The changing looks of The Who’s Tommy

28 Jul 2021

Ahead of The Who’s Tommy, Victorian Opera’s Education Manager Ioanna Salamanidis spoke with costume designer Isaac Lummis about creating a vast array of looks for The Who’s Tommy.

The Who's Tommy costume illustrations

Tell us about your costume designs for The Who’s Tommy

There are loads of them! The show spans from the mid-1940s so World War II era, London, and crosses a couple of decades, finishing in the 60s. It encompasses three decades, and three very distinct stylistic periods, both in costume and hair. You've got the military uniforms and the ration era fashion wear, where you couldn't have full skirts and there were rules about clothing. Then you go into the 50s, which was another reaction to not having to be on rations anymore; silhouettes changed, and hair changed. Then the 60s, which we all know is another completely different-looking era in fashion. 

Then you've got all the characters that live in amongst that. I feel like I've designed a whole city worth of costumes, because you've got police and doctors and nurses, and you've got Christmas carollers and churchgoers; you've got ministers and ministers’ wives; you've got youth group kids hanging out at the church youth group; you've got hookers and louts in the Acid Queen scene; you've got TV reporters and cameramen; you’ve got concert goers; you've got the Pinball Wizard scene, which is all the teddy boys and the teddy girls, that's a big thing. There’s childrenswear, Mr and Mrs Walker live through twenty years, so they have a few clothes, and the list goes on. It's massive!

With a huge cast, where do you begin and how do you manage all of the costumes needed for the show?

The process 101 is: I read the script, I take notes, I break the scenes down. This script doesn't give away much. It lists a few characters, but you don't necessarily get many details about who they are. It also doesn't necessarily tell you how many ensemble members there are in each scene, that’s more choreographer Dana Jolly and director Roger Hodgman’s decision. 

So, I read the script, go through my process, then Roger and Dana will send me the tracks and tell me how many ensemble members are in each scene and what they're going to be doing. From there I do my plot, where I go scene by scene, and work out who is in each scene and what they are dressed as. Then I can make a costume list, which is basically just a big list for each cast member that details what they’re wearing every time we see them. 

From that I'll know how many costumes are in the show. I think this show has just over 200 costumes – full outfits, not just pieces. You can then figure out wigs from there – we're about 80 wigs in at the moment. So again, it’s pretty big. 

At that point, I work out what I’m dealing with. There are probably between eight and ten big scene changes where the ensemble is doing a full change. We go from all the World War II uniforms into nurses or doctors at the hospital, and then we go into the Christmas scene where they're all churchgoers and Christmas carollers. Then they’re youth group kids and then they’re the harlots and the louts in the Acid Queen scene. So, they're all changing constantly to set the scene – the time and place and all of that. 

Do you design the main characters first and then build the extras?

It’s a bit of both. Sometimes it's easier to design the main characters when you know what everyone else looks like. As the sets are limited, the ensemble is setting the scene, as it were. So, if I create the church youth group scene, for example, I know it's the early 1950s so I know the silhouettes, the shape and the style of the clothes. I know they’re teenagers and they're therefore going to have a particular look because they're not mums and dads. In that way, I've narrowed it down. While the 50s had a particular colour palette and texture, I know that we want to do bright colours later in the show, so automatically I'm steering clear of bright colours for the youth group scene. Instead, I picked a sort of brown-y, olive-y, tweedy, sort of palette, which becomes the scene. 

Then when I’m designing the costumes for Cousin Kevin, who has got to be the key person that we're focused on in this scene, I can put him in stronger colours so that we know who we're looking at, and hopefully no one in the ensemble is pulling focus instead. That’s probably how I approach designing most things. Or alternatively, if I've got a really strong idea for a lead character, for instance where they've got to be dressed head to toe in hot pink or something, or if there's been a specific request from the director, I can say to myself, ‘Well they’re in that so everyone else has to be not that’. 

My understanding is that this show is so crazy cockamamie, it's bizarre in a way. I felt that the set is a bit abstract, the show is abstract, and the music is a bit abstract, so the costumes needed to not be too abstract, because otherwise no one's going to know what the hell is going on. There’s also the fact that it's mostly sung and there's not much information via dialogue, so the clothes also have to help tell the story. They’ll tell us who is a nurse, who is a doctor, who is the minister’s wife. Otherwise, there’s just going to be all these people on stage, a lot of noise, and it's not going to be easy to follow. 

From that point, the costumes are based in a bit of naturalism and realism, and it's mostly very authentic to the periods and what people would have worn. Although, as the show progresses and we venture into Tommy's mind, things get a bit stylised. The Acid Queen part is more heightened, and the Pinball Wizard teddy boys and girls are again heightened, because the colour palette that I'm using for them is actually pulled from set designer Christina Smith's pinball machine graphic that she's created. It's a bright orange and purple, really sort of zingy. Then there's the crazy bit where we go inside Tommy’s mind, and it's all like a mirror ball or shattered glass. 

You’ve talked a lot about the different eras that feature in the costumes. Has this come out of research that you’ve done or is this knowledge that you already have?

A bit of both, although I guess I always start with research – I'm very big on references and research. Back at the start of last year, I was heavily researching Air Force and military uniforms, paratrooper uniforms and all that sort of insignia. Also, period policemen and women uniforms. For me, there's nothing I would hate more than to put something on stage that’s supposed to be of a particular period and get it wrong – especially if it's really wrong. 

I guess just for myself, I do enjoy researching things. It's always interesting to find out what a stripe on a uniform means, or what an officer would wear as opposed to what just a cadet would wear. Even all the different badges and their ranks, what colour blue, when they would wear a particular tunic, or just the little jacket with the shirt. There are all these rules, and that's a fun part of the job. Generally, when I’m designing clothes, I love those sorts of period things, because clothes were a lot more fun back then. I love all the different details and pocket designs, the fitted things and fabrics – it’s why I do it.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to in this production?

I'm looking forward to finding all the components, ticking all the boxes, and getting costumes on everyone. I always look forward to seeing everything on people. In production week, when you're doing the dress rehearsals, and it's the first time everyone’s got hair and makeup, and they've got wigs on, they come out in their costumes, and you see it all come together. Quite often because things are being made in various workrooms or at someone's house all the stuff sort of trickles in. It's not until that moment when you see it on everyone and they come on and they're doing the scene work and the lights come on and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that worked.’ Or you hope it's, ‘Oh that worked’, as opposed to, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’

It must be cool to be able to see what was in your head come to life on stage.

Yes, I guess it’s having that confidence, because every choice is a decision. You have to decide, am I going to use this fabric or that fabric, these buttons or those buttons, this colour or that colour? Am I putting this shirt with that, with that or with those? So, having the confidence to make those decisions and then getting the outcome you wanted, and then saying, ‘Yep, I'm glad I did that’.

Victorian Opera performs The Who’s Tommy from 22 February – 1 March 2022 at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda.