Costume design: It’s in the details

April 19

Someday, maybe, costume design will be easy. All theaters will have some variation on Cher Horowitz’s closet from “Clueless,” and with a few swipes right and left they’ll have arrived at a sartorial masterpiece. (Honestly, I can’t believe we don’t have that wardrobe technology yet. It’s 2014! Get on it, science.) But until that fateful day, theaters rely on the talents of costume designers, who often are responsible for approximately 10,000 things simultaneously, all of which must be completed by deadline, under budget and to the liking of an actor who may or may not feel like “this belt really speaks to my character’s motivation in the scene.” To find out just how the impossible is accomplished, I spoke with this year’s Helen Hayes Award-nominated costume designers. — Jessica Goldstein


Costume sketches by Kendra Rai for "The Magic Finger" at Imagination Stage. (Courtesy Kendra Rai/Courtesy Kendra Rai)

(L to R) Mr. Duck (Joe Brack), Mrs. Duck (Lauren Du Pree), and Master Duck (Phillip Reid)in “The Magic Finger.” (Margot Schulman/Margot Schulman)

Kendra Rai, “The Magic Finger” at Imagination Stage

What was the most complicated costume to make or design?

“The ducks! I wanted to look at mascot costumes. . . . The duck heads have to be above their head because you want to see the actors’ faces. We built the form on a bicycle helmet, which fits the actor really well, and then built up the shape of the duck head. And I drew the ducks in every dimension for the shop, so they would know the shape that I wanted it to be. And then with the light foam, we’d shape that for their bodies. Then the issue came that the actors would die of heat in a mascot costume, so we actually bought them ice vests, so they have little pockets in them for little blue ice pouches. . . and they’d have two sets of those so they could change out in the middle of the show.”


Costume design sketch by Katie Touart for Peter and Wendy at Imagination Stage. (Courtesy Katie Touart/Courtesy Katie Touart)

Costumes by Katie Touart. Smee (Michael John Casey) comforts a frightened Captain Hook (James Konicek) in “Peter Pan and Wendy” at Imagination Stage. (Margot Schulman/Margot Schulman)

Katie Touart, “Peter and Wendy” at Imagination Stage

Describe one of your favorite pieces from the show.

“I started with Captain Hook and everything evolved from there. . . . My inspiration really was that I wanted to capture Hook’s psychic state, and a preoccupying fact of his life is that he has lost his hand. So he’s in this 18th century version of a frock coat, and there are these ghostly images of hands all up and down his frock coat. He has lost his hand, so we’re going to put it back everywhere. So I made a stencil of my hand. . . . We took bleach, started with black velvet and painted the bleach into the stencil so it removed some of the dye. And oftentimes, when you do this on black fabric it turns red, so we had these ghostly, bloody handprints up and down his coat. . . . [And] he literally wears a wig that’s made out of empty spools of thread. It was this sort of wonderful symbol for who Hook is: he’s so aggrandizing and he’s a total freaking fraud. Totally insecure! And this spool wig was a wonderful way to underscore that aspect of his vulnerability. He’s not even wearing a real powdered wig!”


Costume sketch design by Merrily Murray-Walsh for "Mary T. & Lizzy K." and the character Mary Todd Lincoln at Arena Stage. (Merrily Murray-Walsh/Arena Stage/Merrily Murray-Walsh/Arena Stage)

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly, Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln and Joy Jones as Ivy in “Mary T. & Lizzy K.” (Scott Suchman/Arena Stage)

Merrily Murray-Walsh, “Mary T. & Lizzy K.” at Arena Stage


What’s your favorite trick of the costume trade?

“When you’re always looking at something close up in the fitting room or dressing room, keeping in mind that it’s never going to be seen that way; it’s going to be seen from a distance. So choosing the scale of patterns, choosing the texture of the fabric — I think fabric choice is just so key — knowing how it’s going to look onstage and under lights can really make or break your design. . . . At Arena, [what] was so helpful for me, is that the costume shop is just a few steps away from the actual Cradle stage, so we could literally go from the fitting room, walk the actress onto the stage, and go sit in the seats and look at them. . . . As a layperson, if you saw the things up close, you might think they look too big or the pattern looks too big. You’re never going to see it that close. It wasn’t meant to be seen that close. It’s the trick of always keeping in your mind it’s not going to be that close. Keep in mind it’s all going to be seen from a distance.”


