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Terri LeFavre: Life as a Costume Mistress

Terri LeFavre

Published 1st March 2017

I was born in London in 1954 but soon we moved to Banstead in Surrey. My dad was a musician and composer who played in several big bands. After the war, he composed music for light entertainment programmes and even worked with The Beatles, combining their songs with classical music. He died at the age of 48, when I was only 14. After a day spent conducting, he died on the steps of the BBC. He probably would have become quite famous had he lived longer.

I was an only child but did not inherit my father’s musical talent. I learnt to play the piano and clarinet but wasn’t very good. I wanted to work in the theatre. My father also arranged musicals and he would take me to the opening night of shows. One that sticks in the mind is Half a Sixpence, starring Tommy Steele. 

Whilst at school, I appeared in a couple of small productions but I was never going to be a performer. My dream was to become a stage manager. When I was 15, I attended a programme that was similar to  today’s National Youth Theatre. Some of us acted whilst others worked behind the scenes. We produced some fairly high-brow plays that went completely over my head, but after that experience I was certain I wanted a career in the theatre.

I joined a local amateur dramatics society, The Harlequins, helping out on a couple of productions until I joined Mountview in London. It was the only school that would accept a 16-year-old on a technical theatre course. I loved every minute of my time there. We would make scenery, props and costumes and I learned about stage management, sound and lighting. It gave me a broad grounding in all aspects of theatre and because there were only eight students, we all found our individual area of expertise. 

I found I loved costumes. I ended up running the wardrobe department and had a wonderful time. We would work all through the night, taking down one set and building another for the next day. There was so much to do, as the college productions ran alongside those by an amateur theatre group that used the same theatre. 

After college, I worked for Nathan's, a costume house in the middle of Covent Garden. It was a wonderful time as there was still a fruit and veg market and the porters would push their wheelbarrows around. If you were an amateur company staging any production, you would send Nathan’s a list of costumes with measurements. My job was to find them. We had to stock every conceivable size, as some opera singers were four feet tall and almost as wide!

I was always busy as there were so many theatre groups around at that time. The women’s clothes took up the whole top floor of the warehouse, with the gentleman’s clothes on the level below. I stayed there a year, earning £11 a week.  My first job in the theatre was as assistant wardrobe mistress on the musical Gone with the Wind, on Drury Lane. June Ritchie played Scarlett O'Hara and Bonnie Langford played the child. I had to work long days, from 10am to 11pm, without lunch or tea breaks. You worked what you had to and stuffed down a sandwich if you could! 

There’s a lot to do on a big production with a cast of 100. After every show, everything that is washable is cleaned. There’s an awful lot of ironing and every sock must be paired. You would be amazed at how many people put their foot through a hem, break a zip or rip the backside out of a pair of trousers. Gone with the Wind involved hundreds of costume changes, so we had about 30 dressers. I would be running up and down stairs with costumes constantly. 

It wasn't the greatest show ever, but it was spectacular, with live horses and the burning of Atlanta. From there, I joined Showboat at the Adelphi Theatre, starring Cleo Laine. I started off as assistant but when the wardrobe mistress was taken ill, I took over the role and never looked back. 

When it comes to the dressers, staff come and go as most are aspiring actors trying to get a foot in the door. But the permanent staff are under contract so cannot leave on a whim. Most shows run for about a year and then you have a few weeks out of work. That’s life in the theatre. However, you tend to work for management companies and hope you’ll be involved in their next production.

Following Showboat, I worked on The King and I, starring Peter Wyngarde, and then Good Companions at Her Majesty's Theatre. The cast included John Mills and Judi Dench. I met my husband, Peter, who was props master, at the opening night party.

I endured one hairy moment during Good Companions. Six of the leads performed a musical number in bright harlequin costumes. They went off to the dry cleaners and came back a dirty brown colour after being washed with the wrong chemicals. The cast had to wear them that night. It’s very difficult to hand famous actors a dirty outfit to wear! However, Judi Dench was lovely and I worked with her again some years later. There were plenty who I wouldn’t name that were not particularly nice. 

It could be quite embarrassing as a young woman working in wardrobe. You’d often see male actors who would think nothing of walking around backstage completely naked. The first time it happened, I was a bit shocked, but you get used to it.

I was wardrobe mistress and costume supervisor on Jeeves, which ran for 38 performances and is considered Andrew Lloyd Webber's only flop. There was a lot of cast and directorial changes during the production period and perhaps it was ill-fated, although I thought it was a good show. Sadly, I didn’t work on any of Lloyd Webber’s successful productions. But I don't think the flop had anything to do with me!

There weren’t many occasions where we were playing to a near empty theatre. Jeeves is the only one that comes to mind. You would peer out through the curtains and see there was hardly anyone there. It was worrying because you know you might be out of a job soon. An awful lot of money and hard work goes into these productions and they need to be given time. But I do think theatres are more cautious now. They cannot afford flops so they’re not as willing to take a risk on the unknown.

I enjoyed a spell at St George's Shakespeare Theatre, which focused on education and school parties. They would stage several Shakespeare plays in a repertoire involving lots of costumes, so I was working long hours. I did miss the buzz of the musicals, although I returned to St George’s for another season a few years later. That was a mistake, as it's never a good idea to go back to something you enjoyed first time around. Things as never the same.

