Confessions of a Costume Designer

EMMA HOLLOWS tells us what it’s like being backstage and dealing with the cast’s dirty laundry.

ADC Cambridge Costume Theatre

Emma Hollows, Costume Designer for ADC successes such as The Footlights’ Spring Review, and Pantomimes of 2013 and 2014, tell us what it’s like to be a Costume Designer in Cambridge. This term, Emma is Costume Designer for the Lent Term Musical, RENT.

Not many people get to know costume designers; we’re those mysterious people doodling in coffee shops, who send emails asking for measurements and then appear at the dress rehearsal laden with 800 bags. We rarely get a mention in reviews and people only know your name if they are also in the theatre bubble.

Anyone can clothe a cast but it takes time to do it well, and it is often when it is done well that the costumes are least noticeable. I once read a quote from designer Theoni Aldredge which really stuck with me: “If they don’t notice the clothes, you’re doing your job”. Accuracy is key. Every time I get a script I read through it, engrossing myself in the characters, their whims and whimsies; because for a character to be believable onstage you have to imagine their entire life offstage.

Generally, a director will have an idea of what sort of aesthetic they are after, and then it is up to you to research the time period, the fashions of each character’s age, occupation, region etc. Costume design is not merely creating a piece of art but telling a story, and everything down to the style of a button or placing of a lock of hair matters.

Emma’s latest work on ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’

I have been performing in theatres since I was 3 years old but it wasn’t until I came to Cambridge that I tried costuming a show. I was nervous to do an entire show myself at first so started out as Assistant Costume Designer on a couple of shows but have now tried most things from operas to plays to pantomimes.

Most of my time as a costume designer is spent rummaging through costume stores, at charity shops, or sat at a sewing machine. Having my own sewing machine definitely gives me more freedom to make whatever I want, or adapt pieces I have bought, especially when I want to experiment.

Emma worked extremely hard on the elaborate Emperor’s costume.

Every show brings its own challenges, but that’s part of the fun. On my first show I was given less than 11 hours to alter 14 pairs of trousers the night before the dress rehearsal, along with other odd jobs, which definitely set me up for the fast pace and adaptive nature of being a costume designer.

Things can change days before curtain up or even during the run; I have to be prepared to have entire characters cut and see hours of work discarded. This particularly happens with original writing, especially with sketch shows when I am prepared for tentative phone calls from the writers the morning of a performance asking if it is possible to get 6 new costumes sorted by that evening. Knowing the stock and opening times of every local shop can come in very handy.

Finding a man-sized thong was one of Emma’s greatest challenges.

As a costume designer I live in limbo between the cast and crew, which is great because I get to meet everyone, hanging out at rehearsals, helping with costume changes during the run and being on hand for any fixes or alterations.

Fitting it in around a degree can be a challenge as I pretty much write off doing any essays during the week before the show but it is nice to have a break from thinking about Marx, Engels, or Hayek for a bit.

Despite these challenges, most of the costume designers I’ve met during my time here are going the extra mile to source the dress with that exact neckline, or in just the shade that their leading lady would wear. If we do our job right you won’t notice a thing during the performance, but you won’t be able to picture the character any other way once you’ve left.


(Photo credit: Johannes Hjorth)