Getting the Actors Dressed for the Show

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Rosemary Pardee's favorite moment comes after days of planning, sewing and fittings. It's when actors dress for the first time in costumes she has designed.

"That's really the magic moment," she said. "They cease to be a costume and become the clothing of the character. . . . What you've imagined and drawn on paper is suddenly just there."

Pardee, a costume designer for 35 years, has worked for theaters, films and traveling productions, creating costumes with 18th-century grandeur or 21st-century grime. She has worked for the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center and President Clinton's first inauguration. Last spring, she did her 100th production for the Round House Theatre.

While studying theater at the University of Maryland, she was intent on becoming an actress until an acting professor quietly steered her to the costume shop. That lesson has stuck with her: "Give something a chance if you love the art form."

She starts her work long before rehearsals, in early planning meetings where she hears the director's vision for the production. "My goal is to almost have my work be invisible, to support the story, the director's ideas," she said. Budgets are a factor -- although not, to Pardee's thinking, a big one.

"Great design is great design whether I do it in silk and brocade or lawn and leaf bags," she said. "Your imagination is limitless."

Pardee figures 15 costume designers work full time around Washington, much of it nights and weekends. That's the hard part for her -- heading to work when others are coming home. And sometimes, she gets so busy with two or three projects that she misses opening night.

-- Vickie Elmer

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