A peek behind the scenes at Ilkley Playhouse

Ilkley Playhouse

Ilkley Playhouse

“Here’s a box of 20 apple costumes that were made specifically for a play and then put away up here”.

I’m being led through the Aladdin’s Cave that is the wardrobe of the Ilkley Playhouse by Jill Coulson, whose job it is to catalogue the many and varied costumes, more than likely including full Aladdin regalia, and help out those who come looking for the ideal piece to hire.

Whether you are a theatre group looking to kit out a full cast, or you’ve received an invitation to a fancy dress do and you want to impress, the vast attic space of the Weston Road venue is rammed full of rails of clothes from every period you could imagine, and cardboard boxes stacked high, bearing intriguing labels such as “Lady Di hats” and “Jesus costumes”.

“Some of the outfits were made by our loyal group of expert volunteers,” says Jill, “and others come from very kind donations by the people of Ilkley and beyond”.

There’s certainly an authenticity to the costumes on display in the wardrobe – this isn’t your plastic, throwaway witch’s costume from a discount store; these are beautifully made theatrical outfits and just browsing through the rails is an adventure!


The wardrobe is open on Monday and Wednesday evenings and all day Friday, with the chance to make appointments at the weekend too and Jill says she has catered for a wide range of costuming requests.

“We’ve had everything requested,” recalls Jill, ”from jackets for the Tweed Ride, when a crowd of people rode cycles through Ilkley, wearing stylish vintage clothing, to outfits for Whitby Goth Weekend.

Ilkley Playhouse

“We’ve also had girls flocking to hire prom dresses. There have been a lot of women hire wedding hats too because it’s much cheaper than buying a new one! You can also be sure that no one else will be wearing the same one.”

The wardrobe department has been going strong for nearly 50 years, kitting out the thousands of actors who have trodden the boards in a multitude of productions at the theatre. Pat Wildman was the driving force behind the wardrobe from 1968, having joined the Ilkley Players with her husband David ten years previously. The collection started in a tiny room on the ground floor, eventually sprawling out into the entire attic of the building in 1999.

David became artistic director of the Playhouse, with the studio named in his memory, and Pat remains involved as part of a team of ladies, including Joan who took up her role in 1980, who spend Tuesday and Wednesday nights washing, ironing, repairing and adjusting outfits over a cup of tea and slice of cake in the venue’s dedicated sewing room.

Between them they have designed and created full sets of outfits for the entire cast of plays including Hello Dolly, Carousel, The King and I, The Crucible and Oh! What a Lovely War. These costumes are all available to hire from the wardrobe to this day.

The majority of Ilkley Playhouse staff are volunteers and the wardrobe is a great source of much-needed revenue for the theatre, allowing this valuable resource to continue to exist and delight audiences with an array of productions to entice and entertain the whole family. Theatre companies from around West Yorkshire can find the perfect set of costumes for plays at a reasonable price
and partygoers can discover a much wider and more fun selection of outfits than at normal novelty shops, while being assured they are supporting a true local cultural gem.

Jill has taken over from Pat as wardrobe mistress and brings the expertise garnered from running her own vintage company, Alfie Robot Retro, from her home in Burley-in-Wharfedale. She also organises vintage fairs at the theatre, where fans of retro fashion can come along to peruse the stalls filled with classic homeware and clothing, before taking a sneak peek around the wardrobe at the treasures that lay within.

This particular corner of Lower Wharfedale seems the perfect place for this sort of service and Jill agrees. “Some of the most popular hires at the moment have been flapper dresses and 1940s outfits,” she says. “People like the classic, timeless elegance of those sorts of ensembles and they are the perfect way to stand out for the well-to-do of Ilkley.

“Then, on the other hand, we rented out a full Bavarian outfit for someone attending Oktoberfest celebrations and we do a roaring trade on clown costumes!”

For fans of the 1970s cartoon series Mr Benn, this is like their childhood come to life. In the show, the eponymous hero would pop into a fancy dress shop in his boring, traditional suit and bowler hat, only for the shopkeeper to supply him with an outlandish outfit that would transport him to some kind of crazy adventure.

If you want to write your own adventure, the wardrobe is open 7.30pm to 9.30pm Monday and Wednesday, and 10.30am to 4.30pm Friday and you can contact Jill with any queries on 07928 814 526 and see plenty of pictures of the outfits for hire at www.facebook.com/ilkleycostumes.