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In the Spotlight: Costume Supervisor Jools Osborne


In the first of a new series exploring some of the most fascinating jobs around the College, Upbeat chats to Jools Osborne about how she brings costume designs to life on the Britten Theatre stage.

In a series of repurposed practice rooms behind the Britten Theatre, rails of period costumes hang in neat rows, sectioned, labelled and ready for each RCM singer to step into. Dressmaker mannequins stand against walls papered with designs. This is where the most intricate, intimate and often visually impressive work of the opera takes place: costume creation.

On this Friday in September, RCM Costume Supervisor Jools Osborne and her assistant, Laura Pearse, are already pulling costumes for November’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro. Fittings begin on Monday and, with another ten boxes of costumes arriving that afternoon, space and time are at a premium.

In the storage area upstairs leftover costumes, shoes and accessories are meticulously organised into boxes and rails, and so it comes as no surprise when Jools explains that: ‘To be a costume supervisor you need good organisational skills first and foremost.’ Second? ‘You’ve got to be able to work on your feet.’

Jools completed an Art Foundation and a Costume Interpretation and Supervisor course at Wimbledon College of Art, then worked in film, TV and theatre before first coming to the RCM as a freelancer in 1990.

Jools fitting RCM mezzo-soprano Emily Sierra

Over the years she’s taken sabbaticals to work on several films – including Phantom of the Opera, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Duchess – but these days she’s happy dressing musicians. ‘What I love about the RCM is my relationship with the students,’ she says. ‘You don’t get the same contact on a film.’

Work on Figaro started back in May. The process begins with the costume designer who, having met with the director, creates the drawings that Jools and her team bring to life.

‘Our job is to give the designer options,’ she explains. But first, she must interpret the designs and find the fabrics. A lot of the textiles come from the Goldhawk Road, but Jools will occasionally venture into Soho or various costume houses. This week, her quest for the perfect Figaro fashion has seen her travel to the

Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, but she’ll often journey further afield to Bristol Costume Services or the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Amongst her responsibilities, Jools runs the design budget. Her main expense isn’t luxurious fabric or high-end accessories, however, but people. ‘Our freelancers are very skilled professionals,’ she explains.

Talented pattern cutters in particular are worth paying for, because theatrical costumes ‘have to be robust, like a suit of armour.’ As well as cutters, sewers and milliners, Jools may also employ breakdown artists. ‘They make a new costume look lived in,’ she explains. ‘You can have different levels of breaking down, from just a little bit of rubbing, to completely ripped and stained. It’s an art.’

When the curtain goes up on opening night, the costume team are kept busy dressing and changing singers. Quick changes will have been rehearsed weeks before. (Jools’ quick change record was broken in just 30 seconds during Così fan tutte). Nevertheless, opening night is still the most rewarding time for Jools.

‘Knowing that I’m part of a bigger picture of incredibly talented people, I really love that,’ she says. ‘I always cry on the first night – because there’s a certain amount of intimacy in opera, we really are a family.’