The National Theatre’s first performance took place on 22 October 1963 at the Old Vic – Peter O’Toole played Hamlet. To celebrate its 50th anniversary we visited two of the NT’s lesser-known parts. Today, the Costume and Props Hire.
Think about all the productions the National has put on in its 50 years. All those costumes, all those props. When a run finishes they don't vanish into a second hand store or get ripped apart for recycling. They go into a warehouse in Kennington, and you can hire them.
The Costume and Props Hire is available to anyone: school and amateur dramatics groups, film and TV, fashion photoshoots (Vogue and Dazed and Confused have wandered the rails), weddings (we're told medieval and woodland have been big this year) and fancy dress. But this isn't any old fancy dress; you wouldn't wear these outfits to your mate Pete's Halloween party.
There are 85,000 pieces of costume in the store, ranging from suits of armour to various types of corsetry. There's still the full Salvation Army band uniforms from Guys and Dolls, all orders of monks' habits, an arm's length of bishops' cassocks and various periods of maids/bellboys/nurses outfits. And they are gorgeous. You might assume that, being made for the theatre and needing to withstand daily use and quick changes by hot actors, they might be made from stern stuff. But the NT's costume designers and workshop go for authenticity and you can find silks and satins among the outfits, though such delicate fabrics tend not to stand the test of time.
Anything that gets the worse for wear is moved to the 'broken down' section, along with clothes that were deliberately created for peasants and dirty deeds. One shining example of the costumier's art is to be found here: among the normal clothes is a beautiful yellow dress. There's a second version in the broken down section, identical apart from the lower half is covered in 'mud' where the character has been running through a forest, and little brown 'leaves' have been stuck to the material. Nobody in the audience will be able to make out such detail, but they did it anyway.
If you're interested in hiring a costume as fancy dress we recommend the £100+VAT hour-long consultation, which includes hire costs. You could put together an outfit yourself but, as we quickly discovered, if you want something period you have to know which pieces fit together and – for the ladies – which bits of underwear are appropriate. Costume Hire staff know their onions and the experience is delightful; we ended up in an understudy's dress from Coram Boy (the lead actor's dress having since disintegrated; and yes, many of the items have a tag saying which play they're from and who wore them), piled up with accessories and even period appropriate shoes. (With the corset, bustle and sheer weight of the material, we have newfound respect for actors who wear these clothes under lights and still manage to run through the gamut of emotions. We couldn't imagine throwing a hissy fit in those undergarments.) If the NT's wig department has time they can even do fancy dress fittings.
A couple of things to note: these outfits are, obviously, created for actors. Actors tend, on the whole, to be svelte creatures. Most of the pretty dresses are sizes 8 and 10, and a broad chested man might struggle to find something to fit. And you might not find what you're after if an entire type of costume has been hired out by a group or sent back to the NT for a new show.
The props section is more of interest to drama groups (choose from multiple kinds of wireless sets, glasses and so many different types of chair and occasional table). It's fascinating to walk round but the majority of us will never have a genuine need to get access – and it's worth a reminder that the Costume and Props Hire is a commercial operation, and access is by appointment, so don't go just for a mess about.
See also: Explore the National Theatre Archive
The National Theatre Costume and Props Hire is at Chichester House in Kennington Park Business Centre, 1-3 Brixton Road, SW9. Opening hours are by appointment Mon-Fri 10am-1pm and 2pm-5.30pm.