Costume from 'Actor'. Photo by Will Moore.

When we go to see a play, what we’re seeing is the finished product. The set, the props, and perhaps most important of all, the costume, all contribute to our perception of the world of the play outside of the dialogue. The role of the costume designer is one that is all too often forgotten by the audience – although being too absorbed in the play to remember that’s what it is can hardly be said to be a bad thing. Nevertheless, the costume designer’s role is crucial, and certainly not an easy one.

Charlotte Baker works in costume design for St Andrews’s Mermaids. ‘The great thing about costuming is that it’s the final dimension to a character,’ she says. ‘I’ve had experience acting myself and I know that, for me, it’s when I put on the costume that I finally feel like who I’m supposed to.’ It’s important for Charlotte when planning costumes to sit in on a few rehearsals to get a feel for individual characters so that she can outfit them accordingly. Directors, of course, will have a strong input and their vision must also be taken into consideration.

There are also technical aspects to be considered. Certain patterns and materials may not have been around at the time in which the play is set; it’s little historical details like this that are able to lead to a seamless evocation of the time and place, while glossing over them could have the opposite effect. Zips are to be avoided at all costs – ‘According to the laws of theatre, they will break on the first night,’ says Charlotte. It’s key to keep in mind the physical set-up of the play: the set, and more importantly, the lighting. Chiffon skirts, according to Charlotte, can lead to the actresses revealing a bit more than they expected to – which could seem somewhat out of place in a period drama.

Costume from 'The Libertine'. Photo from On the Rocks.

Costumes can range from the deceptively simple to the opulent and elaborate. Actor, a production in which Charlotte was not working behind the scenes but on the stage itself, had its cast clad in plain T-shirts reading simply ‘Actor’ or ‘Actress’ or ‘1, 2, 3’ and so on. Little touches such as scarves and aprons were added to distinguish characters from one another; The Tribe said that this technique allowed ‘the original talent of the performers to dominate the stage’. By contrast, The Libertine at last year’s On The Rocks Festival evoked an extravagant world through rich fabrics and attention to detail and realism. ‘This is one of the most important things for a costumer: making things look realistic, but doing it as creatively as possible.’

If anyone is interested in getting involved in costuming or costume design, please contact Charlotte Baker at cnb2@st-andrews.ac.uk.

Alex Mullarky