Behind the Scenes

An interview with...

Head of Wardrobe: Sandra McLellan

While it might seem like Sandra McLellan was born to be a costumer, she recalls being surprised that making costumes could be a career.

Today she is Head of Wardrobe at Pacific Opera Victoria, leading a three-person department. But growing up in Vavenby, B.C., a forestry town of about 700 people, she was taught to sew by her grandmother just to keep her busy.

“She was a professional dressmaker who had one of those old-fashioned sewing machines, with a treadle, and I remember being five or six and working the treadle for her,” Sandra recalls.

As a teenager, Sandra got involved in student theatre. But she had no intention of going on the stage or working behind it when she applied to the University of Victoria’s theatre program. She was inspired by her high school drama teacher to teach.

“But one of my course requirements was in a backstage discipline and the minute I walked into the costume shop…” she begins, punctuating the sentence with a gasp, as she remembers being awestruck. “I didn’t know this could be a career.”

She graduated U-Vic in 1988 and found her first job as a seamstress at Ontario’s renowned Stratford Festival. She recalls that it was like a second education, as she learned how to build lavish period costumes for Shakespeare’s big casts.

She joined Pacific Opera in 1992, and says it’s the perfect challenge for Wardrobe, with some shows having as many as 80 costumes.

Sandra’s job begins after the designer delivers a vision for the show. She researches the period, estimates the costs, and then logs a lot of time online as she sources everything from fabric and trim to accessories and wigs.

The trick is to build costumes that enhance the story-telling without distracting the audience. The company’s 2019 operetta Countess Maritza, set in the Edwardian era, was a particular challenge with five “diva gowns” as they’re known, made in the elaborate style of 110 years ago.

Each required a minimum of 80 hours labour plus 16 yards of fabric plus the trim. And they had to pull audiences into Countess Maritza’s world without making them calculate the costs of the fabulous ensembles. Then there were the men’s suits. And the chorus.

Sandra has a pro-tip for getting a luxe look on a budget: buy the best fabric you can afford.

“It has to drape properly to look good,” she says. “We can shape a cheap synthetic fabric into what we need, but it takes a lot of labour to make it behave.”

Then she laughs: “There’s nothing worse than fabric that is misbehaving.”

She’s grateful for a never-boring job and says her three decades with the opera came with an unexpected perk: she developed a love of the music that goes well beyond the conventional favourites.

“I credit [Artistic Director] Timothy [Vernon] for that. He selects wonderful operas, including some that are a little obscure. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I really enjoy Benjamin Britten.”

December 5, 2019

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Cast of Il trittico ~ October 2019 / Photo: David Cooper Photography

Leslie Ann Bradley in Countess Maritza ~ April/May 2019 / Photo: David Cooper Photography

Cast of Albert Herring ~ February 2013 / Photo: David Cooper Photography