The appeal of Little Women costumes
Little Women costumes have a very special appeal. Though there's something very magical about all period costumes. Every era has its own feel and associations.
The costumes I helped with for Little Shop of Horrors emphasised a 1950s downtown rock 'n' roll glamour and the conflict between vulnerability and violence.
The costumes for Cabaret were exciting and edgy and it was all about capturing the glamour of the Berlin underworld. There was a lot of artistic licence with the costume design, though the teddies I designed and created for the Kit Kat girls were based on 1930s lingerie.
Little Women is very different. It's about a well educated family struggling with poverty but embracing life with fortitude and genuine emotion. The costumes reference the period the story is set in and emphasise character traits, but also need to be 'invisible' enough not to distract from the story. This invisibility means that they need to be historically accurate and 'fit' the character wearing them well.
The list of costumes needed includes a civil war uniform, victorian crinolines, bloomers, breeches, cravats, various wedding outfits and ball outfits. It also includes costumes the operatic tragedy that the characters perform: a troll, a hag, a swashbuckling hero, a fair maiden, a dastardly villain and a knight. These are all glorious costumes with some very distinctive silhouettes.
Researching Little Women costumes
Louisa May Alcott set Little Women in 1860s Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War. Knowing the location was important as there were a number of differences between North and South American fashion at that time.
1860s fashion in South America
The skirts of the dresses worn by women in the South were huge and they wore necklines that were cut very low. Women dressed more decoratively than those in the North, confidently displaying their wealth.
1860s fashion in North America
The skirts of the dresses worn by women in the North were much slimmer with a hint of the bustle starting to appear. The bustle emerged in North America a few decades before it did in the UK and Europe, possibly because it was more practical for women having to farm their land while their husbands were away fighting in the civil war.
Research Board for Little Women costumes
I started collecting museum images and old photographs and adding them to a Pinterest board. These were the images we referred to when checking whether our Little Women costumes had the correct silhouettes, fabrics, colours and styles.
Sourcing Little Women costumes in Cornwall
We only had a few months to get hold of as many costumes as possible for the publicity shots and build a core wardrobe we could work with.
Amateur dramatic societies have small budgets but the amdram community in Cornwall is incredibly supportive.
Our first port of call was Gillian Geer, who has a wonderful wardrobe, full of Victorian era costumes, worn at Helston Flora Day, the Minack and in various plays and musicals. Our Little Women sisters had a wonderful time trying on different outfits and choosing styles that best suited their characters' personalities.
We managed to source most of the costumes from Redannick - tweeds, underskirts, bloomers, frock coats, dresses and breeches. Redannick has so many wonderful costumes hidden away on rails and in boxes in the basement. It's a very small space but it has costumes rammed in all over the place. Every time I had a rummage down there I found yet another wonderful outfit that would work beautifully for a particular part of the show.
Choosing Little Women costumes at Burras with Gillian
Cast: Sophie Haddock - Meg March; Hazel Curnow and Stephanie Rosewarne - Beth March; Bethany Lyne and Cat Leach - Amy.
Adapting and Altering our Little Women costumes
A lot of time was spent altering costumes to fit the cast and adapting them to suit the personality of the character wearing them.
Costumes for Beth and Amy
Dresses for Beth and Amy were shortened to reinforce that they were young children. I emphasised the ruffle to make them seem even more young and girly and added pinafores to embed the reference to 1860s children.
Costumes for Aunt March
We wanted Aunt March to be very grand so we created the largest crinolines we could get away with on the tiny stages. We used long taffeta skirts that enough fabric in them to fit over crinoline underskirts. However, making these skirts wider also had the effect of lifting them up higher so we also had to lengthen them with taffeta offcuts so they reached to the ground. Many Victorian crinolines had a panel at the bottom which would get dirty and damaged when they dragged on the ground (as we discovered!). The extra panel acts as a dirt panel which is easy to replace when the hems get worn.
We originally picked out a simple but rich looking gown for Meg to wear. However, on one of my journeys into the basement at Redannick I discovered the most beautiful ivory corseted gown with massive skirts. It looked like every girls dream of a romantic ballgown. The skirts were so huge they had to be taken up. They were far too long even over the biggest crinoline underskirt. In the end we had to use a small crinoline as the dress was far too large to fit on the tiny stage at Redannick. It's still one of my favourite costumes.
Little Women Crinolines
The Play within a Play
One of my favourite scenes is a number called The Weekly Volcano Press. It is the enactment of a story written by the leading character, Jo March.
We had a lot more freedom costuming this play, as they simply needed to show how the sisters in the 1860s would have perceived and portrayed these romanticised characters from her story.
We found the most gorgeous dress for fair Clarissa at Redannick. It was a lovely ivory lace dress that looked romantic and wild and alluring. And it fit perfectly, so we didn't need to do any alterations.
A lot of costumes for a small cast and a lot of quick changes
The Show was double cast so that key cast members could rest their voices in between shows. It also meant that if anything happened to any of them the show could still go on.
However, it also meant that we had to find additional costumes because the actresses who were double cast were all very different sizes.
The timeline for the story spans over two years and each scene was very different requiring very different costumes. We had to cater for a Christmas scene, a winter ball, an ice-skating trip, about to go travelling or just back from travelling, summer outfits, wedding outfits and the transition from childhood to adulthood for the young characters. Most of the cast had several different outfits for the Show.
There were also a lot of very quick changes, especially for Jo March, Laurie and Marmee. We spent a lot of time doing dress rehearsals in the run up to the Show to make sure that the cast could move easily in their costumes and complete the necessary changes on time. It was also very useful to check that hem lengths were consistent. It's surprising how different a costume looks on stage to when it's worn in a dressing room.
Little Women costumes on Tour
After our first 2 shows in Truro all the stage, props and costumes are packed and on their way to the wonderfully exciting Sterts Theatre and Arts Centre, a lovely open air theatre on Bodmin moor near Liskeard.
The weather at Sterts was hot and sunny, the stage is roomy and the audience fantastic. Little Women is a high energy performance with lots of very quick changes, which can be physically demanding, but the atmosphere here is so lovely, it feels like we're on holiday.
The heat followed the tour to Helston and St Ives, where the heavy winter costumes were almost unbearable in the old theatres, but the cast are very professional and continue to put on an outstanding performance.
The final dates are at Penlee Park in Penzance. Although still warm, the stage is in the shade. We have rails and rugs outside for the quick changes and a tarpaulin ready just in case it rains. The biggest problem turns out to be the leaves that get vacuumed up inside the crinoline skirts!
In the Press
18 June 2018
The buzz around the Show is building up and attracting a lot of excited followers. We were very excited to discover we're listed as one of the shows to see this summer in Cornwall by Cornwall Live
21 June 2018
On the radio!! Brilliant interview with cast members Bethany Lyne and Sophie Haddock. And the lovely Bethany gives me some lovely costume praise
26 June 2018
Opening night! And we got a standing ovation. Visitors backstage have tears in their eyes as they thank us for the wonderful performance.