Costume designer Anne Kennedy may be the only person in town wearing a pink tank top. Crazy Washington weather: Last day of November and it's going to hit 70. Kennedy, whose bohemian outfit includes a black skirt, striped leggings and red shoes, is sitting in a sunny Arena Stage office with director Wendy Goldberg. This is a preproduction meeting for "On the Jump," a new romantic comedy by John Glore that presents a few wrinkles for a designer.

How, for instance, will Kennedy get a single actor into six different costumes during the fast-moving script's first few pages? And what about the garment that Kennedy and Goldberg call "the Cinderella dress," which magically makes its own entrance for Colleen Ferguson, the lost ingenue at the heart of the story? There are only seven actors in the play, but they will wear nearly three dozen costumes ranging from funky to formal, from staid (there's a butler) to out there (there's a waitress who, in her lone brief appearance, actually seems like a troll, thanks to an unseen hump, a tortured wig and an amusingly surly performance by Naomi Jacobson).

"This is just my kind of show," the easygoing yet deliberate Kennedy will say later, after it's been virtually all put together. ("On the Jump" opened Friday at Arena's Fichandler Theater.) "It's modern dress that has some theatricality to it. And it appeals to me because it's such a playful piece."

Kennedy has done the 1940s in "All My Sons" at Arena and the 1890s in "The Invention of Love" at the Studio Theatre. At Signature Theatre, where she got her first break in the mid-1990s, Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer quickly began to turn to Kennedy for everything from splashy musicals (the Cameron Mackintosh-produced "The Fix") to grim, complicated period drama (Heather McDonald's "Available Light").

"I always called Annie first," says Schaeffer, who has recruited the designer for his productions of "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Passion" in this summer's Stephen Sondheim festival at the Kennedy Center. So Kennedy clearly has range; she even spends several months a year as a costume coordinator for the Washington Opera. But she thinks she does the modern stuff best.

"What's juicy for me is what people wear now," she says. Of course, that's not what usually gets attention: Audiences and awards judges tend to be more impressed by period costumes.

"They are noticed more because they tend to be more lavish visually," she says. "And it is more of a feat to costume a show with clothes that don't exist in our world anymore, because they all have to be made."

As work begins for "On the Jump," it's apparent that Kennedy will have some interesting things to make -- a mermaid outfit for a costume party, for example, and the Cinderella dress, whose complexity arouses the curiosity of several technical departments at Arena.

Yet it's not a gaudy show. In fact, the world that Colleen gets catapulted into after her husband abandons her on her wedding night is the well-to-do but muted milieu of a sock magnate. (Colleen bumped into the magnate's grandson as he was jumping off a bridge; it's a shaggy tale.) So on this morning in late autumn, Kennedy and Goldberg are trying to find balance, toning down some of the brashest ideas while keeping alive a whiff of fantasy. The clear plastic platform shoes with goldfish inside that Kennedy dreamed up for a tacky, mouthy, scheming landlady (also played by Jacobson) are out. The restrained plaid skirt and beige blouse for Colleen -- the neutral costume that will allow the character to fit in wherever she drifts -- are in.

Finding 'The Thing'

A week later, Kennedy is off to San Francisco for four days, her first real vacation since becoming a full-time freelance designer three years ago.

"I don't think it's that admirable to work seven days a week," says Kennedy, who turns 38 next month. But it's been tough for her to break away because she's been scrambling to build a career and, in the early going, to make ends meet, even though she has been an in-demand designer almost since her first gig, Signature's "Three Nights in Tehran," in 1996. "I've never had to pound the pavement for this work," she says.

But designing fees can be small, especially in the small- to midsize theaters where she got her early work. Kennedy still recalls the "dark, dark day" when she did her taxes and was shocked at how little she had earned in her first full year freelancing. The unhappy irony was that she finally felt successful.

"When I say 'successful,' " Kennedy explains, "what it meant was that I have work that is stimulating creatively and intellectually, and I'm surrounded by interesting, crazy people almost every day. And it's a job where I know I grow personally with every project. It's so much about interacting with people, so it has really tested those skills. But practically, I had to have other jobs."

So Kennedy dressed windows for a shoe store, sewed for money, and took on too many designing gigs at once. She borrowed rent money from the bank and from her parents. "You know, humiliating," she says with a tight smile. "But I never got to the point where I was willing to give it up."

That's because she had found what she calls The Thing. Her husband -- now her ex -- had it all along. According to Kennedy, he was a Harvard grad, a Duke PhD, a globe-trotting biologist and environmentalist whose work swept them to Southeast Asia for a period before they arrived in Washington in 1994.

"He was traveling all over the world doing very socially conscious work," Kennedy says. "And that was part of my attraction to him. But I also felt like I was in the shadow of that, because I was in my twenties and I didn't have The Thing. I didn't have a strong sense of my place in the world and my purpose for every day."

She had studied for a year at the Art Institute of Chicago (her undergrad degree is in economics), drawn by the school's fiber arts department. She made art using fabric, sometimes producing two-dimensional fabric "paintings," sometimes creating dolls, puppets and other three-dimensional figures. Kennedy says it was her way of telling stories in single, self-contained images of people in clothing.

So although Kennedy had no formal design training or performance experience, something clicked when she fell into the Washington theater scene and discovered costume design.

