellery and long skirts and blouses whenever she downsizes, as have many of my family members. Actors have “accidentally” left costume pieces that they had for another show in the costume suitcase, and other theatre companies have very kindly thought of us first when they were cleaning out their storage houses. The majority of these pieces find a home with us, and end up travelling with their stories, and those that don’t fit end up donated as well.
4. They just show up. I haven’t proven this theory yet, but every time I go through the costume collection, there are pieces that I can’t remember getting. I’m going to assume that spirits of the characters we play approve of what we are doing and have left replicas of their personal wardrobe amongst the donations as a token of their appreciation.
Thanks for reading, folks! We hope to see you in the past very soon!