How to be a costume manager: Stain, dye, cut and repurpose – and remember blood’s harder to come by since Brexit

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

Tis (almost) the season to play dress-up, but what about dressing up for plays? Donna Geraghty is costume manager at the Abbey Theatre.

I love dressing up, but you’re right, my wardrobe is a mess

We’re talking about something much bigger. Geraghty started out in textiles at the National College of Art and Design. Interested in what clothing can say about a person, she was inspired to learn more, and studied costume design at Inchicore College. You’ll also find courses at the Grafton Academy, the Lir, IADT Dún Laoghaire, Limerick College of Further Education and more. All have different focuses, so do your research first.

And then walk into a job?

Geraghty had a work placement at the Abbey, then went on to freelance, which helps you get to know the people and companies in the industry, as well as the different roles. In costume, these include breakdown, costume maker, designer, supervisor and backstage dresser.


That’s the fun job of making new things look gently used, old or just plain wrecked. Techniques include tea stains, dye and otherwise distressing. “Even white shirts get dyed,” Geraghty says. “Brilliant white will glare on stage.” Blood is another matter. If a character is going to be wounded (or worse) during the action, you need a fake blood that will wash out in time for the next performance. A production with a long touring run will have some back-ups, but there’s an awful lot of laundry going on. “If something can’t go in the washing machine straight away it gets submerged in a bucket of cold water, so it doesn’t have the chance to dye the fabric.” This also means Geraghty and her team are always careful to choose washable fabrics. She says it’s harder to get blood since Brexit, and they now tend to send to Europe for supplies.


Any other tricks?

Craft knives and even cigarette ends can make bullet holes, but the ingenuity goes into the art of the quick change. Depending on the show, a lot can ride on how fast you can get an actor in and out of their clothes.

Definitely something I could use

“For quick-change rigging we use all sorts of tricks, from snap fasteners in place of buttons on shirts and jackets to underdressing to elasticated shoe laces. We join costume pieces together: shirt cuffs and collars are sewn to jackets and jumpers so the two garments can be taken off quickly together.” This also helps under hot stage lights: layers might be faked so that you’re not seeing your leading lady pouring with sweat under her winter coat. You also need to make sure clothes aren’t too restrictive, especially if jumping on furniture (or other people) is called for.

Is everything made to order then?

No. Geraghty will meet with the costume designer about six weeks ahead of rehearsals, and costumes will be made, hired, purchased and repurposed from previous productions, always with budget in mind. There are more than 30,000 pieces in the Abbey costume warehouses. Some period productions, such as Tartuffe earlier this year, make costumes harder to come by. The current production of The Quare Fellow has a female and nonbinary cast playing men, so all the costumes have either been made or altered.

Is that a problem?

“You’re always solving something,” Geraghty says, laughing. “That’s what keeps the job interesting. That, and it’s so collaborative. I have a great team, and I love it.”

The Quare Fellow is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday, November 28th, to Saturday, January 27th, with previews from Friday, November 24th

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture