Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



Mary Finn: The two times I have been involved helping with costumes for IOLANTHE, I have been unhappy with the construction and appearance of the fairies (and peers) wings.

What, in the opinion of Savoynet, what is the best wing technology?

Sarah Mankowski: I can't really suggest how to make the wings, but I'll tell you how I envision them. I recall a wonderful description of fairy wings from a novel -- sorry, I'm such an avid reader of fantasy that I can't remember where. The wings were described as invisible except when light hit them just right

This reminds me of dragonflies. Dragonfly wings aren't very noticeable until sunlight touches them just right, then, they're beautiful. But, in shape, I see them as similar to butterfly wings -- very small butterfly wings. After all, butterflies were once thought to be fairies.

Gwyn Aubrey: To achieve this effect, use milliner's wire, and dip them in the transparent liquid plastic currently used to make ultralight model planes.

Prepare to pay an arm and a leg for it though.

The usual shortcut is using milliner's wire and overlaying it with some transparent gauze in a sparkly pattern.

Alex Feldman: Arm and a leg for what? Back when I made model airplanes, we used thinned rubber cement for this. You put a wooden frame with strings on it on the bottom of the bathtub, with the strings coming up so you could pull it out without upsetting the water. Then cover the frame with water, and put one drop of rubber cement on the water. pull the frame out, and it will be covered with a very thin (yes, light wave thin, so you see all sorts of rainbow patterns when the light hits it right) film stretched out over the frame. The film is tacky, so you can stick it right to the wings, and use a toothbrush dipped in acetone to trim it away.

I never tried this for anything but a model airplane, and they were very delicate. I wonder how well they would hold up to the rigors of the stage. But if you go to a hobby shop that handles model airplanes, they can sell you some condenser paper superfine tissue, which would hold up. Or some of the stuff Gwyn suggested, which I haven't seen, or some of the iron on, heat shrink plastic that is ordinarily used for bigger planes.

Mary Finn: And what did your mother say when you put rubber cement in the bathtub? Not to mention what the plumber must have said! :-)

Mary Finn: Let me explain some of the problems I've had with wings:

Production #1:
The wings were made of wire, with white gauze hot-glued over the frames. They were difficult to construct. The wire often bent in the wrong places, or broke, and had sharp, pokey ends. Lots of glue was needed to keep the gauze taut, so the wing edges looked a bit thick. It was difficult to attach the wings to the costumes so that the wings stood out from the fairies' backs, and didn't flop around. We made mini-wings for the peers at the end, but of course there was no way to make them magically appear. Instead, the peers had to sort of sidle on stage so as try and keep the wings hidden until the proper moment.

Actually, these wings didn't look *horrible*, and they had one good attribute: By casually putting our hands behind our backs, we fairies could grasp the lower edge of our and "flap" our wings, a skill we used to good effect at the "women in politics" line.

Production #2:
Very similar wing construction, but without the gauze. Instead, we dipped the frames in glue, then glitter. Very messy! Also, the glitter tended to come off (all over everything) leaving the bare wire. It looked better from the audience, I guess, but backstage, the fairies looked a little like televisions. There were the same problems with attaching them, poking wires, peer's wings, etc. Additionally, when the glitter stayed on the wires, it had a nasty tendency to scratch people.

Isn't there a better way?

In closing, I do want to mention a production I saw at Harvard once. I don't remember how the wings were done, but I do remember that Strephon wore a backpack throughout the whole show. When he admits his half-fairyhood to Phyllis, and she says "There's nothing to show it" he had her unzip the backpack to reveal a tiny pair of wings inside. (I thought it was cute.)

Mitchell Scott Gillett: If I may 'umbly suggest, a cloth wing. The Costumes for the fairies from our '84 and '96 productions (the same ones, actually!) used large triangles of fabric that was dyed (really tie-dyed) and the point of the right angle was attached by a ring to the shoulder of the costume, while the end of that side had a ring or loop to go around the index finger. when Iolanthe was returned to the fold, she was surrounded, wings snapped back on, and there she was, a full fairy again! It looks great when they dance, too.

The peers had similar ones, but the color matched their robes, with a thin ermine trim along the edge. They were pinned underneath their robes, and when they became fairies, they just stuck their index finger in the loops at the end and raised their arms!

Deborah E Sager: Have your older sister be Tinkerbell for Halloween a few years beforehand (she took my little sister out,) and use the wings from her costume. Available at the Disney store. If you don't have an older sister (or a younger one), you can skip that step. We actually didn't bother with wings for the Peers in my production.

Ken Krantz: We have had several descriptions of ways to make the fairy wings for the ladies. Does anyone have suggestions to share on how to make the peers' wings appear at the end of the show? Here is the method used by the Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan Society when I performed with them. I could make it clearer if I could draw a picture, but in lieu of a picture, here are a thousand or fewer words:

Forget gauze, forget gossamer, forget dragonflies. These wings have to be sturdy. We used corrugated cardboard, painted and glued with glitter. The base is a cardboard square about a foot on each side. Near the top corners the wings are attached by hinges at a 45 degree angle so they flip up and out. Heavy packing tape will do for the hinges. One end of a rubber band is fastened at the top corners of the base. The other end of each rubber band is attached to the middle of one of the wings. It is best to use two rubber bands for each wing in case one breaks.

The elastic will pull and hold the wings upright. Now all you need is a way to keep them down and release them at the right moment. For this you need a U shaped loop of wire sticking up from the center of the base. Fold the wings down and drill a small hole in each so that the base loop can come through. Now put another piece of wire through the base loop as a cotter pin to hold the wings in place and keep them from springing up. The unit is now armed. As a final touch it's a good idea to attach the cotter pin to the base by a length of string so you can find it for the next performance. Straightened out hair pins will work for both the base loop and the cotter pin.

Attach the armed unit to the back of each peers costume before their final entrance. They will have to be careful to avoid turning their backs or sides to the audience. This is especially challenging for the Lord Chancellor, who is on through a long scene before the finale. Each fairy takes position near one of the peers during the final dialogue, with one hand unobtrusively behind his back. On the cue they pull the pins, then back off to do a double take at the sight of the wings appearing. The beauty of this is that it takes a second or so for the rubber bands to pull the wings upright, so at the moment they become visible to the fairies are no longer touching the peers, so if it is timed right the audience won't see how it is done

David Duffey: Alex Feldman wrote: "Back when I made model airplanes, we used thinned rubber cement for this."

& then covered it with a substance which - in the UK at least - was called 'dope'.

Nowadays, try going into any shop and asking for dope for the fairies, and see what you get.


Tom Shepard: Just wait: we will someday see a winged helicopter descend with cables attached to each Peer who will hold each Fairy in his arms. They will all lift simultaneously up to Fairyland. For an encore, Private Willis just may drop the Queen.

Okay, fellow-netters, you are perhaps laughing now, but "Peri ex Machina" is bound to happen someday, if it hasn't already,

Updated 28 November 1997