‘Can you go any tighter, Emma?’
It’s not the typical question for ten a.m. on a Wednesday morning, but as I stand in Production Room 2 at Jerwood space, slightly too full of marmite and toast for comfort, this is precisely what David the Corsetiere asks me. I’m being cinched into the bespoke corset he’s making me for Half A Sixpence. My waist is the smallest I’ve seen since I discovered my penchant for late night cheese and crackers, there are whalebones running like rivers through calico from armpit to hipbone, and my boobs are currently floating somewhere around my ears. It’s a beautiful, brilliant period shape and one the costumes will look stunning upon.
I love shows in a corset. I love singing in a corset, and I really love the posture I can only achieve when tightly embraced by one. There’s something rather delicious about the structure of period costume compared to the lycra-heavy clothes we wear these days. I’m sure I wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic if I had to wear it day in day out but for now, it’s a pleasing experience, if somewhat restrictive in the sitting down department.
Learning how to adjust your frame to a costume design is quite a big part of finding a character, in particular making sure that your movements feel natural and unrestricted. We have a rail of practice corsets and skirts in the rehearsal room so cast members can frock up whenever they want. Getting used to how dance numbers and singing feel when your ribs are constricted is vital so that it doesn’t come as a huge shock to the body when we finally begin teching the show in full costume days before we open. Corset practice also makes you very aware of not eating a massive dinner before trying to put one on!
Shoes are also a huge part of building a role. There is a surprising amount of influence on the way a character walks in the shoes that they wear. We will often rehearse dance sequences in trainers for comfort and safety, particularly if trying lifts and jumps, but at some point the shift over to ‘show shoes’ must be made. Beautiful leather brogues and button up boots, small heels and pointed toes, they can all have an affect on the choices you make as a performer. It always amazes me how much the roles I play are discovered so much more through the design of them than just the words on the page.
A plethora of show shoes!
Many of the costumes for Half A Sixpence are being made from scratch as per Paul Brown’s designs, in particular when a number calls for a matching set of costumes for the full company. However a few costume pieces are being sourced from a brilliant costumier in North London called Cosprop. It’s a treasure trove of fabulous fashions from every period you can imagine and on Friday I had the pleasure of spending a few hours playing dress-up in some of their early 1900’s collection.
Before I arrive, Rachel, costume supervisor, and Paul peruse the vast warehouse for several hours, pulling out costumes for numerous characters in the show based on their ideas for the roles and our personal sizes. Obviously there’s no way I’ll fit into a size 2 dress, no matter how much you hoik the corset laces, but there’s always a chance that a slightly too large dress can be adjusted to fit. We need as many options as possible if we’re to find the right outfit not only for the show but also for my character Helen’s particular design so that it works seamlessly with the bespoke items we’re making.
We’ve been working on creating a cohesive colour palette for Helen based around blues, which I’m thrilled about because it’s my favourite colour. This helps to create a constant through line for a character. Entering the changing area at Cosprop I’m greeted by a plethora of outfits in every shade under the sun. Long skirts, buttoned jackets, lace blouses, crepe dresses… you name it, Paul has found it in the store’s vast archive of costumes.
Fabric colour swatches
Laced into my corset, we commence trying on outfits. It’s a fairly speedy process as we’re only looking for a few items to add to my character wardrobe and some items are dismissed rather rapidly, looking better on the hanger than they ever could do on my body shape. Others are put on one side to wait for one of the seamstresses to do a quick unpick, as they’ve previously been adjusted for other actors and need a little attention before we can see if they work. And then there are the items that are simply perfect. The ones that have clearly been waiting impatiently for your arrival as if to say ‘There you are! Where have you been?!’ These are the pieces that make mine and Paul’s eyes light up with glee, the outfits that transport me from Emma to Helen effortlessly and the costumes that are given a green light almost before I’ve finished fastening them up.
Fabric detailing for added pizazz!
Aside from these stunning pieces I’m also having several costumes made by the brilliant David Plunkett, he of aforementioned corset fame. At our first fitting David took a whole new set of measurements due to the way the corset affected my body shape, smoothing and lifting and hugging me into a more streamlined yet womanly version of myself. With this done I was slipped into a couple of different outfits that David had begun making based on my original measurements, before almost an hour of meticulous pinning. Taking tiny amounts of fabric out here and there with pins and tucks, David can thus ensure that the costumes fit in the most flattering manner, highlighting the frame of the performer whilst retaining the lines and fluidity of the era. It’s amazing to watch his already beautiful costumes being perfected and polished with incredibly fine attention to detail. I feel truly honoured to be having costumes made by him and if everyone else’s costumes are as stunning as Helen’s then the audience are in for a real treat!