Performance Costume: My Degree and Me

In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Hannah Oliver

I don’t know how many nine year olds get annoyed at pantomimes. All I know is that my Brownies visit to the Christmas pantomime when I was in Year 4 did not end well. They didn’t change the stage set once. It made me very angry.

It might (or might not) be a good idea to mention, too, that even though I’m not a Christian, I used to go to Sunday school just so I could do the pantomime at Christmas. I was obsessed with the costumes, the sets, the ins and outs of backstage theatre…I still am. It was choosing to study Textiles in Year 10 for GCSE that did it. First, you get to study fashion modules, but then by A Level you get to make costumes for the stage. I fell in love, and now I study Performance Costume at Edinburgh College of Art.

mollyEvery piece of theatre, every TV series, every film, is research for my degree. That sounds sad, but it’s not. If you think I was judgmental as a nine year old at the pantomime, you should see me now. If the costumes aren’t good, the film is no good. My favourite things to watch are the old musicals with the huge, swirling dresses in loads of different colours: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Calamity Jane, that sort of thing. I also know all the words to the songs, much to my flatmates’s entertainment.

For example, my most recent module was called Not the End of the World, and I got really, really into Game of Thrones. My friends had been telling me how good it was for years, but being stubborn as I am, I was sure it was shit. When my tutor saw my Medieval-influenced take on my project, she suggested I watched it, so I resigned myself. Two weeks later, me and my boyfriend Simon, had watched all four series. Oops.

michelecarragherembroideryThe thing is, there’s so much more to the Game of Thrones costumes than it is possible to see on the screen. They have their very own embroiderer, Michele Carragher, to create the dresses and war dress. You may, if you have eagle eyes, spy some animal motifs on Sansa’s wedding dress in the series.

But it wasn’t until I did my background research that I discovered the intricacy of Carragher’s and the costume designer, Michele Clapton’s work. Sansa’s crest is a meticulous crossover of the fish – for her mother’s house, the Tullys of Riverrun – and the direwolf – for her father’s house, the Starks of Winterfell. But because she is marrying Tyrion, House of Lannister, the embroidery weaves itself up to the collar of her wedding gown where a lion has ensnared the wolf and the fish in its claws.

Amazing. This level of detail is never given enough time on screen, but as Clapton has said, she wanted her costumes to tell stories rather than simply sit and look pretty.

In all this telling stories and embroidering and costume-making, my absolute favourite thing is ballet. If I had my way, I would just make ballet costumes all the time. The fact that I’ve never attended a ballet lesson in my life makes no difference. All I want to do is make tutus. Featured below is the ballet costume I designed and made for my final piece in Textiles A Level. Last year, I went one up and made a massive, blue pom-pom tutu. The project was to make an alien. So I made my alien relevant to tutu-making.

tutu 3Last month I was lucky enough to intern at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and work with the makers and designers of both the opera and the London Ballet Company. It was like I’d finally made it big-time. I worked with the costume designer for the new Pan film, who also did the costumes for the new Alice in Wonderland ballet coming to the Royal Opera House in the new year.

I found out that there are only four tutu specialists in the whole of the UK – and none in Scotland. For the London Ballet Company, each custom-made tutu must be measured and sewn exactly one and a half inches a pleat. It takes over your life.

There are down-sides to performance costume, and to the industry. Designers would tell makers in the Royal Opera House to make costumes, and then change their minds and get them to make these time-consuming pieces all over again in a different style, or material … the same attitude is taken at degree level, and the finances can be a nightmare.

balletAt the moment, I’m spending approximately £200 of my own money on each costume. This is on top of the £9000 a year I spend on tuition fees, coming to study in Edinburgh from England. As well as this, I’m expected to pay for all my sketchbooks, printing, binding, haberdashery and fabric samples. And the hiring out of the college of art studio I share with all of my fellow Performance Costume 3rd Years, has just come to a bill of £106 for this semester. It’s not cheap.

Sometimes, the added costs force you to be more creative with how you come up with ideas to make your costumes. For example, instead of using leather for my Samurai- and Medieval-inspired Not the End of the World piece, which costs £35 a metre, I instead bought a much cheaper cotton with metal strands in. I then dipped the material in wax to get a stiff, beaten look, and then hardened and distressed it to get the look of a weather-beaten hunter’s jacket.

However, sometimes it’s hard not to let the costs get you down. It’s not something I or many of my peers were made aware of before we enrolled, but it’s the same across the UK. If the material is not of good quality, then your mark is lower, so you’re constantly compromising with yourself and your tutors.

But as I found at the Royal Opera House, this kind of expenditure is industry wide – when it’s not your money being used to experiment and create and throw away and begin again, it’s still somebody’s. You have to try to get rid of those thoughts and focus on creativity, or you’ll explode.

bo 3Speaking of creative ideas, my mam has a good one for funding my fourth year costumes: she’s planning on having my little cavalier King Charles spaniel, Bo, pregnant by next season. So I guess this article should be entitled ‘Little Pedigree Puppies Paid for my Education’. The Sun would love it.

I’m only joking. When there’s a will there’s a way. As my Brownie leader discovered when I was nine – I really couldn’t be doing anything else.

Molly Batey

*Words by Hannah Oliver. Yes, she is indeed featured here wearing a massive, blue pom-pom.

Molly Batey, in case you hadn’t realised by now, studies Performance Costume at Edinburgh College of art. She doesn’t like students. She also doesn’t like cheese; the fact that she and PTL’s Editor of FILM, THEATRE and TELEVISION managed to consume an entire camembert in ten minutes earlier this week is irrelevant. Shhh. Molly owns a beautiful dog (“baby”), a ginger cavalier King Charles spaniel, who is essentially Molly in dog form, and in other Molly news, Tough Mudder is officially for sissies – bring on the 225-obstacle Rat Race Dirty Weekend!

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(Images sourced from: Also featuring costume design by Molly Batey, the Royal Opera House, and 3rd Year Performance Costume students exhibited at the ECA Performance Show 2014 through Edinburgh College of Art.)