"Shakespeare in Love"’s Costumes: Making a Cartwheel Farthingale

SCR Staff
 | Jan 19, 2018
Shakespeare in Love Queen Costume

Paul David Story, Carmela Corbett, Elyse Mirto, Bo Foxworth and David Nevell in Shakespeare in Love.

A Q&A with Costume Shop Manager Amy Hutto

By Beth Fhaner

A show like Shakespeare in Love requires more than 60 costumes that include a minimum of five pieces each, making the overall costumes and garments tally for this production enormous. We recently chatted with SCR’s Costume Shop Manager Amy Hutto to get the lowdown on what it takes to pull off Shakespeare in Love’s sartorial splendor.

Shakespeare in Love Queen Costume

​Elyse Mirto and Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.

What are all of the pieces that make-up the Queen’s costume?
Farthingale (2-piece)
Partlet (a small garment that covers the upper chest and shoulders)
Over robe (optional)

The costumes are on loan from Oregon Shakespeare Festival. ​​How did you and your team prepare the costumes ​for SCR's production?
There are three groups of costumes for this production. There is the “package,” which is the set of costumes that were used at OSF in ​its production. Director Marc Masterson and our casting department took into consideration the sizes and shapes of the OSF cast when casting our production. We were able to put more than half of our cast into the corresponding costumes, after alterations. When these items arrived at our warehouse, my staff and I meticulously matched every garment to the description listed from OSF. We were missing a surprisingly few number of garments. This filled 6 garment racks.

Then there are the “rental” costumes. These were other costumes that we rented from OSF to fit actors that were not going to fit into original “package” costumes. Many of these were from shows costume designer Susan Tsu had used in previous shows at OSF so they maintained her design sensibilities. These costumes have to be kept separate from the original “package” and tracked. We started out with about 3 garment racks of these to supplement the original costumes.

Then there are the pieces that were either built in our shop, purchased or pulled from our stock. We also had to build a few pieces that replaced parts of OSF costumes that were worn out or too short, etc. such as sleeves or ruffs. The goal is to make it all meld together.

Each costume has a minimum of ​five pieces, but as you see ​for the ​Queen, it can be a lot more than ​​that. Our dressers have to track every undershirt, pair of tights, socks, shoes, jewelry and all of the larger garments including as doublets, pumpkin hose and hats.

Are there any other fun facts to share?
The OSF costumes arrived ​in 25 boxes. The rental came in at an additional 7 boxes.

What’s the best part about working on a period piece like Shakespeare in Love? What about challenges?
The fact that it’s a period piece. The people who go into theatre costuming want to do period costumes. For the most part, we are not particularly interested in contemporary fashion. That is a different aspect of clothing that will be more interesting to us when it is 20 years old.

The biggest challenge is the time factor. A simple period gown or suit would take about 40-60 man hours. More elaborate periods—Tudor, Elizabethan or Cavalier—can easily triple that time, that is, if you are fast. ​Our schedule demands that we ​have about 3 ½ weeks per show, so it simply isn’t possible to build many costumes from scratch for one of those periods. It still can take 8-24 hours just to alter an existing garment (not costume) depending on how it was constructed and what alteration is needed. There isn’t enough time to do the work the way we would love to do it. Also, ​these clothes have to hold up for 8 performances a week for 4-5 weeks, with people doing quick changes, sword fights, dancing, etc. They take a lot of wear and tear and have to be sturdy.

Tell us about your background. What do you enjoy the most about being SCR’s Costume Shop Manager?
My training was in design and technical production. I had managed, and sometimes designed, for several Shakespeare ​festivals and repertory companies before coming to SCR. Theatre was a great discovery for me when I realized it combined all the things I enjoy: reading, art history, researching different times and countries, creating things with my hands and a little psychology.

Ever wonder how they made Queen Elizabeth’s gowns stand out like a tabletop?

Well, those were called cartwheel farthingales and about the only way to make them work is the way they did in the late 16th century. Here's how it's done.

Cartwheel Farthingale
After deciding how large a diameter the skirt base should be, get a piece of reed about ¾​-inch round and a little longer than ​the circumference. We started with an 8-foot. piece of reed.

Soak the reed in tepid water for 2-3 hours—long enough for it to get soft and bendy, but not so long that it gets soggy.

What kind of pan is long enough to soak it in? A rain gutter works fine.

Soaking Reed

While the reed is soaking, draw out the farthingale's size and shape on plywood and hammer in a lot of nails around the perimeter (like a fence).

Plywood Circle of Nails

When the reed feels bendy (that’s the technical term), ​urge it, firmly but gently, into shape inside the fence of nails.

Shaping the reed on the nails

Trim off the excess length and let it dry. Usually overnight is about right.

Trim off the extra reed

In the meantime, sew the base of the farthingale onto a waistband. We made ​two casings for reeds, just in case the skirt needed extra support, but we actually ended up needing one casing around the outside edge for the reed.

There are casings for the “spokes” of the cartwheel. These casings hold the ½”-steel bones that help support the whole structure and the skirts.

casings for the cartwheel spokes
Threading the reed into the casings

This whole structure would not support itself alone. ​A bum roll stuffed tightly with fiberfill also sits at the waist and the cartwheel then rests on top of this.

The Finished Cartwheel Fathingale

If you look closely, you will see that the farthingale is sitting on the outside of the corset in back. But look back at that first picture. The corset is on the outside of the farthingale in the front. You don’t want the weight of all that fabric digging into the waist and the corset actually protects against this.

​To get the tilt on the skirt​, the long point of the corset goes over the top of the cartwheel to push the front down.

And just in case that isn’t enough, the final step is to slide a wooden “busk” about 1 ½” wide by 14” long inside the front of the corset to hold it tight.

​The queen puts the quilted petticoat over all of this.

While the audience never sees all of these costume components, this is what supports the yards and yards of silk that make her gowns look the way they should.

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