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Dublin: 1 °C Wednesday 26 November, 2014

Fatsuits, priests’ robes and corsets… Backstage with the Abbey Theatre’s costumes

Costumes worn by the likes of Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw are for hire from the theatre’s costume department.

THE CLOTHES ON the Abbey Theatre’s costume racks have a tag telling you who wore each piece, and a look through reveals some very familiar names: Alan Rickman, Tom Vaughn Lawlor, Fiona Shaw.

Every single item in the huge Abbey Costume Hire department in Dublin tells a different story, and brings you to another era, to a stage show, an actor, or a time in Ireland’s history.

There are piles of military helmets, bulletproof vests, dresses, trousers, and blazer after blazer after blazer.

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From shows like the Importance of Being Earnest to the Plough and the Stars, various costumes are for hire from this huge warehouse, meaning that the clothes don’t sit idle after their appearance on stage.

Instead, amateur actors can slip into outfits worn on the Abbey stage, creating a link between the country’s up-and-coming performers and the legendary theatre.

The existence of this hire service only came about because of the recession, which had resulted in the Abbey Theatre needing to downsize. There was a call to cut its costume department, but its staff, such as Niamh Lunny, felt that there was too much talent and potential there, and suggested that the items could instead be hired out.

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The service is available three days a week now, with stock of period and contemporary clothes as well as broken down and distressed items, corsets, ‘fat suits’, military and even ecclesiastical wear on offer.

The opening of the hire service also created a number of jobs, and quite a few of the staff are freelance designers in their own time, so working with the costumes is a chance to boost their knowledge.

A look in the wardrobe

A look through the costumes for hire is a fascinating one. While some are shop-bought, the majority have been handmade by staff or prestigious designers, such as Peter O’Brien.

There are flamboyant 70s dresses; intricate Edwardian-style outfits; Garda uniforms; sixties mini skirts and handmade corsets lining the rails over the three rooms of the Abbey’s large costumes warehouse. It’s a treasure trove for the fashion-obsessed, and a fascinating look at how fashion has changed over the decades.

People who hire the clothes can have very specific needs, or may just want to get a bit of inspiration for their own costumes. While none of the clothes can be significantly altered by those hiring them, they can be hemmed or adjusted slightly to fit the actors.

The hire service is based in Finglas, but back in the Abbey Theatre the costume design team work on creating the costumes needed for every show.

There’s an interesting story behind every outfit. Some of the items you’ll find have been painstakingly hand-painted, like this suit, as Saileóg O’Halloran, costume assistant at the Abbey, explained:


(Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube)

There are also a number of very unusual outfits, which might not get an outing a lot but are bound to be called on at some stage – like this fatsuit:


(Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube)

This costume, which is from the show King Lear, has four layers and weighs a huge amount, and is made up of a number of heavy layers. It was worn by the character King Lear, and gives the audience an indication of his status.

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The actor who wore it ended up losing weight, thanks to the combination of heavy leather and deerskin and the hot stage lights.


(Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube)

If you’re looking for a halloween or fancy dress costume, this is the wrong place to go – the items are only for hire by amateur dramatics companies, TV, stage, photoshoots, opera and performance.

But the rest of us can admire the costumes through the services’s Instagram and Facebook site, where they feature some very interesting finds, like this knitted top, whose label indicates that it dates from World War 2:

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