Anyone who has trouble making time to do laundry once a week should consider the challenges faced every day by Lynn Bowling, wardrobe supervisor at Lincoln Center Theater. He oversees the care and maintenance of War Horse's approximately 500 costumes, and we're not talking about garments that can be run through a washing machine's delicate cycle and drip-dried in 30 minutes.
"Most of the costumes - uniforms for German and British soldiers, everyday clothing for Devon villagers and farmers - are made of wool and tweed," Bowling told me the other day, as I showed up backstage to find him working on a new uniform for Friedrich Muller, the German captain played by Peter Hermann.
Most of the original costumes, designed by Rae Smith, were created in the U.K., with parts of the British uniforms made in Pakistan by a descendant firm of an actual World War I manufacturer. "Accuracy was very important to Rae," Bowling explained. "These are real clothes worn by people in real-life situations. Very little embellishment allowed."
As we talked in Bowling's workspace and, later, conducted an inspection of the sartorial troops, arrayed in racks along backstage hallways, I wondered what are the most common repairs undertaken by Bowling and his team of a dozen dressers.
"The big thing," he replied, "is that everything eventually wears out. Characters spend a lot of time on their knees, so that part of costumes goes first. And the butts of trousers also get a lot of wear."
"Rae is a stickler for accuracy," Bowling went on, "and she insists that no repairs be conducted in zig-zag fashion - in other words, things have to be darned, not stitched back together on a sewing machine." Of course, such machines existed a century ago, when the show takes place, but they weren't exactly thick on the ground in the trenches, which were known more for their mud than for their electrical outlets.
Speaking of muck, how does the wardrobe team maintain uniforms in which mud splotches are actually built in to the fabric? "Not much differently from other garments," Bowling answered, before pointing out that the costume mud for the Devon scenes is a slightly different color (tan) than the mud in Calais (grey). "On this show," he continued, "'keeping things clean' is an oxymoron. So many of the costumes are made to look dirty."
Nevertheless, here are a few of the things Bowling said that the backstage team does to preserve that clean/dirty look. Some items are sent to a dry cleaner, which, in often eco-friendly fashion, is able to remove a garment's odor without actually 'cleaning' it. The henleys - the shirt-like garments worn by virtually all the cast - are made of cotton and are washed every day in-house. The linings of trousers are pressed every night by every dresser. Footwear is polished twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, and the bane of its practitioners is "crumb," a rubbery substance that lends trademark texture to the floor of the Beaumont stage for War Horse.
I asked Bowling to move from the mundane (peeling rubbery bits off boot soles) to the lofty (the defining character of the costume designers with whom he has worked). "The same pride in their creations guides all the artists I've worked with," he answered, a group that before Rae Smith recently included Ann Hould-Ward (A Free Man of Color) and Catherine Zuber (South Pacific).
A similar pride in profession animates Bowling and the War Horse dressers, and one always feels the motivation is to serve the show itself. "Many days, the costume maintenance is painstaking," Bowling said, "but I know that it is all part of the extraordinary effect the production exerts on its audiences." He added: "Even the toughest adults are brought to tears every night by War Horse. So the work is worth it."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.