Making the Costumes for the RNZB’s Giselle

GISELLE_RNZB, Marlowe Theatre Canterbury;Giselle; Lucy Green,A

Step inside the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s wardrobe department ahead of their internationally acclaimed production Giselle which tours 11 August – 9 September to Wellington, Napier, Christchurch Dunedin, Auckland, Rotorua and Palmerston North. For more info on the tour at

We chatted to London-based costume designer Natalia Stewart about designing the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Giselle costumes.

Creating the costumes for a ballet is a lot of research and work, where did the research begin for Giselle?
The research started in mid 201l, after meeting up in London with the choreographers Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg. We talked about styles, of how the ballet could look, the places where the story could develop and individual characters and their relationships. I then began looking into colours and came across a book about Victorian paintings. One still life painting was the perfect colour palette and that became my starting point.

How long does the overall process take from researching, creating and fitting the costumes to seeing them in dress rehearsal then on stage for opening night?
About a year from those initial discussions until the world premiere in Wellington. In that time I did a lot of drawings and research into fabrics. Some discussion about colours and fabric are not easy to have long distance – you cannot touch or see correct colours. But we found a way thanks to technology. It was wonderful to come out to New Zealand and oversee the construction and work with the RNZB’s wonderful wardrobe team. The most exciting time is seeing everything coming together on stage and to sit back and watch costumes come to life.

How do you go about conveying the dancer’s characters through costumes and how do you use colour and details to help tell the story?
I tried to give different decoration details to most of the dancers as a way to highlight the individual characters. For Act 1 the peasants’ costumes have different colours in each of the skirts, waistcoats and trousers and all in different colours of the harvest, with application of flowers and leaves. The Riding Party who are essentially aristocrats are more restricted and cold in colouring. Their costumes are set in the Victorian era of the 1800s and are made according to historical fashion guidelines of that time.  They are character roles and their costumes are complete with bustles etc which dictates restricted movements of the dancers. The Wilis in Act 2 – are an army of vengeful spirits and they wear long white Romantic tutus which enhances their other worldliness.

Giselle costume sketches by Natalia Stewart.

Riding party costume sketch (left) and Bathilde’s costume (right)

RNZB assistant costumier and tutus coordinator, Esther Lofley talks about turning Natalia’s designs into reality.

Given that the RNZB did a season of this version of Giselle in 2012 were you able to recycle or reuse much of the wardrobe or is this season mostly new pieces?
The majority of the costumes used for this 2016 season of Giselle are the originals that we made in 2012. Because the company has a number of different dancers and there are some design changes we have made ten new costumes to add to the existing show. In saying that, all of the Act 2 Wilis costumes had a complete refurbishment. Swapping skirts around so they are all the same level on stage. The bodices were also stripped back, refitted and reconstructed.

How much fabric and embellishments go into each tutu for Giselle and how long does it take to make one? 
The Wilis costumes are actually quite simple in design with no embellishments. The Romantic tutus are made up of 5 layers of silk tulle. Each skirt has around 18 meters of fabric. It is very rare that we would make one tutu at a time. For this production all 20 tutus were cut at the same time. Then all layers are gathered and sewn onto the basques (yoke of the skirt), which took a number of weeks.

Are the tutus designed to be laundered by hand, machine or dry-cleaning, and are they washed after each performance?
The tutus are generally dry-cleaned. But before I stripped back the bodices I left them soaking in warm water and concentrated laundry powder to get them back to a bright white.

How many people are there in the RNZB’s costume department and are there many of you that accompany the tour?
There are four full time staff in the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s wardrobe department. We hire more contract staff as required. One of the team will go on accompany the dancers on tour – that person will be responsible for dressing and maintaining (cleaning, doing repairs etc) the production during the season.

What is your favourite part of your job?
There are so many things I enjoy about my job. The main payoff is always opening night. It is always a great feeling of achievement.  I can also enjoy the show without concentrating on what needs to be altered or repaired.

The Wilis dance in Giselle. Photo by Bill Cooper.

See the RNZB’s wardrobe video on YouTube here.

Images supplied.

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