{On Costume Design}

A still from my first costuming job, The Music Man. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I made Marian Paroo’s skirts flowier as her personality loosened up.

This past Wednesday was World Theater Day. I actually didn’t know that until the actual day, but I happened to be reflecting on instagram about costume design. I had posted a picture from The Little Mermaid and wrote some brief thoughts on the subject. I was in kind of a mood so I started playing with some fabric samples for next year’s show, laying them out and looking at them together and I just felt so happy and out of my funk so quickly that I had to say something about how much I love costuming.

It turns out, I have always loved costuming, but I didn’t realize how much until I started to do it. But when I think back on my childhood and teen years, I was always doing something with a costume. I loved Halloween, I loved picking out costumes. My cousins and I used to make ridiculous home movies together, and we would pick and choose from piles of things lying around the house and create costumes. No game was complete without a costume of some sort. I loved the “house” section in my kindergarten classroom because it had dress up.

As a teenager, I didn’t dress in costumes as often, but they were still fun. We looked for excuses to wear them, like themed parties and things like that. But I became more interested in costume design around this time. I was a Titanic super-fan (yeah, I saw it ten times in theaters), and part of that was because I thought Kate Winslet’s dresses were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. However, before that, my aunt and I would go to movies JUST to see pretty costumes all the time. Without even realizing it, costumes had just seeped into my brain.

My design for Addaperle in The Wiz. I did kind of a 30’s design, but all her outfits were more 20’s based since she’s supposed to be “behind the times.”

I actually entered costume design by accident. Twelve years ago, my school was putting on a production of The Music Man. Because of my interest in Titanic, I happened to know a lot about the fashion of the time period (The Music Man actually takes place the same year as the Titanic sinking). I offered my design help to the student who was working on costumes, and the rest is history. I became the official school costume designer… and I freaking loved it.

I also realized at the time that I had a knack for it. My background – and degrees – are in English. This made it easy to make the very small leap into theater because as a costume designer, I need to break down characters and think about mood, motivation, theme, etc. I need to work with symbols and patterns and relationships. So while I wasn’t technically trained for costume design, I just “got” it. And at this point in my career, I learned everything I need to know from experience.

An image from my second show, Little Shop of Horrors. I made the three piece suit that Mushnik is wearing, and we still have it. For a while, it somehow made it’s way into every show we did and became a running joke.

One of the other things I absolutely love about costuming is getting to play in other eras and worlds. I can be in the 1950’s one year, and under the sea the next. I can play in a castle with living furniture or go back to 1905 Russia. It’s always fun to do the research about the time period and the clothing one might have worn, or to just create my own version (when it’s a fantasy type world).

The three eldest daughters in Fiddler on the Roof, a show I initially was wary about doing but ended up being some of my best work.

I always get extremely frustrated when people tell me that costumes are just “pretty dresses.” Costumes are so much more than that. There is so much thought that had to go into each and every costume for a production. For example, the age and social status of the character needs to be considered. What are they doing? What is the mood of the scene? Do they need to stick out or blend in? Do the colors need to signify anything? Does the piece of clothing match the rest of the character’s wardrobe in a cohesive way? What does the character ultimately want and need? There are so many questions that have to be answered in a simple garment, and it’s my job to answer them.

My Belles had less than sixty seconds to get backstage, out of their blue dresses and into this ballgown, complete with hoop skirt, and get back onstage. My crew had this down to a science at one point.

The costumes also come down to little tricks. Sometimes, an actor has 30 seconds to get from one costume to another, so the design also needs to reflect that. This is still something I am working on mastering. I feel like I’ve got the analysis down at this point, but learning new techniques that make costumes easier to get on and off is something that I want to improve my skills in. Our last few shows have really tested those skills, and it’s fun to think outside the box and come up with something cool. Also, I cannot stress enough the importance of an efficient crew to act as dressers to help the actors.

Another challenge is trying to pay homage to original work, while also making it your own. Over my years as costume designer, we have done a lot of shows that are beloved by a lot of people. I’ve gotten comments like, “Anita’s dress isn’t red. It’s purple.” This was, of course, West Side Story. However, I had decided that the Sharks wore red (and black) and the Sharks wore blue (and green). Initially, Maria and Tony wore the colors of their groups, but once they started to fall in love, they start wearing purple (because when you mix red and blue, you get purple). So it was important that the other characters not wear purple. This is not necessarily something the general audience will notice, but they will subconsciously. I always try to make familiar material my own. Plus my Anita party dress was amazing, purple or not:

I don’t think costume design is the single most important thing in a production. In fact, it’s the opposite. A really good production needs every single element to work together – directing, sets, costumes, music, lighting, etc. Costumes alone don’t do the job, but they are an extremely important element. I always tell the kids after the show that “I design the costumes, but you give them life.”

My preferred medium is theater, but I’m sure it’s just as fun to do tv and movie costumes. However, I love live theater, and I feel so at home in a darkened auditorium, working with a great bunch of people to create a show. There’s nothing like it.

I hope everyone is as lucky as I am and finds their passion. It makes all the difference in the world.

(P.S. I’m still working on that Little Mermaid post, so I didn’t use any photos from that show just yet.)

One comment

  1. Pingback: {Costume Design Archives: The Music Man} |

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