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Costume supervisor Sarah Bowern: ‘Opera is the meatiest way to do good costume – it’s so grand’

Sarah Bowern Sarah Bowern

The English National Opera costume supervisor boasts an impressive CV that includes Terry Gilliam’s Benvenuto Cellini and Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close. She tells Liz Hoggard about bringing diverse designers’ visions to life, meeting Arthur Miller on her first job and why a cheese grater is an essential bit of kit in a costume department

Sarah Bowern, costume supervisor at English National Opera, is explaining how to distress fabric to give it that authentic period feel. “Once our dye department gets the costumes, the [team] takes the cheese grater to them. We’ll also use sandpaper to give that worn, rough look.”

Based at ENO’s studios in West Hampstead, Bowern manages the team that puts the costumes together. Her job is to realise the designs drawn by the opera’s designer and put them on stage at the Coliseum. She meets the designer before rehearsals to go through drawings and visual references. Then she chooses fabric and sends samples to her costume makers, along with designs and the measurements of the cast.

Her CV includes Terry Gilliam’s 2014 production of Benvenuto Cellini – “bonkers but so exciting” – and Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close two years later. This season, she worked with the Tony and Olivier-award winning costume designer Catherine Zuber on the wonderfully fresh revival of Porgy and Bess at the Coliseum.

The cast of Porgy and Bess in 2018. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The cast of Porgy and Bess in 2018. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“For Porgy and Bess, we bought brand-new fabrics then bleached them to give them sepia tones, so it didn’t look crisp and new. It was a co-production with the Met and the Dutch National Opera, so we had a good budget, which is rare,” she smiles.

Her next project is the musical Man of La Mancha, starring Kelsey Grammer and opera singer Danielle de Niese. “Man of La Mancha is a play within a play. The story goes back in time, so we’re making costumes for Kelsey and Danielle, and then giving them that broken-down quality,” she says.

Bowern has been at ENO for seven years, but in the past worked on theatre at the Young Vic, the National and Shakespeare’s Globe. Opera “is the meatiest way to do good costume”, she says. “It’s grander than theatre. You can paint a picture with opera singers more. With actors in straight theatre, they have much more say over what they wear. I’m lucky at the ENO, because there’s lots of big costumey shows and lots of period stuff.”

Do opera singers have more complex physical needs than actors? “Danielle de Niese really likes having the corset tight; she likes it pushed against her diaphragm. But we have a lot of singers who ask you to take all the boning out of a rigid garment, or ask for elastic rather than corset lace.”

Kelsey Grammer and Danielle de Niese to star in Man of La Mancha at London Coliseum

At ENO, the wardrobe department tends to make – rather than hire – costumes because they have a lot of co-productions with international companies such as the Met or Houston Grand Opera, where shows will be on tour for months at a time. Costumes for the popular revivals, such as The Mikado and Jonathan Miller’s La Boheme, are packed and kept at ENO’s store in Charlton, south London. As a result, Bowern and her team are forklift-truck-trained: “Words I thought I would never say.”

When costumes are needed again, they’re unpacked and freshened up. “A lot of our chorus members are very different sizes to when they first performed a show,” she laughs.

Glenn Close and Michael Xavier in Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum . Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Bowern never set out to work in costume. She did an art foundation, intending to go into textiles and fashion. But on the course they did a two-week project with the Young Vic. “We had a tour of the workrooms and wardrobe and I was just blown away by this space and everyone buzzing around backstage. So I asked if I could come back and do work experience there.”


Q&A Sarah Bowern

What was your first non-theatre job?
Apart from student pub jobs, I’ve always worked in theatre.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Dresser at the Young Vic.

What is your next job?
Man of La Mancha, then Orpheus in the Underworld with Emma Rice and designer Lez Brotherston. I worked with them on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg back in 2011, so I’m particularly excited.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You won’t get rich working in theatre.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with many incredible designers. Highlights have been Paul Brown, Lez Brotherston and Catherine Zuber, all of whom I greatly admired before working with them. 

