The Royal Exchange Theatre: Costumes in a Luda Wonderland

It’s true to say that Ludmila Krzak is a larger than life character.

For ease I’ll call her Luda – which everybody in Manchester theatre land does. Luda is the costume hire manager for the Royal Exchange Theatre and when I called in to see her, she enlightened me as to how clothes ‘maketh the man’ (or woman…or child or fantasy character).

And how she can provide anything and everything to help with a theatrical production, research or even fancy dress.

Luda starts by explaining that productions usually have their own wardrobe budget and, according to the vision of the director and designer, these are sourced or made specifically for that production.

But then the question is; What happens to them when the production ends? Well, for the Royal Exchange these then progress to Luda’s wonderland, where they are catalogued and hired out.

Sometimes they find their way back into new productions, where it’s difficult to find a perfect item to fulfil the wardrobe created. Sometimes they are used to create, for example, a dressing room set for a TV or film production. Sometimes they are hired out for historical research – maybe a student dissertation on Tudor times.

Or, if you have a fancy dress party to go to, then just ask Luda.

“I know,” she told me, “what there will be a demand for. That always follows the success of a blockbuster, like The Greatest Showman, Peaky Blinders, The Great Gatsby. Everybody wants to dress in what has been on TV or in a recent film. That’s when I know we will have a rush.” It’s a bit like knowing that you have to stock up on cold drinks when the weather’s hot, but far more interesting.

Luda is originally from Poland, where she studied for her degree in Archaeology. I raised my eyebrows when she told me about her qualification, but then looked around and instantly saw how useful – if lateral – that training was.

Because everything in the Royal Exchange costume hire department on Swan Street is meticulously catalogued, just like you see on archaeological digs on Timewatch.

Luda tells me that there are systems – using bar codes for each item – which catalogue and control everything. But she prefers to stick to labels and paper files. “It would take about three years to put a system like that in and…well, what happens if the system goes down?” Luda obviously prefers the tried and trusted way of stock control.

But then I tried to test her out. ‘What is the oldest item that you have here?’ It took less than ten seconds for Luda to go straight to one dress, on an aisle full of thousands of dresses and pull one specific item down. It takes me longer to find a shirt in my wardrobe.

“This was worn in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ in 1981. Helen Mirren was the star at the start of her career.”

So that was my first question answered, a costume item almost forty years old, dating back to just after the Royal Exchange Theatre opened in the late 70s. Floundering a bit my questions got dafter. Like, how do you keep everything clean?

Well, in simple terms I guess, Luda is very house proud. She answered this to me by saying that she had one client who told her that, “This is the only costume department where I don’t have to use an inhaler.”

But in being ‘house proud,’ Luda also has a team of around thirty volunteers to rely on, who repair, alter, wash and iron if required. I met the volunteer ladies on duty that day. A lovely bunch, working away for the love of it, chattering and happy because the brew biscuit rota had gone to pot and all five of them had brought biscuits in. Bliss.

They are tucked away at the end of rack upon rack of every item of clothing – regular or bizarre – that you can ever imagine. Tens of thousands of items? Maybe hundreds of thousands, it’s impossible to assess. But you can be sure that Luda knows where every single item is.

Luda came to Britain after her archaeology degree to ‘improve her English,’ Enrolled on a fashion course at what was then ManCAT and, after a work placement at The REx costume department, took over as manager in 2005.

The Swan Street department (which also houses the set building department and rehearsal rooms), was established after the 1996 Manchester bomb. Until then these had been housed closer to the Royal Exchange itself, in the Corn Exchange. That was before Luda’s time, but she told me that almost all the costumes in store were destroyed, mainly shredded by flying glass. Most of the collection has, therefore, been amassed since then.

“We work on a lot of community engagement,” Luda continues, “It can be something big, it can be something small. Maybe just one student doing research, or a local theatre or school wanting help with a production. We have to know about styles and periods.”

And exactly where to find everything I muse to myself. Although, of course, Luda has every single item catalogued, on paper and in her mind.

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