Ashley Tries Costuming A Play!

Dance Party

 

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.

In Betweenness

Sweet

 

When I was little, we had The Wind in the Willows on tape.  Almost every night, my sisters and I went to sleep listening to Mr. Mole abandoning his whitewashing and escaping his underground burrow to obey the call of spring.  I heard this description from Kenneth Grahame so many times, it has become the way I think about waiting for a new season:  “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”
Right now, I am longing for spring.  I catch glimpses of it – a warmer breeze, patches of green under the snow, longer days.  But the snow keeps falling and my heart falls with it.  How do you handle the space between what you have and what you want?
This doesn’t just apply to waiting for spring (I’m not ignoring my California and Texas friends).  This can apply to any in-between/transitional stage.  The exercise-and-eating-better stage between the size you are and the size you want to be.  The waiting stage between the job interview and finding out whether you got the job.  The last quarter before school ends. The last trimester of your pregnancy.  My personal least-favorite is when I know that I want a change, but I don’t know what exactly I want.  I looked up the definition of ennui (a wonderfully descriptive French word) -it is defined as “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.”  Yup.  That sounds about right.
The irony is that the Divine Discontent & Longing stage isn’t a great time to make big decisions, because any change seems like a good change.  Save the major changes for a moment when you aren’t going slightly mad.  The “don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry” principle applies here.  An emotional decision feels good at the time, but it doesn’t always have the best long-term result.  Wait until a more content moment and make a disciplined decision.  I know you don’t like any of your clothes right now, but don’t throw out your entire wardrobe.  You end up with no clothes.  It’s easy to want to get rid of things, to tear things down, to run away to something else – but it’s a good time to build, to learn, to be creative.
Here are some ways to fight the onset of ennui during those waiting days:
1.  Rediscover your favorite things.  Turn on great music you haven’t listened to in a while, look through your closet, and find a few items that have great memories associated with them.  Happy memories fuel us.  A special piece is almost like wearing a Patronus charm.  I have a special place in my heart for clothes that I bought traveling, because they transport me back to where I was when I bought them.  Inherited clothes are also really special.  I have some beautiful necklaces and clothes from my grandmas.  Clothes are emotional, because they are so personal.  After my wonderful Grandaddy Leonard passed away, all the grandchildren helped go through his clothes and it was a perfect time to remember his everyday life.  I took one of his sweatshirts – it doesn’t look like much, but it reminds me of him and there’s love and comfort in it.
2. Change your perspective by trying something new.  Be bold.  I get to February/March and I’ve been wearing my winter clothes for so long, I need to change it up.  I start mixing the patterns I’ve never mixed, I start layering shirts over dresses, I try to change the shapes of my clothes by belting, I wear boots to get through the snow and then change into fun shoes when I get to work…. I’ve never dyed my hair, but this is always the point in the year where I start thinking about it.  If you want to try a new wardrobe without buying it, swap some clothes with a friend – chances are good that they want to try something new as well!  This isn’t clothes-related, but going somewhere new can be great for gaining some perspective.  Clear a Saturday and go find somewhere new.  It doesn’t have to be far away, just out of your ordinary routine.  Adventure is a good tonic.
3.  Moneyball it.  This is a phrase I use all the time when I’m talking about clothes, but I realize that it doesn’t make sense to anybody else.  I’ll try to explain – it probably still won’t make sense, but here goes.  In the movie Moneyball, the manager of a baseball team loses a star player and decides to not to replace him with another star player that has all the same strengths, but to replace him with a group of players.  In the aggregate, their strengths add up to the strengths of that star.  Have you been inspired by an outfit recently?  Using what you’ve got, try to replicate what you want.  It’s a really fun exercise, because it forces you to be creative.  Like peplum tops?  Create that look by layering a short top or cardigan over a longer top, then knotting or belting the short top at your natural waist.
4.  Wear bright colors.  When it’s gray outside, I need the contrast.  I’m a contrarian by nature.  I wear bright colors in the winter, because everything neutral outside (black, white, gray, brown).  I don’t feel as much need for bright colors in the summer – I’m happy to just wear a black tank and jean shorts.  When I really want spring, I start wearing a mix of spring and winter clothes (I still have to be warm enough).  I’ll wear a navy sweater, a bright floral skirt, tights, and boots.  A pastel sweater with my jeans.  A spring dress over a long-sleeved t-shirt.  Anything that adds spice and variety.
5.  Try different accessories.  This is another great thing to team up with a friend on – swap scarves or necklaces or earrings.  I’ve been alternating between two pairs of boots all winter (because snow), and sometimes I bring cute shoes to change into for the office, because I’m tired of the boots.  If my outfit is boring me, but there’s nothing really wrong with it, I’ll put on some crazy shoes or some big earrings (like my sneakers with spikes – I love those).  I have strange jewelry tastes – I either wear tiny stud earrings or costume jewelry that can be seen from space.  All that to say, I’m not great at accessorizing, but I know that changing up accessories can make a difference in how your clothes feel.
6.  Make something.  This is another point that isn’t about clothes, but creating something can really help turn around a listless mood.  Draw a picture.  Sing a song.  Do some sit ups.  Find a recipe that sounds delicious and make it (and have a glass of wine while you cook).  Write down a little story.  Start a blog and share something that you’re interested in (and find out everything that makes you insecure and terrified along the way – like being insecure about stating your opinions in public and terrified of writing….awkward).  Make tea and invite a friend over and then make some good conversation.  Make a list and check things off.
7.  Anticipate and prepare for what you want.  Start planning for what you want and do something about it.  Do you want to be a smaller size?  Time to start an exercise regime and start being more conscious about what you eat.  Longing for spring?  Get daffodils and tulips and scatter them around your house.  Start spring cleaning.  Use that wanting to do good things.  Want to travel?  Start saving up and plan your trip.  In the meantime, find somewhere close by to explore and learn more about.  If you get good at having adventures here, you’ll be great at adventures when you go overseas.  If you feel listless and don’t know exactly what you want, FIND OUT WHAT YOU WANT.  That’s the fun part.  Maybe Step 6 (The Making of All the Thinges) will help you figure out things that you want to get better at.  Don’t just bear with the in-between times – use the in-between times.  Invest your time and make it worthwhile.
Come on, spring.  I’m ready for you.