L-R: Matthew Pauli, Sabrina Mandell, and Mark Jaster in "The Cabaret Band" from Happenstance Theater's production of "Cabaret Macabre." (Danisha Crosby/Danisha Crosby)

Sabrina Mandell, “4th Annual, All New Cabaret Macabre” at Happenstance Theater

Where did your vision for these costumes begin?

“We devise our own theater, so sometimes our shows actually are created based on costumes that I want to use. So we have a very unconventional approach to how we make work. . . . I have quite a big collection of Victorian costumes that I really wanted to use, and we got an offer to do a run around Halloween time. So we built the show, basically, because this opportunity arose. . . . Edward Gorey is the big [inspiration]. And I look at a lot of Victorian photographs, black and white. And also Edwardian — because the thing that’s really interesting about Edward Gorey is that it’s 1890 to 1920, so you can squeeze a lot of stuff in there. When there’s a dance number, I wanted it to be flapper-y, I love making fascinators, so it’s all very sequin-y.”


Steve Pickering as Wallenstein in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Wallenstein, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman. (Scott Suchman/SHAKESPEARE THEATRE COMPANY )

Murell Horton, “Wallenstein” at Shakespeare Theatre Company


What was the most complicated costume to make?

“The leading man’s armor for [Stephen Pickering], because it’s a huge amount of armor. Between the two shows ( “Wallenstein” played in repertory with “Coriolanus”) I almost used every piece of armor that we had in stock. . . . We wanted to set up this militant look, we wanted some constancy to the armor, but within the period, they weren’t uniforms yet. . . . [They wore] shoes from different regions, kind of ragtag in a way, but we didn’t want it to look that way. So we basically used every piece of armor from stock and reconfigured it. . . . For Steve Pickering’s, we pretty much built everything. His collar pieces, his arm greaves, a lot of what looks like the chainmail, they knitted nylon in the shop and embossed silver on top of that to make it look metallic. . . . He had so much action [and] he had to be able to take it off onstage. It had to be lightweight to let him do his job, but when he removed it, it couldn’t look artificial. His was the most singular piece that was a collage of all sorts of different fabrics.”


A costume sketch design by Helen Huang for “The Convert” at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (Courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company/Courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

Nancy Moricette in a costume design by Helen Huang for “The Convert.” (Courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company/Courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

Helen Huang,“The Convert” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

What inspired your research?

“I was able to collaborate with playwright Danai [Gurira] on the research of this production. She is ­second-generation Zimbabwean and visited the country when writing the piece. She had a wonderful collection of photos she had gathered from the local Zimbabwean libraries. Until this point in the process, it had been difficult to locate such primary sources in the U.S. Such material was invaluable to us as we worked to build an authentic world that could do justice to the text. Building from these key images, I was able to create the entire design.” (Huang clarified her response via e-mail.)


Mariah Hale's costume sketch design for Twelfth Night character "Viola" at Folger Theatre. (Courtesy Mariah Hale/Folger Theatre/Courtesy Mariah Hale/Folger Theatre)

Viola’s (Emily Trask) identity is discovered by Duke Orsino (Michael Brusasco), much to the delight of Sebastian (William Vaughan) and Olivia (Rachel Pickup) watching from behind. (SCOTT SUCHMAN/Scott Suchman)

Mariah Hale, “Twelfth Night” at Folger Theatre

What were your inspirations for the
design of these costumes?

“We ended up focusing on the sinking of the Lusitania and then backtracking, because that’s a very Edwardian era, [and] we knew we were going to make a very musical “Twelfth Night” and these Edwardian skirts don’t move that much. So if we move back a bit and fake it, [use the] 1905 or 1900 period, we can get a little more romantic glamour. . . . I didn’t use anything from the Lusitania, because we were visually concentrated on actually an earlier period. I used a lot of photographs, more so than fashion plates or paintings. And I didn’t really focus on one particular artist, drawing or type of research. . . . Oddly enough, because we incorporated a lot of music and the show is funny, we looked at a lot of photographs from vaudeville.”

30th Annual Helen Hayes Awards
7 p.m., April 21
National Building Museum

Goldstein is a freelance writer

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