The philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”
No offense to the legendary gastronome, but I would argue that an equally powerful signifier can be found in what we wear. From the colors we choose to the shapes and fabrics we favor and the accessories we find ourselves slipping on without a second thought, the clothing we don quickly telegraphs insights about our waking life and inner psychology in ways that little else can.
Don’t believe it? Ask the costume designers whose works regularly grace stages in the Mother Lode. These talented artists and designers don’t leave anything to chance when it comes to costuming the characters of plays; they know that everything from the wear and tear on a vest to the sheen of a skirt or a pair of nylons can speak volumes about characters before they’ve uttered their first line. Often, the signals are sent without audiences’ knowledge or conscious realization, but that doesn’t lessen costumes’ impact.
“I remember watching the DVD of ‘Moulin Rouge’ when it came out in the early 2000s and watching a documentary feature on making the film’s costumes, and it just blew me away,” said Rebecca Meredith, costume shop manager and resident costume designer at Sierra Repertory Theatre in Sonora. “Every can-can dancer had a very specific look that was tailored to meet a certain kind of fantasy. They may have only been on the screen in the background for a second or two, but the fact that someone took the time to think through everything they were wearing and what it meant was so surprising to me, and it made the world of the movie more real. That’s when I realized that maybe this was something I could do one day.”
Meredith went from playing dress up as a child to dressing other people, first during high school as the school’s costume intern and designer, and then as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. She was a master’s candidate at the University of California, Irvine, too. Whether creating contemporary looks for a handful of performers or crafting historically accurate attire for a large ensemble, assessing each character at their given moment in a story is critical to Meredith’s creative process.
“You have to really look into the script and ask yourself, ‘Who is this person? What do they do? What is their daily routine like? How do they move? What do they carry? What do they do during a given day? What is their personal hygiene like? What do they often do with their hands?’ All of those factors can influence the design,” she said.
For Elizabeth Mougharbel, a Folsom-based costume designer who frequently works with Main Street Theatre Works in Jackson, building a character through costumes became a major part of her work as she got involved in Renaissance fairs and Victorian festivals across Northern California.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the details that people put into their costumes,” Mougharbel said, recalling her visit to the famed Dickens Faire in San Francisco. “These are people who not just created from historically accurate patterns, but they wanted everything to be hand sewn – even the corsets!”
Joining the Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild introduced Mougharbel and her sister to fellow costume enthusiasts in the region. Attending a three-day costume intensive at Costumers Guild West in Los Angeles further expanded her knowledge of the finer points of costume design and construction, from men’s tailoring to embroidery to corset making. However, while Mougharbel initially began her work as a designer in order to build clothing for historical re-enactors, she found herself drawn to the creativity and freedom that theater provided.
“When you’re designing for theater, there’s a little more leeway than you have with historical re-enactments,” Mougharbel said. “Re-enactors want every detail to be historically accurate, down to the buttons on their shoes. With theater, I have the freedom to go with what works, though that presents its own challenges – how does a costume piece come on and off? How quickly does an actor need to change? How much Velcro can I use to rig a costume to be changed quickly without the Velcro getting tangled up in the lace or fabric of that piece?”
While there is a romantic notion of a costume designer alone in his or her studio or atelier, imperiously directing underlings with a wave of their hand, the reality is that costume design is an intensely collaborative process that involves input and feedback from the entire creative team behind any production.
“After my initial reading of a script, the first thing I do is talk to the director about the world of the play and their interpretation of it,” Meredith says. “For example, ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ (SRT’s current production at the Fallon House Theatre) takes place in Louisiana in 1795, according to the script. My first question was, are we keeping it strictly 1795 or are we moving it around a bit? There were a lot of ideas we discussed, but eventually we decided to keep the setting and the design mostly in the 1790s, but with a fairy tale element thrown in. The costumer also works closely with the set designer; if the designer is planning for a set that will be predominately purple, then you don’t want to design a group of costumes that are purple as well, or else your actors are going to blend into the set. The costume shop is not an island; we are here to help execute a director’s vision, and we collaborate with everyone on the team to do that.”
Mougharbel’s most recent project at Main Street Theatre Works was this summer’s “The Last Lifeboat,” a historical drama that followed the life of J. Bruce Ismay, the enigmatic builder of the Titanic. While the play is grounded in a very specific set of times and locations, the structure of the play – with actors playing multiple roles and costume changes often occurring in a matter of seconds – meant that Mougharbel constantly communicated and worked with director Julie Anchor and her cast to make sure that the costumes not only fit the requirements of the given period, but could also be easily changed in a flash.
