Costuming London Assurance

Travelling back in time...

By Finola Austin

Bristol Costume Services’ warehouse is like a time traveller’s dream walk-in-wardrobe, with rails of dresses, breeches, tailcoats and travellers’ capes, arranged by century and decade, and boxes upon boxes of bonnets, mob caps, cravats and codpieces. I’m here to costume the play I’m directing in Merton College gardens this 7th week – Victorian comedy London Assurance – so have been scouring 1840s fashion plates and subjecting the long-suffering cast to a series of measurements.

 The play is a farce about the ridiculous excesses of Fashion. Velvet-coated, top hat-wielding dandies get their comeuppance at a rural manor house. There’s a young heiress, pretty in pink as she flounces around in petticoats picking wildflowers. There’s the horse-riding Lady Gay Spanker, striding across the lawn in a burnt orange checked gown with matching cape, a feather in her cap. And there’s a host of characters leading an ‘infernal town life’, their ensembles’ incomplete without a perfumed handkerchief.

Cross-dressing characters proved the greatest challenge to costume, but small size suits from the warehouse and Primark brogues not only looked the part but also looked quite stylish with an androgynous vibe.

Following fitting, the cast and I took to the streets of Oxford in Victorian dress, giving us a chance to try out 1840s fashion for practicality. The heavy skirts of full length gowns with petticoats (even prior to the introduction of the crinoline in the 1850s) are hot and tiring, and had the actresses in need of rests when walking, and even exhibiting a strange craving for smelling salts. Meanwhile the colourful menswear proved popular, providing greater opportunities for accessorising than those available to the modern man.

Preparing the cast for the dress rehearsal, I found there is something attractive about needing to be laced in and buckled up and having someone curl and pin your hair, even if the position of valet or lady’s maid is hardly so appealing. While the cast, I am sure, will be longing for denim shorts and t-shirts before the end of the run, I can’t help but feel nostalgic at the demise of dressing as a process.

London Assurance
Merton College Fellows’ Garden
Thurs 6th- Sat 8th June 2013, 7pm with a Sat matinee at 2.30pm
Tickets: £7/5 from

You can follow Finola on Twitter @alonif01

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