Costuming a play or musical, I start by developing a concept. Sometimes it’s pretty straight-forward, and other times not so much. The concept starts with the text, and music. What style is the show? Is it comedic? Historical? Is the story realistic, or more suggestive or symbolic? All of this comes into play when developing the Design Concept.
Working on The Wild Party ( a show that takes place in the 1920’s at well … a wild party ) my concept was Vogue Photoshoot meets Period 1920’s. Much of the music in the show is modern, with rock vibes. So the costumes were primarily modern pieces with a 1920’s silhouette or details. Hair and makeup were designed with a 1920’s silhouette in mind, but took modern fashion-editorial detours.
For the play Neighbors: A Fair Trade Agreement, the characters are two next door neighbors – Joe who is a rich American, and Jose who is a hard working Mexican. In this show the costumes were far from realistic. The author describes them as clowns, and the concept of the play runs with this.
In my research on the history of clowns in performance I came across a concept that dates all the way back to commedia dell’arte. Joe became Pierrot or rather, the high status, sophisticated “White Clown,” and Jose was a Zanni or Arlecchino – the “Auguste” clown. These two play opposite each other and contrast significantly. As such, Joe’s costumes were primarily white, or black and white pajamas, and Jose wore a blue, patchwork mechanic’s jumpsuit (harkening to the Harlequin pattern of patches).
When creating a design for characters in a show, there is a lot to take into consideration. For me there is a whole series of questions that tell me what the character wears.
What kind of money does this character have to spend on clothing? Are they high or low status? Did they get their clothes from Dolce & Gabbana, or do they have hand-me-downs?Are they someone who cares about their clothes, or do they just throw on whatever is closest to them when they wake up? What is their occupation?
We all know that clothing says a lot about who we are. For me it’s all about stepping into that character’s shoes and thinking about what their life is like. I love to find those tiny details that tell a story.
I feel like the musical Story of My Life, illustrates this concept well. On one hand there is Thomas – a financially successful writer who cares deeply about how he appears to others. He is dressed in an enviously expensive suit, and brand-name accessories. His silhouette is sharp, and precise. Alvin on the other hand lives in the past. He lives in the world of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which he references frequently) and ran his dad’s old bookshop until his passing. He is not a man that puts appearance first, and his clothes reflect that. His silhouette is soft, and he wears vintage clothes. He wears his dad’s old sweater which is a little big on Alvin, and features had stitched elbow patches.
When designing a show I also have to think about what the actors are doing onstage in the clothes. Are they dancing? Is it a really physical show? Do they have to change into the costumes quickly?
Quick changes take a lot of planning, and tend to feature heavily in my designs. Sometimes a quick change means adding a well-placed zipper, and other times it influences the entire design.
For the show Stop Kiss, there is a challenge in that every other scene in the play takes place in a different time and place. I designed the entire show around the costume transitions, and made many choices that allowed for the costume to shift by adding or removing only one or two pieces.
In the musical Assassins, there are multiple songs that take place in different time periods, and I had to coordinate pieces that could shift the characters into those eras. Each of the actors played one primary role, but also had to become many other characters. I designed their primary costumes not just to portray their assigned historical assassin, but so that those base costumes could easily transition into other time periods.
Practicality also means hemming pants and skirts so that they’re not a tripping hazard. It means having all the right undergarments. Shoes have to be comfortable, and safe when traversing a set with stairs, or a slippery floor. There is a lot to consider.
Putting the Actor First
A beautiful or interesting design is worthless if it doesn’t work with the performer. As a fellow performer myself, I know how much a costume can positively (or negatively) affect a performance. All of the practicalities that I mentioned are a part of making things easy for the performer, but empathy, and asking the right questions is also super important.
In first fittings, or when taking measurements I like to chat and check in with the performer. I’ve designed shows that required the entire cast to be scantily clad, and I made sure to check in with each and every one of the cast members to find out what they were comfortable with wearing, and I provided costumes that were able to suit the needs of the scene-work, and keep the performers in their comfort zone.
The biggest question I always ask during fittings is, “How do you feel?” I always want to make sure that the performer is happy, comfortable and flattered in what they’re wearing. Sometimes this just means reading the room – are they tugging at a garment, or perhaps just frowning? Designs can always be changed, or altered, and it’s my job to make sure that the performer feels their best so that they can perform at their best. It’s the biggest compliment to me when I have performers ask me if they can take an item home, or that they feel exactly like their character in what they’re wearing.
Costuming isn’t just clothing. It’s a whole slew of considerations. It starts with the text, the design concept, the director’s vision of the show, and it ends with the performers and the techs or dressers who have to handle, or wear the clothes for the entire run of the show. So, the next time you see a play or musical, or watch a tv show, take a moment to think about all of the time, effort and consideration that goes into the costuming. It’s more than you might think.