One of the insights I had while wearing an Edwardian-style blouse rented from the National Theatre’s costume department is that actors can often be physically a lot smaller in real life than they appear on stage and screen.
I had the same realisation a few years ago while standing in front of a display of costumes from famous films at the Hollywood Costume Exhibition at the V&A Museum. I wondered how some of the actresses squeezed themselves into such tiny dresses and the actors wore such short trousers. Except this time it was me squeezing myself into a tiny blouse in the toilets of the London WILPF Headquarters and staring at the name inscribed on the label: Zoe Wanamaker, The Cherry Orchard.
Lindsey Holmes (of Costumiersaurus), our costume designer, had inadvertently handed me the actual shirt that had been worn by the famous actress in the National Theatre’s 2011 production of Anton Chekhov’s well-known play. What I was definitely sure of, as I struggled to do up the many buttons, was that Ms Wanamaker was most definitely a lot smaller than me in the waist area! I was, despite the tight fit, very excited to be wearing a piece of theatre history.
The search for an Edwardian costume for the These Dangerous Women documentary began one cold Saturday morning in South London on Balham High Road. I had been sent a small black and white photo by our director, Charlotte Bill, of the original peace activists in 1915 and had Googled Edwardian fashion and carefully read Lindsey Holmes’ detailed instructions of what we could bring to the shoot.
I already owned a long dark skirt that had several frills at the back that I thought would resemble a kind of bustle, and I had a long frock-style coat and some small woollen gloves. I was on the lookout for a hat, a shawl or scarf, a blouse or shirt, a carpet bag and a pair of black old-fashioned ankle boots.
I began my search in the three charity shops closest to home. Unfortunately, the first two shops yielded nothing, the idea of rummaging through TK-Maxx filled me with dread and I had almost given up by the time I reached the local Trinity Hospice charity shop. It was here I struck gold! This particular charity shop had an excellent selection of vintage clothing that was more old-fashioned and eclectic than the rest of the local stores.
As I searched through the racks, I began to think about the clothes that we wear every day and how fashion has so drastically changed in the last 100 years, especially for women. Even items that appear quite dated to us now in the 21st century still have a more modern design to them than anything that was likely to be worn in 1915. I could just about get away with my long skirt, but every blouse I tried on was far too modern, from the vintage 1970s white lacy item to the spotted 1950s shirt with a stiff collar. Even finding a hat was difficult. I remember my Grandfather telling me when I was a child, that everyone wore hats when he was younger. He described hats as being an integral part of an outfit, no one would go outdoors without one. Now finding a hat with a brim that was not a straw sun hat or a wool bobble hat was proving very hard indeed. Eventually I found a purple felt hat that was decorated with a large feather and a fur collar that I could wear over my coat and a strange shirt that might just about pass muster.
Later that week, I met Charlotte, Lindsey and some of the other volunteers at the WILPF London offices for a costume fitting. One-by-one volunteers came in and tried on an array of hats, blouses, coats and shoes, some of which had been rented from the National Theatre’s costume department. They arrived as modern women and disappeared into the toilets only to emerge as Edwardians as if they had been in a time machine. Charlotte kindly lent me her pair of black boots, Lindsey passed me Zoe Wanamaker’s forgotten blouse and I was given a large embroidered carpet bag. By the end of the day I looked the part and I was totally in love with my purple hat.
On the morning of the filming when I stepped outside and carefully made my way down the steps of my home, hitching up my long skirt and clutching my hat to my head while balancing my carpet bag in the crook of my elbow, I really felt like an Edwardian lady! The ease of movement that I had experienced as a 21st century woman was gone. I had exchanged my skinny jeans and trainers for a long restrictive skirt and a pair of heavy black boots. My waist was squeezed into a small frilly buttoned blouse and my long hair was tightly fastened into bun underneath my felt hat. In the outfit I felt the part, but I also felt restricted and more than a little confined. Imagining the “Dangerous Women” of WILPF in 1915 travelling across Europe in such an outfit only added to the respect and awe that I already felt for them in bravely pursuing their cause for peace. I am also happy to say I kept that lovely purple hat!