If you hadn’t been a costume designer, what would you have done?
Something creative, maybe photography or textile design. I really can’t imagine doing anything else.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No – although some actors in the past have refused to wear green costumes as it’s regarded as unlucky.

Her first project was in 1989, on the Arthur Miller play Two-Way Mirror with Helen Mirren and Bob Peck. “On my first day, I was in a fitting with Helen Mirren passing pins to the costume maker. And Arthur Miller came in to see her in costume.”

Inspired, she did a three-year course in Theatre Design and Construction at Croydon College. “We learned to make and break down costumes and about lighting and set design. We also worked on amateur productions at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, where we had to pull together a team. I remember my tutor telling me: ‘You’d make a really great supervisor.’ She could see where my strength lay, I guess.”

Willard White in Benvenuto Cellini in 2014. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Willard White in Benvenuto Cellini in 2014. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

To earn extra money, she worked as a dresser at the Young Vic in the evenings. “I did Anna Christie with Natasha Richardson, which was wonderful.”

After graduating, she worked in TV and film for a while, followed by Starlight Express, where she “realised I liked the buzz of theatre more”. She worked her way up as a freelance wardrobe mistress. Age 25, Bowern became a costume supervisor for Opera Ireland in Dublin. “It was my first proper taste of opera and the lavishness of the costumes. I stayed 10 years, and met my partner, the father of my children, who also works in the theatre.”

She joined ENO in 2012. As a manager, she misses designing. But the job is creative. She tends to work on the big new shows rather than revivals, and still writes out a synopsis for every opera. “My gang often takes the mickey out of me because I’ll do my own version – ‘She did this, she met a bloke, she jumps off a cliff at the end.’ It would have the composer turning in his grave, but it’s practical…”

She talks openly about the pay dispute (now resolved) at ENO and the more general issues of working in costume in the industry. “We’ve had a big parity plight here – not just about pay but also the recognition of what we do. Costume is a female-heavy department, so with wardrobe and wigs and the dressers, we’re quite often seen as stitchers and sewers backstage. We’re in our pinnies rather than moving heavy set around. So we’ve felt undervalued as a department. I think many of my colleagues in big theatres feel the same too. But ENO has been great, and very forward-thinking under the new management, and we’re treated equally with other technical departments now. It’s been a long time coming, but we’re very grateful they did it.”

Ben Johnson, Andrew Shore and Ben McAteer in Iolanthe in 2018. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ben Johnson, Andrew Shore and Ben McAteer in Iolanthe in 2018. Photo: Tristram Kenton

There are other challenges to the job. The costume team works long hours before a first night. Sometimes, those in the department are dealing with artists taking on a tense role. “They come off stage and you’ll get the brunt of it. Usually it’s not intentional but a few people have been a nightmare,” she says diplomatically.

Bowern has taken her team on group outings to the Dior exhibition and to see the Alexander McQueen documentary. For her and fellow costume supervisor Sarah Hamza, it is a job where they are constantly learning; they do the textile fairs and learn about new fabrics. “There’s a big push on sustainable fabrics, and I’d really like to get better at that here,” she says. “We’re all a bit more conscious of what we buy, especially for the modern shows because it’s very easy to click on Amazon and then discover your stuff has come from India or China.”

Working in costume can have its downsides. She jokingly worries she has ruined watching theatre for her kids, aged 10 and 12. “I took my son, Dylan, to see The Tiger Who Came to Tea when he was four, and he looked at the backdrop and said: ‘That’s a blanket with stars on’, and complained he could see the tiger’s neck. He was already looking at the costumes with a critical eye.”

CV Sarah Bowern

Born: 1970, Greenwich
Training: Theatre Design and Construction at Croydon College of Art (1987-91)
Landmark productions:
• Othello, Donmar Warehouse

• Coram Boy and Seasons Greetings, National Theatre
For the ENO:
• Terry Gilliam’s Benvenuto Cellini (2014)

• Sunset Boulevard (2016)
• Iolanthe (2018)
Agent: None

English National Opera’s Man of La Mancha revival at the London Coliseum opens on April 26

Man of La Mancha: 50 years on, the last surviving lead cast member recalls an impossible dream

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