Behind the seams of The Wizard of Oz’s costume department

Published on 26 June 2018

This week, Watergardens is celebrating Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz with a glittering costume display appearing in-centre, featuring iconic items like
Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Tin Man’s suit – direct from the wardrobe department. Shona Webster is the Head of Costumes at the musical production, which means she spends her days choosing the right crystals for Dorothy’s sparkly shoes and mending costumes so that they’re ready for the next night’s performance. We asked Shona to tell us what exactly goes into the costuming of a major stage show.

How did you get into working in the costume department of musicals?

In my early teens my mother started working in the theatre as a costume maker before she moved into dressing stars of the stage. She was working on the Australian Opera’s La Traviata and one day they needed a dresser. She asked me, and that was my first taste of working in the theatre. I loved it! Dressing performers in beautiful costumes is just like playing dress up dolls.

What’s the process of making costumes for a stage production?

Designing and making costumes is often a collaboration between the writer, director, choreographer and set designer, to name just a few. One of the biggest challenges for a costume designer is to read the script and bring the characters to life. My role is to keep the overall design and look of the show true to the costume designer’s original vision.

On the Australian production of The Wizard of Oz we have over 500 costumes and pairs of shoes. We have 28 cast members on the show and nearly all of them play multiple characters. Every cast member has multiple costume fittings and, depending on the item of clothing, it is custom made for that performer. Understudies also have their own set of costumes. Plus, the costumes have to be constructed so that actors can move and dance in them six days a week, eight shows a week.

How long does it take to make a costume for The Wizard of Oz?

The more intricate costumes have had hundreds of hours spent on them. Then there are others that are simple and may only take a day or two to make. Costumes for a major musical normally require a large staff of costume makers, milliners and shoe makers and can take anywhere from around six months to a year to complete.

The more intricate, detailed costumes in The Wizard of Oz (in particular, those for the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch) are essentially couture: with every panel, sequin and feather sewn by hand.

Glinda the Good Witch’s sparkling gown in the show is covered in over 25,000 Swarowski crystals and the Wicked Witch’s dress is made up of hundreds of black feathers. With the number of costumes and the incredible design of the Wizard of Oz costumes, I would hazard a guess that they are worth in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What’s involved in maintaining such a huge number of costumes?

To recreate the show eight times a week, everything needs to be very organised and have its place so that cast members and their dressers can do the same plot every night. We have several washing machines backstage, and after every show we wash certain items so that they dry before the next.

There are some things we can’t wash in a washing machine, so we send out to a specialist dry cleaner every Sunday and it returns in time for start of our week on Tuesday. We are constantly mending and repairing costumes as well. There is always a long list of repairs to keep the costumes looking good!

What’s your favourite part of working in the costume department?

I love seeing the costumes come to life and seeing how actors inhabit a character once they are dressed. When an actor gets into a perfectly made costume, you see how it makes them feel and how it layers the creative process (literally), it’s really exciting for me.

Another one of the great things about my job is that it is always changing and I am constantly learning new skills. Some days can be spent choosing the right size crystal for Dorothy’s sparkly red shoes or making paws (gloves) for the Cowardly Lion or touching up the silver on the Tin Man costume. Perhaps the best thing is that we are telling a beautiful story eight times a week, which audiences love. The joy it brings makes this the best job in the world.

You can find costumes from The Wizard of Oz on display near Cotton On Kids between Monday 25 June – Sunday 22 July.