Hire an outfit from the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester for the grandest of occasions

Imogen Stubbs as Amanda Prynne in Private Lives Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Imogen Stubbs as Amanda Prynne in Private Lives Photo by Jonathan Keenan - Credit: Archant

If you really want to dress to impress at a glitzy bash, then hire an outfit created for a celebrity’s stage role

The costume worn by Maxine Peake in The Masque of Anarchy

The costume worn by Maxine Peake in The Masque of Anarchy - Credit: Archant

For almost 40 years, the Royal Exchange Theatre Company has been Manchester’s flagship venue for first-class drama.

Hats for hire

Hats for hire - Credit: Archant

Big names like Helen Mirren, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave and Tom Courtenay have performed here and it’s where Liam Neeson and Hugh Grant began their journey to Hollywood stardom.

But thanks to the theatre company’s costume hire service, you don’t need an ounce of acting ability to look as dramatic as they did on stage.

In business for over 20 years, the Royal Exchange’s wardrobe hire brings in over £50,000 a year in revenue. The wardrobe is actually sited a 10-minute walk from the theatre in a three-storey building on Swan Street in the Northern Quarter. It also houses the theatre’s rehearsal room.

For over five years Ludmila Krzak has been Manager of the Costume Hire Department. Born in Warsaw, she spent a year studying fashion at Manchester College of Art and Technology. Then she was recruited by the theatre for work experience and when a vacancy arose for wardrobe mistress she successfully applied.

Luda, as she prefers to be known, has a team of around 30 volunteers who help with everything from answering the phone and dealing with clients to mending and sewing the thousands of costumes.

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The office area is quite small but next door is one of the biggest walk-in wardrobes you are ever likely to see - racks and racks of clothes evoking different centuries in meticulous detail. You can hire Medieval gowns, Victorian crinolines, Regency frocks and 1920’s flapper costumes.

There are rows of dinner suits, uniforms from World Wars One and Two and fantasy costumes dreamt up by designers for more avant-garde productions.

There is, however, one snag. Many of the female costumes are in what Luda refers to as ‘actor’s sizes’ which means they are size 8 to 10 at the very largest.

‘Fortunately actors do come in all shapes and sizes and some of them, particularly the men, are more generously-proportioned.’

Larger versions of original costumes are replicated by the team of volunteer seamstresses who also repair the inevitable wear and tear. Dry-cleaning bills add up to several thousand pounds a year

Recently there has been the ‘Downton Abbey effect’ with huge demand for Edwardian and 1920’s-style costumes like the ones worn by the Crawleys.

And the cost is eminently reasonable: an entire costume can be had for just £50 per person and individual items like blouses are as little as £15 with flamboyant cloaks for £25. Shoes and costume jewellery can also be borrowed.

The facility is run on a shoestring but its remit gets bigger every year. It is particularly popular with amateur dramatic companies, schools and colleges.

Corporate organisations also book garments for costumed events at museums, art, galleries and civic or charity functions.

Sadly, what you won’t find are costumes dating back to the company’s beginnings in September 1976.

In June 1996, the Royal Exchange Theatre was devastated by the IRA bomb which also destroyed nearby Marks and Spencer’s and much of the Arndale Centre.

Luda explains: ‘At that time our costume hire business was also in the main building and most of what we had was wrecked. Even the costumes which had survived were splintered with bits of glass so we had to start all over again.’

But almost 20 years on from that terrible day there are over 6,000 items for hire. One of the most recent developments is a Royal Exchange wedding package, offering clients not only venue and catering facilities but also the chance to hire outfits.

For the team of dedicated volunteers, all these costumes offer the chance to step into another world. As wardrobe stalwart Irene Gibbons outs it: ‘It’s the one day a week I get to enjoy a few hours in the best possible place to indulge in a bit of make-believe.’

Fit for a star

Items for hire at the Royal Exchange Theatre include:

Maxine Peake’s gowns from The Mask Of Anarchy, part of 2013 Manchester International Festival

Gorgeous 1930’s-style gowns worn by Imogen Stubbs in Noel Coward’s Private Lives

Brenda Blethyn‘s frocks from The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

The crown worn by Tom Courtenay as King Lear

Ankle-bands designed for the late Pete Postlethwaite as Prospero in The Tempest

A 1960’s–style dress worn by Sally Lindsay in A Taste of Honey

Victorian-style dressing-gown as worn by Gerald Harper in London Assurance

For more details visit www.royalexchange.co.uk

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