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Putting on Top Hat

First Published 1 May 2012, Last Updated 2 May 2012

“I’m puttin’ on my top hat, tyin’ up my white tie, brushin’ off my tails.” So goes the title song of Irving Berlin’s musical Top Hat, which is all very well, but those sung about garments don’t make it to the stage all by themselves.

When a show boasts about its 200 costumes, one of which is a replica of the avian-inspired iconic creation that led to Ginger Rogers’s nickname ‘Feathers’, how could we turn down the opportunity to dig around behind the scenes of the wardrobe department?

First the statistics: In addition to featuring more than 200 costumes and more than 250 pairs of shoes, 45 shirts are ironed every single day at Top Hat, but that shouldn’t take too long because, according to the musical’s Wardrobe Mistress Meg Roberts, “You should be able to iron a shirt in 45 seconds.” 45 seconds? Yes, that’s what I thought. It takes me longer just to lay a shirt flat on the ironing board.

It gets better. The Europe-spanning tale of love is set in the 1930s and the dresses that adorn the company’s actresses, staying true to that era, are made of satin. As far as we in the audience are concerned, that means they look stunning, opulent and memorable. For the wardrobe team, it is the stuff of nightmares. “A cotton dress,” Roberts explains, “you iron it and it’s fine. With these, they pull against everything.” I feel nervous just standing near the glorious garments in case my breath causes an inadvertent snag.

Despite the constant threat of snagging, the wardrobe team work hard to ensure that the apparel, which has all been custom made for the show, continues to look stunning on stage. With the production moving into the Aldwych theatre and ploughing into technical rehearsals, Roberts has been working 18 hour days to ensure the slick, suave look of the show seems effortless, despite the work happening behind the scenes.

“A lot of the dresses have no hanger appeal,” Roberts patiently explains to my thoroughly interested but entirely befuddled self. “If you saw them on a hanger, you wouldn’t look twice, but as soon as they’ve got somebody in them they look beautiful.” This is because, I learn, the dresses are cut “on the cross”. On the what? The explanation contains more technical terms, but, to summarise, material is cut across the way it would naturally fall, meaning that it has little to hold its shape when unfilled by a body. When it is worn, however, its lack of structure means it clings in all the right places, transforming it from limp frock to stunning gown.

It’s all clever stuff that we, in the auditorium, just take for granted. The stars look beautiful and handsome, while we sit appreciative. Little would we know if anything went wrong, but it does.

In the first London Top Hat performance, for example, the zip broke on one of leading lady Summer Strallen’s outfits. The dressers worked quickly with those most high-tech of resources, the safety pin, to ensure the show went on unhindered. “The audience probably didn’t notice it, but it’s the worst moment at the side of the stage for us.”

That is, of course, why they are there – the wardrobe team have bags of fabric for each performer, in case a quick repair is necessary – that, and to help with fast changes. I say fast changes, that may be an understatement; the speed of their changes makes their ironing of shirts look tardy. At one point in the show, actress Vivian Parry has just over 20 seconds to successfully switch an entire outfit. It takes three dressers to help her achieve the feat that most of us would need a TARDIS to make happen. “It’s like a dance,” says Roberts. There are spaces all over the backstage area for these swift shifts in outfit; rooms tucked away just off stage, pockets secreted to the side of the performance area hidden by set, and a subterranean corridor of chairs that at one point is a frenzy of clothes being shed and pulled on with more vigour than happy hour in Primark.

All this high-speed thread switching is achieved with the help not just of the wardrobe team, but also a few cunning costume-based tricks. You might see buttons on the outfits, but chances are they are there for show, with Velcro and poppers more likely to be the fastening – and, more importantly, unfastening – of choice. Even the cufflinks are elasticated for ease of release.

The dance shirts, paradoxically, are fiddlier than their non-jigging cousins, with the addition of poppers in the groinal region making them “like baby grows”. Though it stops them from pulling free with the exertion of performance, they’re just not as sexy when you think of them like that.

So much happens in this department that I’ve never really considered as an audience member. Nor should I, really; that is a sign of everyone doing their job well. You’d only start thinking about it if anything went wrong. Occasionally, it does, as the tale of Strallen’s first London performance goes to show, but that was a minor inconvenience compared to the rogue piece of underwear that dyed nearly £500 of bras and tights the wrong colour when it snuck into the wash with them, or compared to the dress that was doused in orange juice just before the actress in it was due on stage. “There’s no eating and no drinking unless it’s water from a closed container”, Roberts says of the strict rules for when performers are in costume. “The dressers and I keep an eye on them, but they do forget.” Were it not for Roberts’s quick thinking, that one spillage could have meant an entirely new dress would have to be made from scratch.

Even keeping on top of the cleaning isn’t easy, not with the satin dresses. They can’t just be chucked in a washing machine and tumble dried, they would shrink. Instead, it just comes down to “lots of Febreeze and looking after”.

The iconic ‘feather dress’ is another matter entirely, what with feathers being painstakingly glued onto it one by one. If the cleaning of that goes wrong, it becomes less feather dress and more plucked petticoat. Roberts uses a specialist dry cleaner for the job, one that has experience of just such an outfit and what can go wrong when the glue melts.

The grand tour of wardrobe has left me as tired as an old tap shoe just from thinking about the work Roberts’s team puts in, but I can’t come backstage at Top Hat without trying a top hat on, can I? In one of the quick change areas they sit in a row, each one upside down and wrapped in plastic “The top hats are all hand made individually to fit the actor or actress. How they put them on matters; they can’t just pull the rims down, they have to push them on from the top.” They also cost more than £300 each. Suddenly the proposition feels less like frivolous fun and more like an expensive accident waiting to happen.

Yet I’m cheered to know that despite the effort, stress, strain and hours of ironing put in by the wardrobe team, I’m not the only one who looks at these costumes strewn across the backstage area of the Aldwych theatre and sees a great big dressing up box. Read into it what you will, but there is a glint in Roberts’s eye and a twitch of a widening smile when I ask if any of the team ever tries the dresses on. When they are as beautiful as the one’s in Top Hat, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? Just as long as they weren’t eating or drinking at the time.


Top Hat is taking part in Get Into London Theatre Summer 2012, offering top price tickets for just £40 between 21 June and 7 September. Tickets must be booked by 31 May. Book now!


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