Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  March 31, 2017

Inside a Costume Hire House: a visit to Bristol Costume Services

Inside a Costume Hire House: A Visit to Bristol Costume Services
a student's perspective
Report by Ambassador Araminta Pain

Spread across two floors Bristol Costume Services houses an array of costumes of all periods from the medieval to the modern day. There is dress for men and women. Costumes to cover ancient times to the 19th century are stored on the first floor.  20th century costume is on the second floor along with a 'light entertainment’ wardrobe for pantomime and  burlesque.  It is a vast place so as you can imagine I only saw a tiny snap shot of what they have in the two hours I was there.

I was on a visit as part of my university course. I mainly used this trip as a chance to research costumes that related to my latest project, a 1980’s outfit with an 18th century twist, based on jacket styles.  My mission was clear.  First I looked for 1980’s suit jackets and late 18th century caraco bodices. I was able to find several jackets and three bodices that fitted my brief. 

Starting with the 18th century bodices I examined the practical features of the garments, to gain a better understanding of the standard of production used in theatre costume making. The combinations of fastenings used in the three different examples of bodice gave me a really good insight into how well fastenings work on these garments. Bearing in mind that these are costumes with a specific purpose, rather than historic originals, it was interesting to note that one bodice was fastened with giant poppers as well as hook and bar tape for extra security. Another had hooks and bars sewn on individually on alternating sides. One piece wasn’t lined, perhaps so that the garment could be washed frequently. However one was lined and dress shields were sewn under the armholes to protect the silk fabric lining. The third one was only half lined on the tail coat style draped panel. This was probably because it was very full and long and may have shown on the underside.

From a design perspective they were so inspiring. My design incorporates a peplum that forms into two points. Each of the three bodices had interesting examples of similar effects. One created a sharp point at the centre back in a 1780s-90s style with an additional panel; this folds in when lying straight, but would splay out over a bum roll/full skirt. The second created a short flared peplum using box pleats; this doesn’t create any sort of pointed feature at the waist but would have a nice line and fit. 

The third bodice was fitted with a stomacher front panel and a peplum forming a full tailcoat shape at the back. This is cut in panels to create the very full shape. It was a very heavy garment because there was so much fabric in the back panel. The exaggerated, oversized collar and panelling suggested to me it had been made to costume a comical character. This is  also reflected in the broad striped fabric and binding. The strong royal blue buttons matching the  binding suggest a confident character, the colour combinations producing a bold striking design. I was also interested in the placement of the stripe pattern: the front and back panels in particular were cut in an attractive way. However they didn’t match the stripes on the bodice/peplum waist seam, which would have improved the costume. 

I also needed to research 1980’s suit jackets so went up to the second floor to look at the 1980’s stock. The second floor is less ordered than the first. There is no lighting, and it is difficult to see the costumes if you are in the centre of the room, so I had to take everything over to the windows to see it properly. I mainly wanted to look at 1980’s jackets to examine their construction, taking note of the size of shoulder pads and lining construction.

Whereas all the period costume has clearly been made for performance,  the 20th century wardrobe is mostly stocked with vintage clothing. The jackets I looked at were vintage pieces from Jigsaw, Hobbs, and Jacques Vert to name a few. From examining several pieces I was able to identify some key construction features: all have a two inch pleat in the centre back of the lining for ease, and the thickness of shoulder pads vary from approximately 3 to 6 centimetres. I also found a really nice pencil skirt, part of a two-piece suit; it had a flattering waistband shape and dart placements on the skirt back.

As well as finding costumes to inform my research I looked around generally at the different stock. There is a huge selection of unusual pieces. From exquisite examples of fabric manipulation as seen on 18th century bodices, with beautiful scalloped edged flouncy sleeves, to luxurious ethnic and embroidered fabrics used in Tudor dresses, capes and other exotic garments. I also came across a rather unusual set of headdresses including a massive fairy-tale castle, the Titanic and landmarks of Europe! They were very wacky and eclectic indeed.

Some other highlights included the breaking down section which apparently includes some of the costumes used on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film (2016). These were mainly period costumes and deliberately distressed,  in some cases nearly destroyed, such as a shattered bodice which had been shredded and ripped within an inch of its life.

It would be interesting to know what the approach to producing these garments is.  Were these once newly made costumes that had just become worn and damaged overtime so were chosen to be broken down? Or were these pieces deliberately made to be aged and distressed? Perhaps both. 

The last highlight was a rather unusual medieval cape, which appeared to have been made of incredibly thick and weighty canvas and then painted with a design. If this could be done with slightly lighter fabric, I feel it could be a really unusual way of creating medieval costumes where materials are difficult to source, especially if you need to create a very specific motif. 

All in all I enjoyed my visit to BCS and left with some useful notes. 


Facts and Figures

Costume hire: BCS charge £45 per week to hire a full costume (BCS define a full costume as a dress, petticoat, cape, hat, shoes. However they did say a dress and petticoat may also be considered a full costume in some circumstances)  They don’t charge per item but as a complete outfit.

Consecutive weeks are charged at £22 per week. 

Commissions: BCS will sometimes  offer to produce costumes but on condition that they keep the costumes for their stock.


I hope this gives you some idea of the wide ranging selection Bristol Costume Services has to offer. If you are looking to hire for a show I am sure you will find something to suit your needs. There is a great selection, with lots of different styles and it is all well made, especially as much of the stock has come from a variety of other wardrobe departments:  BCS bought up Bristol Old Vic’s store and the BBC Wales store when they sold their stock. Links to the BCS website and the course I am studying at the University of Plymouth are here.
Araminta Pain, March 2017.
  • Back view of the striped bodice. Araminita Pain.
  • Full view of the back of the striped bodice. Araminta Pain.
  • Fastenings on the floral bodice. Araminta Pain.
  • A ship in full sail! Araminta Pain.