Pantomime Costumes - What to do if it's your job to arrange them!

You’ve booked the theatre. You’ve chosen the pantomime script. You may even have started rehearsals, and hopefully you’ve started taking advance bookings on those tickets! Everything’s falling into place, leaving you now free to begin thinking about playing with pretty ballgowns, getting shoes to match, checking there are enough sequins and feathers – and that’s just the Dame!!!

In the madness to get a show off the ground, the role of organising costumes for the company can be a thankless task, but if you do a little bit of research and take a bit of organised time, it can be one of the most rewarding backstage jobs! Let’s face it, audiences are waiting to see Cinderella’s ballgown; the explosion of colour from the first company number; the Dame’s fabulous creations; and possibly a dragon, or a giant, or any number of fantastical creatures. The focus of the audience is often on what your cast are wearing, so it pays to make sure costumes fit as well as possible and that there’s plenty of colour to keep the children hooked – and budget allowing, a change of costume to signify passage of time and a big send off with a colour-themed finale!

Let’s assume you’re new to costuming a show. Perhaps the first job is to read, and re-read, the script to help you formulate a Costume Plot. Most costumiers worth their salt should know a character breakdown just from knowing the author of a script, but it will definitely help you and your team / supplier to check that nothing has been missed. Make notes where specific costumes or scenes dictate what costumes should be worn, if there’s a passage of time, or a disguise that means a character should change outfit and so on. If you have budget constraints, go back over your lists to see if and where any cuts can be made – e.g. perhaps just the twenty changes for the Dame, as opposed to his usual forty seven?!

Once you’re happy with your costume plot, you’ll need to measure your cast. This is where the tantrums begin: “I’m not a 40” waist?!” As Wardrobe Manager, you’ll need to learn quickly to humour your cast. No one really cares what size people are – the important thing here is to get accurate measurements, so that when pantomime costumes arrive prior to the show everything fits as it should. There may be the odd alteration required, which is to be expected. You may make a note of their dress or trouser size when taking the physical measurements, but don’t be tempted to trust high street sizes as you’ll be guaranteed to see floods of tears on costume fitting. A size eighteen lady can look as glamorous as a size ten, but you’ll need to give the sewer / costumier time and the right information to pull the costume that will flatter your leading lady or chorus member, whatever their size. When this job is done right, you will be the most popular person in the room: let them know bunches of flowers/boxes of chocolates will be gratefully received!

If you are sourcing costumes from a professional costumier, you may not need to do much immediately after submitting your information, as they should have all your accurate measurements and requirements, so they can be getting on with the project. Ask them if principals can have a fitting: knowing that quick-changes etc can be easily facilitated will put your actors’ minds at rest, and again save you a barrage of questions on costume collection. If, during this time, any musical numbers are cut, or people drop out, or pregnancy bumps start showing sooner than expected, let your costumier know! Again, efficient communication will be the biggest factor in saving you those last minute headaches!

If you’re producing your own costumes, talk to your Director and or Choreographer so you have a say in the design process, so that you end up with a set of usable costumes, which will allow what is required in the action of the show. The use of colour in the right places will create a massive impact. A finale scene awash with one dominant colour, or a strong colour palette, may be out of your budget, but it will be the last thing your audience see and remember, and perhaps even help towards ticket sales for the following year?

If you’re planning a photo shoot for publicity, ensure you’re in the loop so that costumes for this extra date are not left until last! It’s no use having a venue booked, all your volunteers there, a photographer and the local press, if your wardrobe team haven’t been given notice to get costumes sorted. Good costumes in a good photo in the local press will do wonders for your ticket sales (possibly giving you that little bit extra the Treasurer was holding back from your budget).

We’ve now reached costume collection night! Getting costumes will help everyone really get into character on stage and lift the remaining rehearsals a good few notches. Drill it into your cast that if there are any problems they need to let you know immediately. Otherwise, you can guarantee to hear on opening night “I wasn’t sent any trousers.” These last few days are vital to give your sewing team / costumier chance to get any final adjustments sorted, or send additional costumes that you may have forgotten.

Unfortunately, your job is not done once the show opens. Overzealous dance moves can result in the odd split seam, or make-up rubbed down the front of a costume will need to be removed. Take charge of this to avoid any damage to costumes that may either be hired, or you may be storing to use again in a few years’ time. Care taken at this stage will not go unnoticed.

As you approach the last night of the show, you’ll hopefully be able to do an efficient reverse of costume collection night. Asking your cast to bring costumes to you as they are finished with allows you to check everything back in good time. Make notes of any damage and missing items, then you can pack costumes with your team so that you’re not left with a pile of laundry to sort while everyone else has gone to the after-show party!

You’ll hopefully get a week off at this point: time to start planning next year……!!

Nick Hedley
Molly Limpet’s Theatrical Emporium

"The wittiest and most original writer working in pantomime today."
AS Magazine

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