"I found my calling, but I also found company in the theater in like minds," she says. Her two-year marriage disintegrated, but Kennedy finally knew where she was going. "It was exactly what I needed to stand up straighter. It cinched my independence."

Successful Dressing

The week between Christmas and New Year's, Kennedy supervises fittings in one of the costume work rooms downstairs at Arena. One-third of the costumes for "On the Jump" are being "built," which means they are created from scratch. The rest require the fine art of finding. Some are found in the stockpile of costumes Arena has amassed over the decades; theaters routinely borrow from each other's clothing inventories (see the "special thanks" in the fine print of the playbill).

The rest of the garments for "On the Jump" have been found the way the rest of us find clothes: by shopping. Kennedy and some of the staffers have been to stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue looking for dresses for the conservatively stylish Arabella, the kindhearted wife of the sock magnate. But sometimes it's not the high-end shops that yield the goods. Joseph P. Salasovich, assistant manager of the costume shop, scored a coup while home for Christmas: He found a $17 white skirt for Arabella at Value City in Cleveland.

"Joe," Kennedy calls out as she fusses with the drape of the garment, which actress Victoria Boothby is modeling, "this skirt works out great. I didn't think we'd find a white skirt in December."

Kennedy shopped during Christmas, too, while visiting her family in Atlanta. She even spent the better part of a day shopping during her San Francisco pleasure trip, coming up with two striking dresses for wedding guests in the final scene.

There has been a little setback, however. A thousand dollars' worth of costumes were recently stolen from the trunk of Kennedy's car near her home in Adams Morgan. The losses included a gown that Kennedy hoped Arabella could wear.

"Some thug has a New Year's Eve dress," she says with a grimace.

"Some thug's mother," someone amends.

The mermaid outfit hangs on a dressmaker's dummy; it's for Colleen's offbeat pal, Dorie, to wear at a costume party. (Several people have mentioned that Dorie's breezy fashion sense comes straight from Kennedy's personal style.) The mermaid get-up has a bra made of large fake scallop shells, and Kennedy wants the strap to look as if it's made of seaweed. One of the staffers has found a particularly stringy sort of yarn at a local yarn shop, but it's silver. Can it be dyed dark green?

They test it by setting a small section of it on fire with a lighter. The fabric melts, which means it's got plastic in it, and plastic won't take dye (natural fibers will). The search for a seaweed strap goes on.

Successful Designer

Two weeks later, it's time for the final day of technical rehearsals. Kennedy is calm; she has seemed patient and placid throughout the process, and today her clothing projects confidence and snappy style. She's wearing a V-neck black sweater dress over flared black pants, a gold loop belt, black square-toe boots, and a bold copper-color scarf draped over one shoulder. It's easy to imagine an actor looking at her and thinking, "I'll bet she can make me look good."

Kennedy makes the rounds, attending to details. She wants a rabbit's foot as the frisky crowning touch of Dorie's wardrobe, which might be described as thrift shop chic (beaded bell-bottom jeans, blue high-heel boots, a fuzzy red-trimmed coat that seems borrowed from the closet of Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler). The rabbit's foot needs to be dyed magenta; that will be the job of craftswoman Deborah Nash.

Nash's domain is a tiny shop downstairs equipped with huge sinks, a steamer, clotheslines and a giant vat for dyeing fabric. The waitress dress that Jacobson will wear is in the vat now, turning a sickly green; coffee has been spilled on the waitress's apron for a grimy, worked-in look that delights both Kennedy and Nash. Nash displays the crown of leaping goldfish she fashioned for Dorie out of a material called aqua resin, which she poured into molds taken from rubber fish bought at a toy store.

"She's a mad scientist, and a designer's dream," Kennedy says of Nash as she heads back upstairs. "She's a problem-solver, and she's very interested in what she does."

If Kennedy seems proud to show off the staff and trumpet its contributions, it's probably because this is where she learned how to do what she does. Shortly after her introduction to theater, assisting with the costumes on Source's production of "Jeffrey," she landed a spot in Arena's costume shop, where a wardrobe mistress had recently quit. For the next 3 1/2 years she was a dresser at Arena, working in the costume shop when she could. She took designers shopping, helped with fittings, became friends with then-resident designer Paul Tazewell.

"It was a very natural and casual way to learn about this work," she says. "And I was so interested. Once I knew this world existed, I became very assertive about pursuing it."

When Schaeffer asked her to design "The Fix," Kennedy -- who didn't have a dozen credits to her name at that point -- asked for a leave of absence from Arena. It wasn't granted, so she left. Two seasons later she was back as the costume designer for "All My Sons."

Considering that Arena draws from a national talent pool of designers, it has been a fairly spectacular turnaround, and the shoestring days of designing out of a car trunk loaded with clothes and a sewing machine may be over.

"When I worked on 'Grand Hotel' [at Signature last fall] I went over budget," she confesses. "I think part of that was that my eyes are much bigger now -- my eyes and my hunger for how wonderful I want something to be."

Yet Kennedy isn't out to wow audiences with costumes for their own sake. Though she cites haute couture as an influence, Kennedy never confuses a stage with a runway. "Sometimes I think it's praise when people don't notice the clothes in a modern-dress play," she says. "That means the clothes are serving the story."

Just the right fit: Anne Kennedy works on a costume for Andrea Anders, who plays Colleen Ferguson in Arena Stage's "On the Jump."