Sydney Opera House

Balancing the budget on boheme


Balancing the budget: the challenge of buying for La bohème

When Wardrobe Buyer Miranda Brock first saw costume designer Julie Lynch‘s sketches for our new La bohème production set in the 1920s, she knew that keeping to the budget was going to be difficult. ‘You can tell by the amount of detail if an ensemble is going to be expensive to put together,’ Brock says, leafing through the Bohème bible in her office at the Opera Centre.

The file is filled with exquisite drawings – each one beautiful enough to frame – of women in garters and lacy, satiny under-garments; women wearing delicate flapper dresses matched with period hats and breathtaking shoes; women in flimsy, feminine gowns accessorised with gorgeous beaded handbags, dazzling jewellery, elegant fans and, in one drawing, a stunning hand-painted silk kimono. And that’s not to mention the men’s costumes.

‘Look at this,’ Brock says, touching a design for a female chorister: ‘She’s wearing a 1920s-style coat accessorised with a hand-knitted shawl, a pair of hand-knitted gloves and a little period hat. Underneath it she’s wearing a dress with a lacy collar; there are glasses on her nose, and the ensemble is finished off by a pair of exquisite boots. And Julie wanted each chorus member to look different from the others, so you’re looking at 48 different pairs of gloves, 48 different scarves/shawls, two dozen different period coats.’

If making budget was going to be tough, Wardrobe Director Lyn Heal was not going to be beaten. She asked Brock to buy what she could as finished articles – as cheaply as possible – so that what remained of the budget could be used to create eye-catching accent pieces for key characters.

Brock started with the men’s coats, fine-combing opshops and trawling the internet for weeks on end. Her biggest find – from an American Internet dealer – was a pair of ‘amazing’ 1930s motorcycle coats decorated with buckles and bands. ‘You could never even imagine making a coat like that, unless you had a really good drawer,’ she says. They were $50 each and Lynch loved them so much that she styled Marcello’s coat on them. ‘That’s when you think, ‘Geez I’m good!’ Brock laughs, adding, ‘What’s the point in this job if you’re not going to get excited?’

Having bought almost all the men’s coats online, for much less than it would have cost to make them, she tackled the next layer of pieces – ‘extraordinary knitted things’ – starting off with scarves with hoods attached to them from a Polish supplier, at $5 each. They were the wrong colour but the Art Department dyed them. Wardrobe used the scarves to cover coats that didn’t look 1920s.

Gloves were next on the list. Fifty pairs were needed, and Lynch didn’t want acrylic or machine-knitted. ‘They all had to look individual and since we couldn’t afford to pay someone to hand-knit them, I bought them from lots of little Internet shops. It was fun, and supporting people who run little craft businesses from home, often in isolated areas, is very gratifying.’ In the end, each of the 48 chorus members got to wear a different pair of hand-knitted gloves.

Sourcing fabric was relatively straightforward. Lynch had been approached to design the Bohème costumes just before leaving for a big overseas trip, which enabled her to source swatches in Korea, Hong Kong and New York. Brock later scanned them in and ordered the fabric. ‘That was extremely helpful. Not many designers would do that.’

Some fabrics came from down the road in Surry Hills. ‘Julie is really clever at using modern material in a 1920s way, and once I realised that she was happy with $5-cloth, it made things easier,’ Brock says. A cheap fabric is not necessarily cheap, though. ‘This is cheap for me,’ Brock says, scrunching a piece of black sequinned netting from the bible between her thumb and forefinger, ‘but once it goes into the workroom it becomes expensive because handling such a fragile fabric is time-consuming.’  

Tassles, fringes and borders were made to order in India. ‘You just can’t go to the shops to buy 25 hand-stitched tassles’, and Brock arranged for borders to be embroidered, then asked a work-experience student to stitch them on.

Fabric for Benoit’s suit proved a challenge. Lynch wanted a green check;  Brock found something that was almost right in a furnisher’s shop in Rushcutters Bay, and an over-dye, courtesy of the Art Department, did the trick.

Fabric for the potato seller’s costume was sourced from Fratelli Fresh in Pott’s Point. ‘The sacks were full of earth. We shook out all the dirt, then washed the sacks, cut them up and made the costume.’

With fabric out of the way, Brock tackled hats. ‘Bohème is a massive hat show. I ordered most of the bought ones from the US, and as they arrived I set them up on a table. With each new one that came in, [Wardrobe Director] Lyn [Heal] would ask, ‘Haven’t you got enough?’  While Wardrobe made a few beautiful hats from scratch – ‘I found this dear little velvet beret that Julie loved so much, she styled Mimì’s hat on it’ – the majority was bought and re-trimmed.

Re-trimming hats – sometimes cutting up two to make one – with millinery trimmings from Brock’s favourite vintage eBay shop, was a lot of work, but having saved so much on jackets and gloves, it was an affordable expense.

Upstairs in the Wig Department, where she takes Allerta! to view a few of Bohème’s gorgeous finished hats, she picks up a hair piece for a prostitute, pointing out how this delicate item was assembled from a pair of earrings, part of a necklace, some Christmas decoration, ‘and a bit of cleverness’.

In the end, through a careful financial balancing act and the efforts of all its staff members, Wardrobe made budget and Lynch got the costumes she’d envisaged. As Brock says: ‘The costumes turned out exactly the way Julie had imagined. Even better.’