Deconstructing the Costumes in Romeo & Juliet


A close-up look at a gypsy costume for Romeo & Juliet.

Photo credit: Lauren Pajer

The costumes for Romeo & Juliet are as timeless as the tale…

An entire silk fabric layer of this dress needs to be replaced.

Photo credit: Lauren Pajer

A total of 95 pairs of tights have to be hand painted, each one with a unique pattern and color combination.

Photo credit: Shane Maxwell

Shakespeare’s enduring tale of star-crossed lovers is layered with meaning, so it’s only fitting that the costumes for John Cranko’s Romeo & Juliet also tell a rich story. Charles Heightchew, Boston Ballet’s Manager of Costumes and Wardrobe, is overseeing the costume refurbishment for the upcoming production. Step inside the Costume Shop and Wardrobe as he shares stories of the many layers and looks in Romeo & Juliet.

Like their designs, the costumes and sets have a rich history. In 1962, internationally-acclaimed German set and costume designer Jürgen Rose created the look and backdrop for the production of Cranko’s Romeo & Juliet. The Stuttgart Ballet premiere marked the first time Cranko and Rose worked together and they became frequent collaborators throughout their careers. Boston Ballet recently acquired costumes and sets which were recreated for the Joffrey Ballet based on the original designs by the renowned Parsons-Meares costume shop in New York City.

When Heightchew discovered they were available for purchase, he visited the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago to take inventory of approximately 180 costumes and accessories. “I only had one day to do it, so it wasn’t like I could look through every costume,” he explains. Instead, he focused his limited time on scanning for missing items and spot-checking for obvious signs of damage.

Some costumes can be refurbished by repairing broken closures or replacing layers; others need to be completely remade, like the patterned tights. They were completely worn out and had to be replaced and repainted by hand, a process that can take up to three days per pair.

Juliet's first dress features hand painted flowers on silk.

Photo credit: Megan DeFeo

Shane Maxwell, Boston Ballet’s Painter/Dyer, is up to the task. “I do a lot of fabric painting, but don’t usually have such a high volume at one time. Projects like this require a team to get the job done,” he says. Along with Maxwell, four others in Boston Ballet’s Costume Shop and Wardrobe will focus their energy on hand painting in order to restore and create a total of 95 pairs of tights—each has a unique pattern and color combination.

Getting the details and colors just right is no small matter. In Romeo & Juliet, the costumes are instrumental visual cues that, in addition to the dancers’ pantomime acting, help to tell the story without words. Color is an important indicator throughout—the fiery Montagues are distinguished by wearing red, while rival Capulets are dressed in blue. Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, stand out from this simple binary in more muted colors. Juliet’s first costume, a pale, rosy-peach and yellow dress delicately hand-painted with flowers, reflects her childlike innocence.

Later, Juliet receives her first ball dress from her mother after learning that she is to meet the nobleman Paris to whom she will be betrothed on the following day. She enters the ball draped in a metallic red-orange cloak, and blends in within the group of other red-garbed Capulets. However, she quickly sheds this cloak to reveal a cream and gold ball dress, perhaps signaling her not only bidding farewell to her childhood, but also shedding her Capulet identity.

“She’s clearly meant to be seen because she’s the only one in cream color,” Heightchew explains. It’s no wonder she catches Romeo’s eye.

The Costume Shop Staff are creating two new dresses for Juliet. Although the original designs were included in the Joffrey’s collection, several drawings for Juliet’s dresses were missing. In this case, Heightchew says, “We are duplicating costumes as they were designed, and using our knowledge of period costumes to help us make decisions on the best methods of repairing and duplicating.”

So what is more difficult—refurbishing or making completely new costumes? Heightchew considers, “Well, you can really get lost in refurbishment because here at Boston Ballet, we never do anything halfway.” As fittings progress, new dilemmas emerge. Perhaps a previous alteration needs to be corrected or a sizing issue arises. “Suddenly you realize, I have spent three days on this—I could’ve made a new one!”

On the other hand, refurbishing a production can be well worth the time and effort. “If a production is made well to start with, then you can just go in and replace sections, rather than having to recreate the entire thing,” he explains.

Heightchew and his team will carry on the careful work of keeping the costumes in good shape, so that they can continue to bring shape and color to Shakespeare’s timeless tale.