Shakespeare, costume, and the Royal Shakespeare Company: an insight into the work of designer Ann Curtis

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By Ella Hawkins

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Archive features an impressive collection of original costume designs. Covering a period of approximately 70 years, the collection contains approximately 1,250 individual designs relating to 96 productions staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1919 and 1988.

Several boxes featuring in the Trust’s collection contain the work of designer Ann Curtis. I was recently able to interview Ann to find out more about her career, her approach to costume design, and the processes she undertook to create particular designs in the Trust’s Collections.

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Working with some of Ann Curtis’ original costume designs in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust strongrooms. © Ann Curtis and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Ann Curtis began working with the Royal Shakespeare Company (then the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre) in 1960. Without any formal training in pattern cutting or costume construction, Ann took on the role of a cutter in the company’s costume department at the age of 22. Her long-held passion for historical dress, art school training, and experience of creating the costumes for a pantomime at Theatre Royal in Windsor proved a useful background for working in this context.

In 1963, the RSC staged The Wars of the Roses – an epic three-part adaptation of Henry VI Parts I, II, and III and Richard III. John Bury had been invited to design the sets and costumes for the trilogy, but decided to focus his attention purely on set design. Ann was then offered the task of leading the costume portion of the project.

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Ann Curtis’ costume design for David Warner as King Henry in Henry VI (left), and Gordon Goode’s photograph of the production in performance (right). © Ann Curtis, Gordon Goode, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The Wars of the Roses was a great success: the trilogy was met with critical acclaim and continues to be a touchstone for Shakespeare’s history plays in performance. Ann was soon invited to design more costumes for the RSC, and went on to work with the company on approximately forty productions during the following two decades.

Ann’s approach to costume design is inspired primarily by historical styles of dress. Using a collection of sourcebooks and cuttings amassed over the course of her career, the designer begins working on each production by identifying appropriate historical styles (in discussion with the director) and transferring the silhouette and details onto sheets of paper. Ann then illustrates each design to bring individual characters to life. Metallic paints highlight the details of soldiers’ armour and women’s gowns; dabbing the paint onto the paper with textured or knitted fabrics gives each design an extra dimension.

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Ann Curtis’ metallic costume designs for Julius Caesar (1968) and Hamlet (1965) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. © Ann Curtis and the Royal Shakespeare Company

These designs are then used by a team of cutters and makers to transform Ann’s vision into three-dimensional garments. Ann’s experience of working as a cutter means that she is able to design each costume with a construction process in mind. Evidence of this can be found on many of the drawings featuring in the SBT’s collection: several designs are annotated with instructions on how each item might be made.

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An annotated sketch for Peter Hall’s 1969 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. © Ann Curtis and the Royal Shakespeare Company

Many of Ann’s designs feature a fascinating layering of multiple historical styles. The RSC’s 1965 Hamlet (starring David Warner) appears, on the surface, to be set in the early modern period: the characters are richly clothed in 16th-century style doublets, hose, gowns, and tunics. The fabric swatches clipped to some of the designs relate far more closely to 20th-century styles, however. The courtiers’ (or ‘councillors’’) costumes are made from modern pinstripe fabrics rather than historically-accurate velvets, silks, or brocades. Ann followed a similar approach in her designs for Peter Hall’s 1969 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena and Hermia wear simple 60s-style dresses, but the delicately-embroidered floral fabrics selected for their construction give the costumes a subtle Elizabethan feel. In both productions, Ann managed to find an effective way to link the period of the play’s composition with the time in which it was being performed.

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Ann Curtis’ designs for the RSC’s 1965 Hamlet and Peter Hall’s 1969 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. © Ann Curtis and the Royal Shakespeare Company

Ann has continued to play in important role in costume design for Shakespeare in the decades since her time with the RSC, working with major international companies such as the Stratford Ontario Festival Theatre on a regular basis. The SBT’s Archive Collections contain an excellent record of Ann’s extended period of working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and are an invaluable resource for those interested in Shakespeare, costume, and performance.



To find out more about Ann Curtis’ costume designs, or to view any of the items in person, contact the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Reading Room.

Ann Curtis and Ella Hawkins will be ‘in conversation’ for the SBT’s December Research Conversation, due to take place on Wednesday 13th December at 5pm.

The information and photographs featuring in this blog post are included with kind permission from Ann Curtis.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.


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Author:Ella Hawkins

Ella Hawkins is currently studying for a PhD in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her research focuses on the significance of Jacobethanism in 21st-century stage and costume design for Shakespeare, and is funded by the Midlands3Cities AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Ella is currently completing a placement with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as a ‘Research Advocate’: her role is to explore the Trust’s Collections and identify potential future research projects. In the coming weeks, Ella will be publishing a series of blog posts about the representation of Shakespeare’s Roman plays across the SBT’s Library, Archive, and Museum Collections. As well as tying in with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming ‘Rome’ season, these posts will provide a way into looking at wider research possibilities relating to items in the Trust’s care. You can also find Ella on... WordPress: Twitter: @EllaMcHawk Instagram: ellamchawk
  • Joyce Taylor

    This must be the lovely Ann Dench who was married to the equally lovely Jeffrey Dench, who sadly died about 2yrs ago

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