I fell pregnant with my first daughter at around the time I went on tour with Philomena. It starred Joan Plowright and was one of the most star-studded casts I can recall, although most were just embarking on their careers, including Pierce Brosnan and Trevor Eve. From there, I worked on Blythe Spirit, starring Joanna Lumley, who is perhaps the most warm and friendly famous person I met in all my years in theatre.

Theatres were starting to look for new ideas in their shows. One such production was The Black Mikado at The Cambridge, an update on Gilbert and Sullivan's opera with an all black cast. It was great fun, very visual with lots of colourful sequin dresses. A more unusual one was Trafford Tanzi, starring Toyah Willcox, which was set in the wrestling ring. I also worked on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, starring Lulu and Ernie Wise. It was Dickens' last book and was never completed, so the audience voted for how they wanted the play to end. 

I must have worked in three quarters of the West End theatres. Wardrobe departments are always on the top floor and very few have lifts so you’d have to walk up five flights of stairs 30 times a day. But when I had a night off work, I would still go to watch a show! I loved ballet and period musicals; anything with spectacular costumes, and would sit on the benches for 50p. 

The plays kept coming. I worked with Nicholas Lyndhurst onThe Foreigner, then another play with Judi Dench called Waste. Veterans Day starred Jack Lemmon and Michael Gambon and I also worked on a comedy, Trumpets and Raspberries, with Griff Rhys Jones. 

At this stage in my career, I was working on productions where it was easy to maintain costumes, as I wanted to take care of my two young daughters. We lived in Holborn in the West End, but the schools weren't great, so we made the decision to move to Horsham. For the next 10 years, I commuted against the traffic, catching an early afternoon train and coming home very late. 

I was wardrobe mistress on The Who’s Tommy, although even more memorable was An Evening's Intercourse with Barry Humphries. Barry’s one-man show involved him taking on three roles, including Dame Edna Everage and Les Patterson. As Patterson, he wore a huge padded suit and every night, we would tip Worcester sauce over it and rub Vaseline into his crutch. 

Barry would wear false teeth that were stained brown and he would dribble because of them. Once, I forgot to put them in as the changeovers were so fast. I've never run across the back of a theatre so fast. I reached Barry just as he was walking out on stage.

Occasionally, a big American actors would come over. Al Pacino starred in a Broadway show called American Buffalo, which came to London in 1984. I didn't have an awful lot to do with him as he came with his own entourage, including his own dresser and chef. The size of Pacino’s entourage was bigger than anything I’d seen from a British actor. I wasn't nervous working with him, but let’s just say I was cautious to get things right!
The Matador with John Barrowman was an interesting play for me as it involved beautiful bullfighting costumes. One of his matador cloaks happen to fall into my bag after the production ended. It’s one of the few souvenirs I collected, as normally everything is returned.

I have seen a lot of changes over the years. Today, the technical work of theatre is computer-based, whereas in my day, if there was scenery to be moved you would have people in the wings pulling on a winch. However, there is still the same meticulous attention to detail on the costume side and as many big, glamourous productions as there’s ever been.

I still go to London to watch several show a year. I love The Lion King and Wicked, and The Play That Goes Wrong is hysterical, so I recommend people see it. When I look back on those I worked on, I loved Philomena, and had a great time working on Strange Interlude with Glenda Jackson and Brian Cox. I dressed the men as well as being wardrobe mistress on that production. We used to joke around and I remember sewing the hems of James Hazeldine’s (‘Bayleaf’ in London’s Burning) trousers so he couldn't get his feet through them.

Eventually, the spells out of work were becoming longer and the length of productions shorter. I couldn't just keep signing on. Also, I was getting a fed up with the egos of some actors and I thought the time was right to move on. The cost of commuting every day was also a consideration, so I called time on my life in theatre and took a job managing the Cancer Research shop in Steyning.

After five years there, I decided I wanted a job with no stress and no responsibility! As I’d always liked gardening, I took a job at a plant nursery near Rudgwick. The job surprised me, as it was incredibly hard work physically and not at all as I had expected. Still, I enjoyed it and whilst there I gained RHS qualifications. 

Whilst working at the nursery, I met a friend whose parents owned a pig farm in Kirdford. We went into business together, setting up a polytunnel there and growing propagated plants. We sold our plants at country fairs and farmers markets and ran a stall in the Local Produce Market in Horsham Carfax on Saturdays. When my partner’s parents passed away, the family sold the farm, and we didn't quite have the heart to start from the beginning again. 

For the last 14 years, I’ve worked at Horsham Museum. Initially, I was working on the Visitor Information Centre, but now I’m Collections Assistant. I’m particularly fond of staging costume and fashion exhibitions. Our current exhibition is Twinkle Toes, focusing on dance costumes. We’ve also recently hosted Victorian, 1960s and 1970s fashion exhibitions. 

We have a great selection of shoes in a permanent display at the museum, with every pair in its own drawer, and a room dedicated to head dresses and hats. There’s an awful lot that people can discover. We are always thinking ahead, aware that in 50 or 100 years, people might want to see anexample of what clothes we wear today. I'm afraid it’s a boring era for fashion. It’s been unremarkable since the 1990s, but perhaps we’ll reflect differently in future. 

Just occasionally, I see an actor or actress in the street that I once worked with. However, I wouldn't ever strike up a conversation as I wouldn't want the blank stare back! I only remember certain people because they were famous. It’s best just to let it go!