As we reflect on another year of Cambridge theatre, we must not forget the countless individuals who we never see on stage but, without whom, the show could not go on. From lighting designers to stage managers, all are essential to the jigsaw puzzle that is putting on a play. Costume designers, in particular, are often overlooked, despite contributing greatly to the aesthetics of a production. This (hardly exhaustive) list ranks my favourite costumes from the past nine months, from fake boobs to “post-apocalyptic camp”.

10. Sweeney Todd – Amy Meyer

Freya Cowan feels that her costume communicated that Mrs Lovett was driving the storyPaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

CUADC’s big musical at the end of Lent term was awash with colour thanks to Meyer’s costuming. Freya Cowan, who played Mrs Lovett, said that her favourite costume was the red jacket Lovett wears in Act II to “symbolise that she is moving up in the world and that the killing spree has begun”. She continued: “The colour of it stood out so starkly against everything else that it felt incredibly dramatic”.

9. Antony and Cleopatra Jamie Chong, Genevieve Ayalogu

Chong and Ayalogu worked with each actor to communicate their background as well as their characterMORAYO IBIDUNNI WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

In Lent term, The Marlowe Society’s BME Shakespeare gave Chong and Ayalogu the opportunity to try their hand at costume designing. However, you’d never know it was their first time. “Our vision was incorporating cultural styles and patterns into our costumes without it seeming performative and ostentatious,” they explain, “We wanted to express how these aspects of clothing are parts of people’s everyday experiences and not just something to be exploited for the stage.”

“Our vision was incorporating cultural styles and patterns into our costumes without it seeming performative and ostentatious”

8. Iolanthe – Ina Kruger

Ina Kruger's fairy costumes required '300 safety pins and garlands upon garlands of fake flowers and ivy'EMMA JENNINGS WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

Not only was Iolanthe Kruger’s first attempt at costume design, but she also performed in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera this Lent. Undoubtedly her best costumes were the fairies: “They were the least constrained by the need to be (semi-)historically accurate so I had lots of fun playing with the colour palettes of the iridescent organza fabrics.”

7. Arcadia – Lavender Lu

Arcadia was Lavender Lu's first attempt at costume design but she 'wouldn't hesitate to do it again'PAUL ASHLEY WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

Tom Stoppard’s play can’t have been easy to costume. It features two storylines – one set in 1809, the other in the present day – which converge by the end. It focuses on abstract concepts like science, philosophy and desire. Nevertheless, Lu had a successful vision: “Based on a unified white colour, I intended to differentiate the characters by the style of outfits, fabrics, accessories and a pop of bright colours or repeating motifs.”

6. The Welkin – Emily Rosenberg

One of Emily's influences was the BBC's The Gallows PolePaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

Set in 18th-century Suffolk, The Welkin centres a jury of 12 women who must decide whether a convicted murderer is pregnant and hence whether she will be hanged. Having fallen in love with sewing and historical fashion during lockdown, Rosenberg was keen to try costume design: “As a phys natsci, I don’t really get to be creative within my degree so I loved getting to engage with the arts side of Cambridge a bit more.”

“As a phys natsci, I don’t really get to be creative within my degree so I loved getting to engage with the arts side of Cambridge a bit more”

5. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) – Abi Beton

Abi Beton imagined what an acting group with no knowledge of Shakespeare would pull from the cupboard to perform all his plays in 91 minutesPaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

Based on the concept of performing all 37 Shakespeare plays in 91 minutes, this sketch comedy brightened up the end of Michaelmas – literally. Inspired by The Gone Wrong Show and Monty Python, Beton’s costumes featured neon-coloured tights and Jacobean pantaloons. Yet, her favourite costume was unquestionably the fake boobs. When designing costumes, Beton always considers how the characters would acquire the clothes themselves: “I was fascinated by the idea of creating costumes which looked like they had been put together by an amateur theatre society on a shoestring budget with little time but buckets of creativity (kind of like us!)”.

4. 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche Robin Simon

Robin Simon sources all his materials from charity shops and his and the performers' wardrobesPaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

For this Lent Term play, the directors brought in a freelance costume designer from London. Set in 1956, the show follows a group of women whose quiche breakfast is interrupted by a nuclear alert. However, Simon rejected period-accurate designs, calling them “terribly boring”: “Costume can be so much more – an engagement in artist dialogue, socio-political commentary, aesthetic research.” Rather, the historical context was referenced through allusions to abstract expressionism and women claiming their right to wear jeans. The costumes were beautifully incoherent, as Simon explains: “With a set as sparse as this one, I felt it would be appropriate to amp up the colours and patterns.”

3. Exit the King Esme Bishop

Esme Bishop believes that absurdist plays invite creative experimentation with shape and pattern Paul Ashley with permission for Varsity

Early in Michaelmas, Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play about a king’s final evening of existence graced the stage of Corpus Playroom. Bishop’s vision for this production was “post-apocalyptic camp”. To achieve this, she sought inspiration from fashion designer Simone Rocha: “Her work is defined by contrast: blending hard and soft, masculine and feminine, and classical and avant-garde”. Thus, her costumes featured an eclectic mix of styles, from Queen Mary’s pink tulle dress to the King’s corset over a tailored shirt and tie. But that wasn’t her only inspiration: “I think I was also subconsciously influenced by Ryan Gosling’s Ken costume from Barbie when I put [the King] in that fur coat.”

“I think I was also subconsciously influenced by Ryan Gosling’s Ken costume from Barbie”

2. 5/11 – Freya Cowan, Lucy Wright

Freya Cowan's priority is that the performers feel comfortable in their costumesPaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

5/11 was rare among ADC shows in that the costumes were essential to the storytelling. Director Evie Chandler’s vision was to make this play about the gunpowder plot feel relevant by turning it punk and, as Cowan acknowledges, “there was no other way to do it but through costuming”. Thus, £900 of the show’s £2,300 budget was dedicated to costumes. But that didn’t make it easy: “The cast of 5/11 was huge and so, although our budget was far larger than is typical for costumes, it was still a challenge to ensure that every single costume felt interesting.” Cowan’s solution was to purchase basic items cheaply off Vinted or Depop before embellishing them to fit the characters. This was a careful process: “My worst nightmare was to make a show that was visibly ‘Cambridge students do punk’!”

1. The Tempest – Esme Bishop

'I really wanted it to look messy and eclectic, but beautiful as well': Esme BishopPaul Ashely with permission for Varsity

Every Christmas break, the European Theatre Group tours a Shakespeare play around the continent before landing at the ADC. This year’s production was a re-imagining of The Tempest with Prospero as a tortured artist distorting reality to manipulate the other characters. The show was a visual spectacle thanks to Bishop’s paint splatters, flowers and masks. Unable to rely on colour (the director demanded beiges and creams to present the characters as “blank canvases”), Bishop diverted her attention to “shape, style and silhouette”. Consequently, The Tempest was one of the most “hands-on” projects she had undertaken: “I spent hours like a madwoman in my room glue-gunning and painting.”


Mountain View

£900 and punk moodboard: Costuming 5/11