Creating 1701 costumes for a cast of 21

We love a good challenge down in the costume store, and Singers not Sinners presented us with challenges in spades.  Not only is it set in 1701 – a time when linen, wool and leather ruled the day, but the cast of 16 has expanded to include extras for the town scenes, bringing us to a total of 21 actors and singers to be clothed in an authentic and credible way.

Having passed the script around the group and read through the first scene together to get an idea of the characters and their status, we got organised and pulled out all our books on costumes to see what the average early 18th Century Oldhamer would have worn. In our minds we were thinking ‘Puritan’ and Carol Davies, who co-wrote the script with Livi Michael, steered us towards a palette of muted vegetable dyes.

So far so good, and then the fun began – pulling together jackets and breeches for the men, blouses, petticoats, jackets, skirts and dresses for the women.  Our crammed cupboards gave up their treasures, and, before long we had rails of possibilities for the cast to try.  I had honestly thought we would have to spend weeks sewing bespoke outfits, but, after one fitting session, we had pretty much clothed all the men, and had many options that could be adapted for the women.  Clothing, back in the day, would have been passed down through family members and adapted to fit, so our first port of call was the neglected rail of the costumes we’ve long since dubbed ‘Shakespearian’.  Many of these still have the authentic ‘Royal Shakespeare Society’ labels in and were undoubtably picked up in sales for a time when Saddleworth Players hosted more highbrow seasons!  The joy of many of them is that they have been purposefully ‘aged’ which means they give a grubby, authentic hue to our rough and ready peasants, and save us the heartbreak of taking a pristine jacket and then purposefully ruining it!

The magic then started to happen when we added collars, cuffs, aprons and bonnets to the mix.  We were lucky enough to have some samples in the store to cut patterns from, and, having sourced linen tablecloths and bedding from charity shops, the team set to work to make more.  I’ve had fun adding front pieces to jackets to adapt them from Victorian to Puritan, and others have rekindled their love of sewing to produce exquisite items which transform plain dresses into beautiful costumes.

Hats were a problem, until we rummaged through a cardboard box and found 4 fabulous, floppy stovepipe hats which are now stiff and formal thanks to the wonders of spray starch.  Last week the team worked their magic on half a dozen welsh national costume hats which, once the lace and ribbons were removed, were customised with hat bands and buckles.

Singers not Sinners is a heart-warming show, presenting the indomitable spirit of the good people of Oldham in 1701, particularly three special women who braved public censor to raise their voices in the church choir.  The atmosphere in rehearsals has been warm and friendly, with everyone knitting perfectly together to create a moving, often menacing, but gently humorous piece.

The costume team are happy to be part of this creative family and we’re looking forward to seeing the results of our work on stage from the 4th to 9th & 11th June. Book your ticket now.

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