The University Record, April 3, 1995

Costumes make the play as much as the words

Costumes make the play as much as the words

By Sage Arron

Boxes of bust pads, camisoles, shoes, suspenders, collars and tights share space alongside dress forms and rolls of fabrics lining the wall. Sewing machines command counter space next to Hershey kisses.

In all honesty, I must declare particular fondness for the costume shop. Its assortment of silks, polyester and tapestry make my heart absolutely ache. A shopping spree here would satisfy every taste from conservative to eclectic, and the workmanship is superb.

The initial steps in a costume's creation process involve "draping"—swaths of fabric are draped over a dress form, and "flat patterning"&emdash;paper patterns are drawn for various pieces. A muslin prototype is then sewn and fitted to the actor. A fabric copy, using the actual material chosen for the costume, is made from the muslin prototype and fitted on the actor in a "final fabric fitting."

Julie Marsh heads the wisecracking and talented staff that animate this shop. She acts as a resource for information on everything from period shoes to corset boning. As she puts it, "I am an adjunct lecturer and part of what I do here is help grad students bring a production to life."

Marsh recently worked with Marcia Newman, a graduate student, on costumes for the Cosi fan tutte production. Newman chose the fabrics, designs and colors that most closely presented the director's vision. "I research the time period," Newman says, "then adapt the designs to each individual character."

Her research is used by Marsh and the staff to create patterns and guide production of the costumes. Newman's research is also sent to a hair and makeup artist so appropriate wigs can be designed.

Cosi fan tutte takes place in 1790, right before the French Revolution, and the director wanted costumes to resemble those portrayed by Gainsborough paintings. In addition to accurately portraying the time period, Newman says the costumes also "need to subtly reflect the character's personalities."

Newman chose chiffon and georgette silks as well as sheer, flowing cottons for the female characters. Males wore heavier fabrics, including furniture upholstery and velvet, with gold and jewel-toned trims. Upholstery fabric is frequently used when rich texture is needed, as in the case of Albanian soldiers' uniforms.

Fabrics are frequently subjected to an array of procedures such as dyeing, washing, or distressing (aging) to give them the desired appearance. The process of distressing is particularly interesting in that sandpaper, cheese graters and razor blades are among the instruments used to fray, shred and tear the fabric.

Newman traveled to Chicago in search of fabrics for Cosi fan tutte's costumes, and those costumes not made from scratch were borrowed from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an Ontario-based theater company. According to Marsh, when borrowing costumes, "the rule of thumb is that you can't ever permanently alter anything."

The word "permanent" is a crucial distinction here because costumes frequently need to be altered to fit the actors. While mainstream industry garment standards provide for a 5/8-inch seam allowance in a pattern, theaters extend that margin to a full inch or more. "Sometimes we give more room at strategic locations such as a center back seam or a side seam," Marsh says.

The resulting costume fits the actor realistically and makes for a more believable stage character. Ultimately the costumes, like every other aspect of a production, need to make the story being presented as real as possible for the audience.