20th Century

Balancing accuracy and practicality in theatre: Johnnie’s uniform

As a historic costumer, every project is a balance between complete historical accuracy, and the demands of the modern world.

Should I spend a fortune on period fabric, even if the fabric would have been the cheapest, lowest fabric at the time, but is now prohibitively expensive?  How do I do the work accurately, without devoting too much of my life to it?  What if the fabric literally doesn’t exist anymore?

When you add the element of theatre, the demands increase.  As Mrs C has pointed out, theatre costumes are usually done on a budget, and a time budget.   Theatre often involves quick changes, and it is all done under stage lights, which are very warm.  So not only do costumes need to be as light as possible, but even then, actors sweat in them.  And they roll around onstage and get into fights and carry props and generally get dirty.  And theatre shows generally don’t have the budget and time for drycleaning.  So theatre costumes need to be washable.

All of these applied in making the costumes for Home.  I had a budget, a timeframe, but the other stuff was more important.  Stuart had to be relatively cool as he played Johnnie – which meant a heavy wool uniform wasn’t a good idea.  He also had to be able to change from a civilian to a soldier onstage – by putting on a coat and jacket.  His uniform details needed to be accurate enough to keep the keen war historians happy, while being cleanable and comfortable.

My design for Johnnie's costume

I started my planning for Johnnie’s outfit by researching the uniforms worn by New Zealand WWI soldiers, particularly gunners in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, the Wellington Infantry Battalion.

I found the Te Papa collection of Barry & Co. portraits of departing soldiers and their families particularly helpful.  The zoom function (love that zoom function!) let me clarify all the construction details, and the fact that they were all done in a Wellington portrait studio fitted perfectly with the Home story.

Next I looked at every image I could find of extent New Zealand WWI uniforms (there really aren’t very many left), to get a feel for the garment, and to determine the colour of the fabric.  There are a few shots of displays at the New Zealand Army Museum Waiouru, and one jacket on display in Turkey, and that’s about it.  I also looked at paintings, like this one, and tinted photographs, like this one.   I even looked at WWI reenactors, like the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Memorial Troops.

Finally, I read lots and lots of books: books about the wool industry in New Zealand, about knitting and weaving in New Zealand.  Books about WWI as an overview, and a few of the many, many published diaries and letters of soldiers – to see what they said about their uniforms.

What I found is that there was a wide variety of fabrics used, and a wide variety of construction techniques.  New Zealand hadn’t been preparing for war, and hadn’t been preparing to uniform thousands of men.  Different lots of wool were dyed to match a basic khaki colours, the dye varied batch to batch (and has been fading differently on different extent uniforms).  Local tailors made up uniforms.  Wives and mothers sewed on buttons.  Some men got uniforms that fit well, some men didn’t.

So I got a selection of possible fabrics to consider:

Fabric choices

None of them were perfect to me, but the cotton twill on the top of my stack worked best.  I loved the texture and colour of the bottom fabric, but the weave was too loose to set welt pockets into.  The cotton twill was a good colour, a good weight and hand, and wouldn’t be too warm to wear.

To give the fabric just a little more weight and structure, and a little more protection from the actors skin, I flat lined the jacket in cotton muslin (and I took lots of pictures so I can do a tutorial!).  I did not flat line the pants.

The flat lined sleeve

After that, it was just about finding a pattern.  I used a combination of vintage pattern reference books, a modern man’s suit pattern with a similar cut, and my copy of a late 19th century tailors manual.

Guidelines for drafting military uniforms

It may have been almost 20 years old in 1914, but I know it was used by New Zealand tailors well into the 1930s, so it’s perfectly plausible that it was used as a reference by a tailor making up a WWI uniform.

The different cuts of military uniforms from the tailors manual

After that it was just about sewing it up, having a couple of fittings, and sending the uniform out into the great world of theatre.

Stuart as Johnnie

The pants can be worn without the putti (those wool things wrapped around his legs) and with a suit jacket as a civilian outfit, and with a wool undershirt and braces as Johnnie’s military undress in a camp in the desert.

Isn't the hat awesome? They provided that

There is the tiniest bit of sclumping in the shoulders, but I think that fits well with the hurriedness of the war, and lends a note of accuracy.  The buttons are generically ‘military-ish’, and the belt came from a Army-Navy surplus-type store.

Overall, it’s a good blend of theatre and reality.  I’m pleased.  And it was fun to do something other than corsets and pretty princess dresses!


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