Costume Designing Through Time
By Joanne Cunningham, Costume Designer
Certainly one of the most challenging and interesting aspects of designing costumes for a show is creating a look that is appropriate to the era in which the story takes place. Most scripts specify the time (sometimes the exact year, sometimes just a decade) when the action occurs. Sometimes the director has his or her own idea for the era they want to use.
Most designers have some eras with which they feel the most comfortable. For those shows, not a lot of research is involved. For example, I have a pretty easy time envisioning the look of the 1950s and 1960s, probably because I grew up in that era. I can close my eyes and see what the clothes looked like back then, and this makes it easier to find suitable costumes for shows that take place at that time.
Other decades...or centuries, for that matter...take research to understand. Women's silhouettes, for instance, have changed drastically over time. Appropriate accessories, types of fabrics, sometimes even color choices need to be understood in order to create the proper mood on stage. In the past year or so I've designed a number of shows that took place in the Victorian era, a time I knew little about until I started researching it. Fortunately for me (and other designers, I'm sure!), it's now pretty easy to Google "1890s women's evening wear" or any other topic and get hundreds of images to start my research. I usually also seek out articles that explain more about the do's and do not's of fashion at that time, mainly because an online image search can just as easily lead to inaccurate examples as it can to accurate ones.
On rare occasions, a play or musical will cover a span of more than one time period, whether by chronological action (as THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB will do later this season) or by other theatrical devices. In the case of MOON OVER BUFFALO, there are two plays that take place within the play itself. The actual time period of the play is post-WWII, so the day-to-day costumes need to evoke a 1940s/50s feel. But embedded within the play there are two completely different eras as well. Some of the characters become actors in a scene from CYRANO DE BERGERAC, which takes place in the 1600s, and some are in a scene from PRIVATE LIVES which calls for 1920s evening wear.
In other words, this show has taken a whole lot of research on my part to figure out how to portray those three eras with some degree of accuracy so that they each evoke a certain "feel". Make plans to come see MOON OVER BUFFALO to see if I've been able to pull it off!
The fun and challenge of Victorian dress construction - by Joanne Cunningham
This season I have the opportunity to do something I've never done before - design costumes for shows that take place at the end of the 19th century. I have never before attempted to construct Victorian-era dresses, and am learning so much as I tackle this new challenge. Come on along to a time when clothes were far more complicated than they are now!
Victorian fashion came from trends that were popular in England (think Queen Victoria) from the 1830s to the early 1900s. With the increasing use of sewing machines starting in the mid-1800s, it was easier to make elaborate, lavish dresses that featured an extravagant amount of lace and other trims.
The most important feature of dresses of this era was the hourglass silhouette that women desired. Skirts were large - the use of hoops, crinolines and bustles helped to make waists appear small in comparison. In time, as skirts got progressively smaller and tighter, bodices and sleeves got larger to help accentuate the hourglass figure. Much use was made of boning to hold the shape, and lace and other fancy trim to embellish dresses. New dyes in bright colors were being developed to replace the old vegetable and animal dyes that had been used in the past. The result was dresses that were lovely, extravagant and fantastic.
As I am starting to build some of these dresses for SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE FINAL ADVENTURE
, I am learning that it takes miles of fabric to recreate the true Victorian style. The pleated ruffle at the bottom of one skirt took no less than 30 linear feet of fabric to make the finished 12' long ruffle! The patterns are complicated and take some trial and error to understand, but as dresses begin to take shape I am excited by what I see.
The lead actress in our show will have four different dresses, and I am eager to see how they all come together. I have some incredible volunteers who are helping me this time around, which is wonderful. (I can't imagine having to build four Victorian dresses on my own in the limited time I have between when I first meet the actors for a show and our first dress rehearsal!)
Be sure to come to SHERLOCK HOLMES
and see the sorts of costumes rarely seen on our stage...amazing dresses in the Victorian style!
Only Four Actors….But HOW Many Different Costumes?????
Joanne Cunningham, Costume Designer
It should come as no surprise that to design costumes for a large musical takes a great deal of time. With 30+ people in a cast, and with each person probably requiring multiple costumes, a costume designer's organizational skills are really put to the test when the upcoming show is a large one.
This is why it is a nice break to occasionally do a small show, one with only a few actors. After all, how hard can it be to costume just a handful of people?
Well....sometimes it's not all that easy, especially when those few actors are playing a dizzying number of roles. Such is the case in Sunset Playhouse's upcoming production, 39 STEPS.
When I offered to design this play, I assumed that having only four actors to costume would be a breeze, especially since lately I have been doing exceedingly large and complicated shows. Let's just say that my assumptions were slightly incorrect. Between these four tremendously talented actors, no fewer than 28 different people are portrayed...and each one needs to be costumed in such a way that the audience will be able to differentiate between them and recognize them each time they appear on stage.
Many of the character and costumes changes are exceedingly quick and happen on stage, so some costumes need to be rigged for easy on/easy off changes. Do you really think that jacket is buttoned? If I've done my job well, it will appear so. The reality, of course, is that I am giving my utmost thanks to the inventor of Velcro, a costume designer's greatest tool. It comes in mighty handy in a show such as this one!
In order to make sure the actors know which costumes to wear at which times, designers usually prepare a costume plot. This is a scene-by-scene listing of who is on stage and what, exactly, they should be wearing. Costume plots often resemble large spreadsheets. An actor can follow his or her costume changes across the page, using this as a roadmap to make sure that all needed pieces are pre-set in places where they can be easily accessed during the play. In ONE memorable scene in 39 STEPS, two of the actors change roles more than a dozen times. Needless to say, that’s one complicated costume plot!
Be sure to make a date to come and see THE 39 STEPS
…and see if you can keep track of all the costume changes. I’m certainly hoping that the actors will manage to remember what they are wearing when!