“There were pegs and hooks on either side of the stage so that an actor could exit, drop what he had been wearing and grab what he needed, then run back onstage dressing as he went,” Mougharbel explained. “There are things that would have been more historically accurate that we would have like to have changed; for example, Ismay would not wear the same tie to his office and to a society ball, but because of the pacing of the play, there just wasn’t time to change it. As a designer, you have to work with the actors’ movements, blocking and character development. It requires a lot of flexibility.”
Once the time and place of a play’s world are established, designers often begin researching the periods and locations in question, gathering visual resources to help guide them along their way. For Meredith, this usually means a separate folder on her computer for each character in a production, filled with everything from scanned pages from art books to renderings that she creates in Photoshop of each character’s clothing designs. Mougharbel said her research often ends up in a meticulously organized binder that contains the script, production schedule, cast list, costume profile for each actor, notes, sketch paper and more.
Creating the costume pieces themselves varies from production to production – contemporary plays like “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which Meredith designed for SRT in 2014, require relatively little in terms of sewing costumes from scratch, but finding the right pieces in company storage or borrowing them from other companies or purchasing them outright requires the same amount of attention as a piece specifically created for the show.
“Those are characters who the audience needs to know exactly who they are from the moment they enter the stage and the lights come up, before they say a word,” Meredith said.
Some shows, like “The Robber Bridegroom” and “The Last Lifeboat,” require that existing costumes be heavily modified or even built entirely from the ground up. The women of “The Last Lifeboat” needed costumes that could easily be changed with the addition of a wrap or a jacket as they traversed a span of nearly 40 years in two hours. Complicating the project were the complex and ornate wigs that the women wore throughout the show, which made quickly adding or subtracting hats nearly impossible.
“When you’re working with quick changes, hats can become really tricky,” Mougharbel offered. “Sometimes we would have to settle for a fascinator or a clip that would take the place of a hat, because even though a hat would be period appropriate, it’s just not realistic given the needs of an actor from scene to scene. Hats can also be difficult to light, especially large ones – all of these are things you have to consider when you’re designing and building a show.”
While the upper-class patricians of “The Last Lifeboat” paraded about in mostly pristine attire, the rough-and-tumble cast of robbers, planters and no-account ruffians in “The Robber Bridegroom” wear costumes that predominately reflect a lived-in aesthetic.
“Distressing something new that you’ve just created is a very strange process,” said Meredith with a laugh. “To create the fraying, stained appearance of some of these costumes, we use cheese graters, wire brushes, steel wool, seam rippers and a variety of fabric paints and dyes to simulate different kinds of stains. To really beat something up, we might run it through a clothes dryer with rocks to wear it down.”
Just because a costume is distressed, however, doesn’t mean it can be done in a manner that’s slapdash or random. Meredith vividly recalls watching the film “Die Hard” during an assignment in graduate school. The students were expected to track the various states of distress that Bruce Willis’ iconic white tank top went through during the course of the movie, as each new act of derring-do required a new tank top that was distressed to the particular specifications of his latest calamity. Nor can distressed costumes be fragile or unhygienic for the actors wearing them.
“You can find lots of great vintage pieces in thrift and antique shops, but when it comes to creating costumes for stage, the clothing has to be sturdy, it has to be durable and it has to be washable,” Mougharbel says.
An audience may enjoy a performance, but rarely do members leave theaters wondering what happens to the costumes once the curtains go down.
“We go through gallons and gallons of detergent at a time, especially if we have two shows going at once,” Meredith says of Sierra Rep’s pair of stages. “You also have to think about the upkeep of particular pieces, with nylons, tights and undershirts often requiring regular replacement. For our (2016 summer) production of ‘State Fair,’ we had 12 women in the cast, and each of them started the run with five pairs of nylons, as that’s what women would have worn in 1947, even to a state fair. During the run, we supplied each of them with at least six or seven additional pairs, so you’re looking at over 125 pairs of nylons for the entire run. They are little things that the audience may not think about, but they add up.”
While all of the considerations that go into creating theatrical costumes might sound daunting, both Meredith and Mougharbel are enthusiastic when asked how novice costumers might get their feet in the door.
“Get in touch with someone who works in that field for honest discussion and insights,” Meredith advised. “We’re all willing to talk honestly about our experiences, and many artists will let you shadow them so you can get that experience firsthand. The Costume Society of America and the United States Institute for Theatre Technology also offer great resources for people who are interested in costume design and all sorts of theater technology fields.”
“There are so many gatherings of people who are passionate about costuming, and it’s so easy to get drawn in,” Mougharbel added. “Talk with them! Find a Renaissance fair, a steampunk festival, a historical re-enactment society, and talk to people whose work you admire. They are more than happy to share what went into the making of their garb.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the costume community is full of energetic, fun people who are great to be around,” Mougharbel said. “Come for the costumes, but stay involved for the great people.”