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A life in the theatre: Wardrobe Mistress

Published 21 September 2015

In the next instalment of our new series that takes theatregoers behind the scenes to explore the lives of people working behind the scenes in the West End, we met Jersey Boys’ Wardrobe Mistress Maria Maguire to discover exactly what her role entails.

With the popularity of The Great British Sewing Bee and an obsession with vintage that doesn’t look like it’s on its way out anytime soon, the art of clothes making is fast catching up baking as the nation’s craft of choice. It goes hand in hand, therefore, that the demand for working in costume is on the rise, with new courses popping up all the time. But, as Maguire explains below, working on a show in its wardrobe department is rather more demanding than whipping up a new dress here and there or putting up a hem. Long hours, intricate beading and even mending crotches are the name of the game in this esteemed profession that sounds as creative as it is rewarding. Read on to find out more…

The first thing I do every day is:

Turn the aircon on – we have no windows! – turn the computer on, check the running wardrobe notes for any repairs or any long term maintenance that needs doing and then because our industrial iron takes at least 20 minutes to crank up we go and kick start that.

An average day for me involves:

A lot of general maintenance. Today our list isn’t too bad, there’s stuff like a new apron, a new publicity shirt to be done for somebody and re-beading a dress.

During the show we mainly do stuff like beading.  We’ve got a lot of dresses that look like they don’t need a lot of work, but they do, particularly the girls’ finale dresses, it’s quite a fine material so there’s lots of wear and tear. They’re like really demanding two-year-olds those dresses: they look like they don’t take much work, but they really do!

On an average day I’ll see the cast to say hello and if they have any problems I’m there with them, but I don’t have too much of an interaction because they’re all on different floors and their clothes are taken down by the dressers.

When a new cast comes in, the supervisor and I pin them down to come in to be fitted. We try and use as many of the costumes that we already have as possible to keep costs down. Someone new coming in may not fit any of the costumes, so that becomes a bit of a challenge.

I usually get home from work by:

22:45. On a matinee day we come in about 10:30 and on a day with just an evening performance about 13:00. We have a break from 17:30 to 18:30 and then generally I’ll get home about 22:45. Monday the theatre is closed and we have a float day to take off, so by and large it’s a five day week.

The best part of my day is usually:

When the show goes up. We’re here in case of emergencies but our work is essentially done. We leave it to the dressers to do their job; they run the show and do all the quick changes and all the rest. We’re there should one of the dressers be sick or if any rip suddenly happens and we have to either fix it or find a replacement.

The worst part of my day is usually:

If something goes wrong during the show, that can be really stressful. I work closely with my deputy and assistant, so we can all disperse and one can be trying to find out whether it can be repaired while the other two hunt through the rails to find if anything can be worn instead. It is quite rare luckily, but it has been known to happen.

The people I work with mostly are:

My deputy Linski Kilcourse and assistant Neil Gillies. We’re like a dysfunctional family in a way because we probably see more of one another than our families do!

My place of work is:

A long room with no natural light or windows, it’s like a ship’s cabin! There are lots of cotton reels, lots of boxes with various bits of fabric, underwear and loads and loads of ties! We go through ties very quickly. There’s a rail which has all of our pristine publicity shirts and trousers on that we can use when the boys do appearances and gigs. We hang the alterations and repairs we need to do on another rail so we can see them when we get in and we know what needs to get done.

The most glamorous part of my job is:

The most glamorous part would probably be doing outside gigs. We get to go to some amazing places that you’d never get to see normally. I went with the boys to Geneva for the International Red Cross Ball; that was an eye opener and a half! When does that ever happen?! It feels a bit like Ruby from Upstairs Downstairs being invited to a ball!

The least showbiz part of my job is:

Mending crotches and smalls! Smalls are never a nice part of any job, but it has to be done. Moving swiftly on…

My work mantra is:

I think if we can enjoy ourselves while we’re doing the job than that’s absolutely brilliant. I love working in theatre; I fell into it by accident and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think my mantra would just be to enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you do, it’s time to look for something else.

The advice I’d give to anyone wanting to do my job would be to:

I would look at the particular theatre courses there are on offer now, or else just dip your toe in the water and see if you can start dressing to see if you like it. I was doing a course to do with cloth in Ireland and they needed someone for the panto to help in wardrobe and that’s how I started. I came from there with a show over to England and I never went back. I’ve been over here 31 years and with Jersey Boys since it started eight years ago.

To do this job you have to:

Be flexible. And you have to be able to deal with the more temperamental aspect of some actors. We don’t get that on this show, they’re all very grown up, but you have to allow for the fact that people have to go on stage in strange costumes and they may not feel right to them and it may affect how they view their performance. It may not necessarily be the costume’s fault, but you have to be able to work around how they’re feeling and make them feel comfortable.

"I went with the boys to Geneva for the International Red Cross Ball; that was an eye opener and a half! When does that ever happen?! It feels a bit like Ruby from Upstairs Downstairs being invited to a ball!"

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