Virtuosos of theatre costume change

Success of performance depends on quick actions of wardrobe masters

By Taisia Yevgenieva

Anticipation is high backstage and front of house at the Belarusian State Academic Musical Theatre as the prima ballerina in Spanish Miniatures prepares to appear. Her outfit is being changed by two pairs of hands, as every second is vital. With only 15 seconds to change outfit, efficiency is imperative; otherwise, the performance can be derailed. Audiences barely notice and rarely think of the wardrobe masters ‘on duty’ backstage but the success of any performance depends on their quick actions.

“Translated from French, a wardrobe master is an artist,” notes Galina Serdyukova, the head of the Belarusian State Academic Musical Theatre’s costume department. “Despite designs being created by costume designers and drawings being brought to life in the sewing department, wardrobe masters have plenty of opportunity for creativity. We receive ready-made clothes in which to dress actors but we can ‘polish’ their image with fine detail. Sometimes, we even add vital details. We can make a set of costumes, which aren’t involved in a performance. While designers and seamstresses help a costume appear in the world, we enable it to live.”

Costumes tend to last quite a long time. The theatre has been performing A Night in Venice for 40 years, yet its costumes were only recently updated. If a performance leaves the repertoire, costumes are given to amateur troupes. Nothing is ever simply thrown away, as costumes can always be adapted to create something new.

It’s difficult to imagine how much space is needed to accommodate several hundred items and accessories. In fact, 186 items of clothing, as well as 44 pairs of shoes and 52 hats are used for Twelve Chairs, while Blue Cameo involves 108 pairs of shoes, 33 hats and around 200 costumes.

“Costumes should be in ideal condition before each performance; washed, ironed, repaired, packed and brought to the dressing rooms,” explains Ms. Serdyukova. “A week before the premiere of Twelve Chairs, we were working with actors for 12 hours daily without a break at weekends. Rehearsals took place in the mornings while, in the evenings, we gave performances. We had to be present. During rehearsals, we fit costumes and, sometimes, even mend them. Also, we usually stand backstage during performances to help actors change their outfits.”

The costume department isn’t large, employing just eight wardrobe masters, a repair seamstress, a knitting expert, a boot-maker and a laundry operator. The theatre’s prestige, the artists’ success and audiences’ enjoyment are in their hands.

During the ballet Twelve Chairs, 15 changes of dress occur, each only allowing five minutes, with several actors simultaneously requiring help. Usually, only one wardrobe master is available. In special cases, two or three are allocated to tackle tricky fastenings: snaps, hooks, hook-and-eye fasteners, zips, buttons and lacing. Of course, it’s far more difficult to work with the last two, but the wardrobe master’s experienced hands can cope with almost anything — from long lengths of buttons to corset laces.

“Many want to become wardrobe masters but, of course, some are quickly disappointed and leave,” notes Ms. Serdyukova. “Only those who truly love theatre remain.”

Regarding the professional qualities required of a wardrobe master, Ms. Serdyukova responds, “Responsibility, patience, benevolence and love for the theatre. We often joke that costumes are like mothers to the actors; supporting, calming and taking care of them. Actors are people with fine and sensitive souls.”

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