From Margot Fonteyn’s famous fire-red costume from The Firebird to Nureyev’s pink silk and jewel tunic from 1975’s Romeo and Juliet, it isn’t just the dancers of the Royal Ballet who exhibit great technical virtuosity. The army of designers, pattern-cutters, seamstresses and wardrobe managers who work at the Royal Opera House are also masters of their craft, creating and preserving thousands of costumes in the company archives. This autumn the vast collection, housing costumes dating as far back as 1861, has been moved to a new, custom-built home at Bob and Tamar Manoukian Costume Centre at the High House Production Park in Thurrock. The centre is open for public tours, so you can see for yourself both the work of the 160-strong costume department and many of the iconic costumes from productions past.
With up to 600 costumes required for a typical production at the Royal Opera House, the figures and volumes themselves are astounding. Every costume is custom-dyed to a specific colour, with the Dye Shop working three to six months in advance, before the fabrics are handed to the pattern-cutting team. Fittings and refittings on the dancers and singers themselves are the final stage to making sure the costume not only looks the part, but also stands up to the extreme wear and tear that the dancer’s body and movement will place on it.
As the Royal Opera House repertoire consists of much-loved classics as well as new commissions, the reviving and maintenance of existing costumes is also a huge job, with some 20 staff working in the ‘revival workroom,’ repairing and refitting classic costumes to the latest generation of performers to take on the roles. Now balletomanes can see not just costumes made famous by the greatest dancers and singers of the last 100 years, but also the initial designs from which they were created and some work in progress with a tour of the new facility.
For information on the next tour dates and other events at the new costume centre, see their website. And if you want a taste of the work that goes into the costumes for a single production, then this short film about the costume designs for George Balanchine’s ballet Jewels gives some great, colour-based insight.