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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | April 8, 2020

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Behind the Seams of Ladies in Black

Behind the Seams of Ladies in Black

| On 09, Nov 2015

Ladies in Black marks Queensland Theatre Company’s long-awaited return to musical theatre, in an original story of fashion, friends and growing up in a city on the cusp of becoming cosmopolitan. We went behind the scenes with the company’s costume department for a sneak peek at this stylish new production.

Despite the show’s title, the first thing you see upon entering the busy costume department is a riot of colour. Six vibrant frocks (promptly dubbed the Ladies in Rainbow collection) dominate the far corner, where they await their final touches—a few more tweaks, some buttons, some hemming. These dresses will take the stage in the opening number of QTC’s first musical in years and they are, quite frankly, stunning.




The rest of the department (once I’m able to tear my eyes away from the feast of silk) is a quiet hive of activity. With just ten days until opening, there remains a lot still to be stitched, ironed, fitted and finalised. Ladies in Black features an incredible 248 individual costume pieces, with over sixty full outfits. Of these, thirty gowns and suits have been custom designed and created in-house. The department is dotted with silk-lapelled jackets and tailored skirts, rows of dresses on hangers and pages of costume sketches. The fitting room, meanwhile, is overflowing with completed petticoats, house dresses, feathery dressing gowns and polished shoes. It’s a feat of organisation and skill made all the more impressive by the fact that Costume Supervisor Nathalie Ryner and her team have been working with a mere seven week turnaround.

This production is one of the most detailed and comprehensive wardrobe projects undertaken by the company in recent years and its narrative demands costume excellence. Set in the prestigious (and fictitious) F. G. Goodes Department Store, Ladies in Black follows the story of bookish school-leaver Lisa as she joins the ranks of the store’s saleswomen and enters a world of colourful frocks, padded shoulders and Chanel. The combination of a fifties setting and a fashion-heavy plot has placed an even higher than usual importance on the work of the costume department—and they have answered the call. Under the direction of acclaimed designer Gabriela Tylesova, hundreds of hours of research, design, cutting, sewing and dressing have culminated in the spectacular outfits adorning the room.




In a side-room, Wig Dresser Michael Green is dealing with another of Ladies in Black’s unique problems. As a musical, the show is fully miked—but the svelte, tailored lines of the costumes cannot afford to be distorted by the bulky shape of a microphone pack strapped around the waist. When we meet him, Michael is experimenting with hiding the packs under actresses’ wigs. It’s a clever, but finicky solution: one stray hair could throw out the sound, and the whole arrangement must remain absolutely secure, for obvious reasons. Half-way through deliberations, a new spanner is thrown into the works: the matter of hats. Will they still fit over both a wig and a mic pack?

Leaving this difficulty to the expert, we cross the room to where Head of Wardrobe, Vicki Martin is turning her hand to millinery, painstakingly crafting the aforementioned hats. It’s taking, in her words, “a lot of patience and steam”. Her desk is strewn with gorgeous vintage images and colour swatches, as the bevy of hats begin to take shape on their wooden form blocks. Handmade headwear is just one example of the incredible attention to detail going into this production. As usual, the level of care and skill unfolding in the rooms above QTC’s South Brisbane home is almost beyond belief.




The setting of the show has resulted in a mixed wardrobe of custom makes and vintage purchases. The difficulty with the latter, Nathalie tells us, is that our grandmothers were considerably more petite than the modern woman, and finding dresses or shoes in the right proportions is a bit of a treasure hunt. There’s also the matter of altering clothes to withstand the rigours of stage life and the demands of the show’s many quick changes (defined as any change taking place under a very tight forty seconds). Everywhere, sturdy metal zips and press studs are being surreptitiously added. (Coincidentally, if you have any vintage metal zippers lying around, Nathalie will gladly take them off your hands.) When asked if there were back-ups for any of the sixty plus costumes, her answer to the negative could easily become the department’s motto: “We make it well, we make it strong.”




Ladies in Black combines all the biggest challenges of theatre costuming. It’s a period piece, set in a fashionable department store. It uses tailoring to demonstrate character development and its staging requires racks of prop dresses. It’s a musical, with a large, active cast and multiple costume changes. Finally, the show is also touring, so all 248 pieces have to be ready and able to travel interstate. From every angle, the pressure is on—and at every workbench the challenge is being met with overflowing talent and a sense of cheerful determination.

With every stitch, Ladies in Black is shaping up to be an unmissable production—and you might want to consider front row seats, so as to better take in the gorgeous work of the wardrobe team.



What Ladies in Black

Where The Playhouse, QPAC

When 14th Nov – 6th Dec, 2015

How Much $52 – $85

For more information or to book your tickets, head here.


Image Credit: Madeleine Dale.