I have very specific bucket list items, but I also accept generalizations of those items. For example, my bucket list includes “Design and create costumes for an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest” and “Drink limoncello on a balcony overlooking the Adriatic” – that kind of thing. But I check off aspects of each one as well, because anything included in those items counts for something. Seeing an outdoor Shakespeare play, drinking limoncello, wearing a linen dress, looking at the ocean from a balcony – those still count. I think they actually count more for day-to-day life than the detailed and perhaps-perhaps-perhaps items. But I am checking off a major part of that first one, because I got the opportunity to costume a play! (Not that I am ruling out costuming The Tempest. I will never rule it out.)
It was a summer play with a small cast and an accelerated rehearsal timeline – a month and a half from start of rehearsals to performance, and they needed a costume manager. The thought of being in charge of all the costumes for a production was daunting, but I knew I wanted to costume a play at some point, and this seemed like a good opportunity to give it try!
I didn’t have to design and create any of the costumes from scratch, which was a relief, because my sewing skills are pretty rusty. I’ve hemmed more trousers and cuffs in this last four weeks than I have for the past four years. There was a good costume collection to draw from, so it was all about compiling and accessorizing and tailoring. It felt like a mix between a mom planning all the clothes for a multiple day trip with a family of ten and curating a vintage clothing display.
Once I agreed to be in charge of costumes, I had to get to know the story and the characters in it, because the purpose of costumes is to advance the plot by telling you more about each character. Costumes are character development. And if the costumes look great, it’s a bonus!
The Play: Over The Moon (based on a P. G. Wodehouse novel)
Where: New York City
When: Springtime of 1927
Cast: 6 men, 4 women (all adults)
With that in mind (especially the time period), I started marking up my script. As each character entered the story, I tried to imagine what they would be wearing. What time of day is it? Are they staying at home or going out? Are they young or old? Is this character concerned about money and position? What is his job? What does she want out of life?
Started with ideas, then went on to the specifics. Does the character move around a lot? (If so, focus on looser costumes.) Do they have quick costume changes? (If so, keep the outfit simple to take on and off. Ditch the buckled shoes and button-back dresses.) Once the cast is in place, you have to keep each cast member’s size and coloring in mind as well.
Once I had a vision (and a 1927-centric Pinterest board), I went to explore the costume collection. I had a couple of afternoons where I just got to putter around and look at everything and pull whatever I wanted. SO MUCH FUN. I know that doesn’t sound super fun to most people, but I love details and colors and fabric. Spending hours on my own looking at costumes is never a hardship. What I had available shaped my general vision into a more specific vision.
Some things I learned: Some details are for the audience and some are for the actors. Audience details are obvious – sleeve lengths, bold prints, sparkles, contrasting colors, glasses, suspenders, hats, SPARKLES. Some details are for the actors – the subtle details that you don’t see unless you are up close. Back in the days of black and white movies, costume designers were asked why they used colors in the design, when the colors didn’t show up in the movie. They said it was for the actors – an actress will act differently in a red dress than in a black dress. Costumes inform performances.
Here are some of my favorite details from this show:
Another thing I learned is that there’s a difference between what you like and what’s right for the show. News flash, I know. But it’s really tempting to fall in love with a vision and stick with it, even if it doesn’t match up with a character or with the story.
When it comes down to it, choose the piece that has the most personality. Like these hats – I loved this little cream number with the bow, because it’s cute and tiny and simple. The straw hat is big and loud and covered in holes, but it has so much more personality. It took me more time to like it, but now I love it.
I learned a ton through this experience. I learned that it’s a ton of work to work through the entire process from vision to execution. It requires a lot of organization and communication and more bossiness than I have. I also learned that I’m bad at men’s sizing – I can generally tell a woman’s size, but men’s sizes are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. If I costume another play, I am just going to take detailed measurements at the beginning of the process.
Come see the play! Sweat, tears, planning, painting, lighting, accessorizing, and MUCH hemming has gone into this play. The actors have memorized an entire play just for you! Welcome to New York City, circa 1927.