86 – Does The Costume Make The Actress?

Who works the hardest and longest back stage in the theatre?

This could easily start an argument.

Who really is ‘first in and last out’ of the theatre?

Last week, I listened to a costume designer describe her early years of (informal) training and an apprenticeship dressing actors in a range of productions – from period plays to contemporary American drama. ‘Always first in and last out,’ was her own description of the work. She talked about sitting in the corner of the rehearsal room fixing hems, because it was the only warm quiet spot available in the building. She remembered endless rounds of laundry after the show came down, and various trials to discover how to shift blood stains.

At the Waking The Feminists meeting in November 2015, costume designer Joan O’Clery spoke eloquently about her art and made a passionate plea for people to recognise the work she does as equal to that of other theatre arts. She said, ‘My craft is seen as essentially feminine,’ and this was certainly the case in the early decades of the Abbey Theatre.

The first wardrobe mistress may have been Mrs Mary Anne Walker, mother of actors Frank Walker and Maire Nic Shuibhlaigh. She was a dressmaker by day; her children persuaded her to create costumes for the Irish National Theatre Society when they were still performing in Camden Street. With nothing like a permanent costume store and no money, she used papier mache and paste jewellery to decorate costumes. I’d love to know where Maud Gonne’s hideous, misshapen grey wig for Cathleen ni Houlihan came from; it may have been found by Mrs Walker.

Annie Horniman (the London heiress who later bought Yeats a theatre building) first came to the company as a wardrobe assistant in 1903. (Yeats thought she could little damage in that department?) For the production of The King’s Threshold in Molesworth Street, she imported bales of luxurious material, declared herself ‘an artist’ and created costumes hideously out of keeping with the production. Yeats bit his lip that time, but the second production she designed was no better and he mounted the stage during the dress rehearsal to tell her in no uncertain terms that she was no artist. She retreated to London.

Annie Horniman in contemporary cartoon
Annie Horniman in contemporary cartoon


Adrian Frazier has detailed how wardrobe assistance was used as an insult to an actress’s status later in the first decade. As the collective of amateurs started to take on the structure of a professional company, there were many disputes between Yeats and his players. Maire NicShuibhlaigh wanted equal pay with Sara Allgood, as she claimed similar popularity and status. Yeats offered her a pay raise, but when she saw the contract it stipulated that she would also take on wardrobe duties: washing, sewing and laying out the costumes in the female and male dressing rooms. Maire was disgusted; apart from anything else, it was entirely improper for her to enter the male dressing room. Yeats was reducing her to some kind of maid, and she was furious. She refused to sign.

Almost thirty years later, Aideen O’Connor took the same deal. When the Company left for their tour of the USA, she was charged with the costumes. As their train crossed the border into Philadelphia at 5.30am in January 1938, Aideen was called from her sleeper bed. She unpacked and set out the costumes for custom checks. When she arrived at the hotel that night, she unpacked and checked them again before laying them out in the theatre that night. Hems and rips were her responsibility; she may have known a thing or two about getting out stains. I can’t imagine there was blood, but there might have been tea.

My encounter with LA Laundromats
My encounter with LA Laundromats – I never did find any children inside.


Maybe such tasks were part of everyone’s deal: as an ensemble, everything had to be done by the actors themselves. Dossie Wright did the electrics and acted, for example.

Besides, Aideen liked fashion, and so may have been happy to take this on. Her letters are full of descriptions of her own ‘natty outfits’ as she traversed the USA, and she sent minute details on how the Hollywood stars dressed to her sisters.

(For those more interested, Aoife Monks has a beautiful book that details how actors and fashion interact.)

In Hollywood, I visited a vintage clothes store and was stunned by how the fabrics and shapes of the period helped sharpen my sense of how Aideen dressed and lived during the 1930s and 1940s. But now I’m having to imagine the fabric of the costumes through the 1920s and 1930s.

Vintage fabrics
Vintage fabrics


In the early decades of the theatre the costumes (apart from Horniman’s) were a motley collection of old, borrowed outfits usually supplemented by the actor’s own wardrobe. For her first appearance on the Abbey stage in 1923, Ria Mooney borrowed a coat and hat from a (posh) neighbor. In her memoir, she is more upset by the fact that she didn’t own such garments, rather than the theatre did not supply them.

The ‘real clothes on stage’ thing may have taken a step too far in the autumn of 1937, when the Abbey staged a new play by O’Connor and Hunt based on The Invincibles, the Irish republican group who murdered the British Chief Secretary and Under Secretary in 1882. Two men were hanged for the crime. Before the dress rehearsal, the widow and sisters of hanged man Joe Brady came to the theatre and offered Brady’s suit and crucifix for the production. The Company politely accepted the clothes, but they weren’t worn.

Ria Mooney was often concerned about clothes and costumes. On her appointment as Director, she wanted to ensure young students weren’t made to feel inferior because of their own clothes (as she had been). She wanted a ‘uniform’ for students in the School of Acting and even bought the material; she never found assistance to make them.

It was also costumes that brought Ria to the end of her emotional engagement with the Abbey. In her later years as Director, she sent actors to a costume company to hire cloaks for an upcoming production. On their arrival, she recognized them immediately as cloaks that had been in the Abbey’s wardrobe. They had been sold to the hire company to raise much-needed funds. Ria was devastated. Her polite memoir can’t hide her disappointment at how any hope she held in the future of the theatre died when she saw “our own beautiful cloaks–part of the very fabric of the old Abbey.”

Mooney appreciated colour and form. For productions of Synge, she brought back from the Aran Islands material and shawls she could use on the Abbey stage that looked and felt authentic.

The world turns.

In the last few years, one of Riverdance‘s biggest innovations was to bring back to Ireland all of the costume making for their international tours. All of the materials are sourced and the costumes made here. A huge gesture and financial investment, it was seen as an innovation. Ria Mooney was there first, choosing authentic fabrics over paper-mache and borrowed material.

When we proclaim that ‘clothes make the man’, do we ever ask who actually makes, washes and hems them?

Does the costume make the actress — or was it the other way around?

In fact, when Mark Twain (after Polonius) said ‘Clothes make the man,’ he added a frequently omitted thought: ‘Naked people have little influence in society.’

So for the next blog post, I’m going back to well-dressed people.

Today, I spent a lovely morning with someone who heard about my research and came to me with wonderful, detailed information about a key person in this blog who hasn’t featured for a while: Frolie Mulhern. And I can’t wait to share it…


3 comments on “86 – Does The Costume Make The Actress?

  1. Wonderful piece, Ciara. How to undervalue something – call it women’s work. Look forward to next set of revelations!

  2. Fascinating piece Ciara. The Abbey Costume Hire Dept is a great place to visit, not only is it a resource but the range of costume, the name labels telling you who the piece was created.for and the excitement of coming across an item I have worn myself makes for a very rich .. and often long visit!

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