'TWAS A PEEK at something taboo -- an overt eroticism bursting from the shroud of Victorian primness in "Madame X," the John Singer Sargent painting -- that set tongues wagging in Parisian salons in 1884. Eight years later, Oscar Wilde's play "Lady Windermere's Fan" premiered, shocking audiences with its jabs at upper-class mores even as it delighted all with its lampooning wit and clever dialogue. Now, more than a century later, the Shakespeare Theatre is staging Wilde's comedy -- starring Dixie Carter -- for a very different era, one in which fashion rags declare that preppy is the new slutty. It is at this point that Sargent has been summoned.
Costume designer Robert Perdziola -- at the suggestion of the play's director, Keith Baxter -- drew his inspiration for Shakespeare Theatre's production from Sargent's paintings of the mid-1890s, which indelibly captured Europe's moneyed classes on canvas (Sargent spent most of his life abroad). Perdziola, a longtime admirer of the turn-of-the-century American artist, says of his designs, "Some of them are direct steals," while others are based on a particular portrait, with details -- the placement of trim on a skirt, for instance -- slightly changed.
Borrowing from Sargent is but the latest chapter in a tradition of artistic mimicry, says the designer. Sargent's work, after all, was itself reminiscent of 17th-century painters Antoon Van Dyck and Diego Velazquez. (Auguste Rodin once called Sargent "the Van Dyck of our time.") Still, "he exercised his own taste," Perdziola says, telling models which dresses to wear for a portrait.
Perdziola himself knows a few things about taste. He has designed costumes and sets for, among other companies, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera, and won two Helen Hayes awards for his work with the Shakespeare Theatre. His unassuming demeanor belies the fact that he has been called "the best romantic designer working today," as Cynthia Thom, who oversees Shakespeare's costume shop, puts it.
As with the frilly get-ups of Sargent's models, the world inside Wilde's play can seem like "it's all sugarcoated over," Perdziola says, "but you could look at the work of Edith Wharton, where all this" -- he gestures to the costumes -- "is trappings." Wilde, like Wharton and other contemporaries, dared to show the constraints of -- and rebellions against -- the seeming perfection of the upper crust and its accoutrements.
The plot of "Lady Windermere's Fan" is set in motion by a typical Victorian preoccupation: infidelity. Suspicions of infidelity, flirtations with infidelity -- they're all part of Wilde's strategy to toy with the stuffy, Victorian pretentions of his day, and Perdziola supports those themes with elaborately constructed clothes (ones that may have kept them all so, um, uptight).
As his "Windermere" costumes show, the attire of the upper class could be constrictive, with lace-up corsets and pounds of heavy fabric. But Perdziola maintains that authentic costumes are essential to authentic performances. "Having all the right underpinnings . . . informs the actors and helps them to realize their character and their caste in society." He adds, "If it all goes right, the clothing supports the story."
To achieve this, Perdziola and the Shakespeare Theatre costumers hewed closely to traditional dress design -- sweeping petticoats fringed with hand-pressed pleats, full skirts and bodices draped with layers of silk and lace, and hats of pleated organza hand-stitched onto frames. All this work was done in the costume shop, which was organized into four teams made up of a draper, first hand (draper's assistant) and a stitcher. Each team was responsible for different actors' costumes and supported by additional members of the costume shop staff.
As Thom notes, organization was highly necessary, especially as the costume shop was outfitting not only "Lady Windermere's Fan" but three other Shakespeare Theatre performances this spring. (During my visit, a stagehand walked in carrying a gnarled pair of wings that needed repair after a dress rehearsal of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Carter Barron Amphitheatre.)
Once Perdziola sent his designs to Thom and Baxter around Christmastime, the costumers started making practice versions of each one. These mock-ups, made of muslin, served as both templates and stand-ins for the final costumes, allowing the designers to gauge a costume's fit and function before rendering it in expensive fabrics.
This "measure twice, cut once" method was crucial in determining the right size for the many parts of the costumes, especially the women's dresses. Each gown needed a slip and a Victorian-style corset; next came the petticoat, the dust ruffle and finally the elaborate skirt and bodice. At least 12 yards of fabric and roughly 300 hours were needed to fashion one gown. This production features 15 of them.
Luckily, Thom notes, not every dress needed to be made from scratch. She showed me the costume storage room: a dimly lit cavern filled with rows of costumes from performances past, overseen by a troupe of tulle crinolines strung up near the ceiling. Several dresses in the show were used in previous productions, and one came from the Washington National Opera. Since Perdziola has worked with the Lyric Opera, Shakespeare Theatre was able to rent a cache of tailcoats from the Chicago company for "Lady Windermere."
And there's one more place Perdziola and Thom turned for hard-to-find pieces: eBay. The designer posted winning bids on tiaras and jewelry to match the ball gowns, and Thom found antique top hats -- plus possible fans for Lady Windermere -- on the site.
For a play lampooning society's rigid divides, bidding with the masses online seems a fitting tribute to our modern material world.