International costume designer and showing enthusiast Rebecca Rawlinson speaks to Sarah Hyde about uniting her two passions in life and how a love for all things theatrical - plus a bit of Catherine Cookson with Grandma at the weekend - was just the beginning.
“I’m always the one dressed in full sequins for an occasion - I express myself in what I wear"
From the spare bedroom at her home in County Durham, Rebecca hand makes beautiful bespoke riding attire, period costumes, wedding dresses, prom dresses, corsetry and more. In between taking commissions for work, she juggles four home produced ponies with working in costume teams in theatre departments up and down the country. She’s sold riding outfits to America and made costumes for a major ITV production, so what’s the story of this self confessed costume addict?
“Growing up I loved watching period dramas on TV, theatre productions, and of course Disney - I had a very strong interest in history as well. I’d sit and watch Catherine Cookson on TV with my nan at weekends! She was a keen knitter and my great auntie had a sewing machine, so there was always something to be made.”
It didn’t take long for Rebecca to make her first fancy dress costume for her and her pony, using the ironing board as the horse model. It had an English country garden theme complete with wishing well printed on the material around the pony’s bottom! “I still love dressing up now!” laughs Rebecca. “I’m always the one dressed in full sequins for an occasion - I express myself in what I wear.”
“My biggest achievement has been getting a job as a costume maker on ITV’s Beowulf”
With her great aunt and grandma’s knowledge behind her, Rebecca decided to study Textiles at college and then, after a year out helping with textiles teaching projects in the local community, studied Set Prop and Costume Design at Cleveland College of Art and Design.
“After uni I got a job at Beamish Museum - a famous open air museum, not far from me, where people dress up from bygone eras for visitor demos. My job was to dress up as an Edwardian groom and help with the carriage horses!”
When asked at the interview what other skills she could bring to the museum, Rebecca told them about her costume making experience and was immediately offered an additional two days a week in their costume department! Not put off by the large pile of white shirts waiting to be washed on day one, Rebecca soon became a core part of the team and stayed at the museum for five years before moving on to other projects.
The nature of Rebecca’s work means she regularly has to re-interview for new roles. “I’m currently working on a play in Newcastle for two weeks and then will be looking again. It’s just the nature of the beast and I enjoy the variety.”
“My biggest achievement has been getting a job as a costume maker on ITV’s Beowulf. There was lots of leather work involved and you’d spend ages on sewing and gluing outfits and then have to spend another couple of days pulling them apart a bit, so they looked like they had been made in that era and not on a sewing machine! It was incredible watching it back on TV with my family.”
The point Rebecca realised her passion for horses and costume design could unite - not to mention give her a real niche as a human and equine costume designer - was when she started competing in Concours D’Elegance. This popular showing class is judged on the elegance of the overall picture of horse and rider, with attention paid to the costume, tidiness and overall finish.
“It’s easier to work with people that want guidance in developing an outfit rather than someone who already has an image in their head of what they want to look like"
Having her outfits seen more and more regularly out at shows has opened up plenty of doors. She’s since made costumes for the Stampede Stunt Company, who performed at the Liverpool International Horse Show last year, and the Kynren outdoor theatre show, which tells the story of historic England against the backdrop of Auckland Castle. She also now regularly ships Concours costumes over to America and is always very busy in the lead up to big shows here in the UK.
“It’s easier to work with people that want guidance in developing an outfit rather than someone who already has an image in their head of what they want to look like, and I have been on the fence about a few things! A lady in Florida who shows traditional coloureds wanted a completely yellow dress with flat lace and Swarovski crystals.
I admit I wasn’t entirely convinced, but once made and hanging in my room I thought, ‘it might be a bit much for Peterborough, but, actually, that’s going to look amazing over there in the Florida sunshine!’
Alongside making others’ dreams come true, Rebecca had her own share of success last year when she took first place in the Concours class at Equifest riding her home produced Dales pony Lummas Sapphire - wearing a homemade costume, of course!