Costumes & Someone Else’s Story

Beatrice
What’s the difference between clothes and costumes?  It’s a good question to ask around Halloween (one of the more socially acceptable times to wear costumes around town).  The distinction isn’t between normal and fantastical, because some costumes look like normal clothes and some clothes can look other-worldy or bizarre or fantastically beautiful.  In a performance, costumes are designed to tell stories.  So is the distinction between clothes that tell stories and clothes that don’t?  I’d argue no.
All clothes tell stories, but the difference comes with the story.  Your clothes tell your story.  Costumes tell somebody else’s story.
A helpful experiment is to switch your point of view and pretend to be a costume designer.  This is a happy game for me.  Ever since I was little, costume designer has been at the top of my list of Jobs I Want When I Grow Up.  This is the same list as the glamorous jazz singer… and the Indiana-Jones-but-a-girl museum archivist….and the unflappable secret agent (or all of those in some kind of combination). But clothes came first.  I’ve been obsessed with fashion and costumes for as long as I remember.  Around age 12, I started checking out design history books from the library and studying costume design, focusing on Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s and all the famous costumers (Adrian, Orry-Kelly, Cecil Beaton, Edith Head, the list goes on).  Weird hobby, I know.
Once you look from a costumer’s point of view, it’s hard to stop.  I didn’t realize how much I did, until last year, when I went to a local production of Romeo and Juliet and spent most of the play mentally redesigning all the costumes.  Permission to geek out a little bit?
In my dream production of Romeo and Juliet, the set, lighting, and costume design would be centered around two lines.  There’s that one line that everybody knows from the balcony scene, when Romeo asks, “What light from yonder window breaks?  It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”  The second comes from Friar Lawrence in Act II, “These violent delights have violent ends/ And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,/ Which as they kiss consume…”  Juliet is the rising sun.  Juliet is a consuming fire.  Costume design will help illustrate the arc of Juliet, from the first quiet sunbeams to the scorching destruction of her zenith.
The very beginning of the play would be in shades of gray, because Juliet (the sun) hasn’t appeared yet.  There wouldn’t be color until the moment Romeo sees Juliet at the party.  That moment is dawn.  After that, nothing can stop the sun’s rising.  As soon as Romeo and Juliet meet, it’s the equivalent of a ticking time bomb – that’s what the friar means when he says they are fire and gunpowder.   Juliet would enter in sunshine yellow – a color that connotes youth, innocence, energy, friendliness.  Romeo plays the moon, the counterpart to Juliet as the sun – he would wear shades of gray when he is by himself, because the moon produces no light by itself, it only borrows light from the sun.  When he is with Juliet, his costumes start showing hints of white, because he reflects her light.  By their wedding day, Juliet’s color would deepen to a bright gold and Romeo’s colors would lighten to gray and white – it is their mid-morning.  Then the seeds of violence from the beginning of the play start to sprout and the death counts start escalating.  Romeo is exiled and separated from his light source – he returns to his gray clothes.  During his exile, Juliet grows in resolve and passion – her clothes start showing tinges of red, like flame edges.  At the beginning of the play, she’s the first cool rays of dawn, but by the time Romeo returns from exile, she’s the scorching heat of summer.  She’d burn down the whole world to be with him.  The sun has terrifying power – it’s 93 million miles away and that still seems too close when it beats down at midday.  The play ends at high noon- the height of her beautiful, but destructive power.  She ends in flame red, he ends in black.  Their ending is the explosion that Friar Lawrence anticipated from the beginning – when fire and gunpowder kiss, they are both consumed.
That came from two lines of text and it’s just an example of how much thought goes into designing a world.  A costume designer has to know their characters.  The more detailed the character analysis, the more the costume can tell us.  What do the characters love?  What do they want?  What scares them?  Where do they come from?  How much money do they have?  What colors speak to them?  What secrets are they hiding?  When we’re watching a movie or a play, we agree to play along.  Without our imagination filling in the gaps, it doesn’t work.  The first time we see the main character, we subconsciously fill in their backstory before they say their first line.  That has everything to do with costume storytelling. We invest in those characters for two and a half hours and figure them out by every decision they make – what they decide to say, what they decide to do, what they put on in the morning.
We are used to this judgement process in a movie setting, because that is part of the game.  But how does it work in real life?  We usually try to fight against that impulse. We are told we shouldn’t form opinions based on appearances – don’t judge a book by its cover.  Why not?  When I meet somebody new, they are a puzzle to me.  If I care about them at all, I will invest some thought into finding out who they are.  Unlike the movie character, they didn’t spring into existence when I walked into the room.  They have a real backstory, not one that I assume or make up.  You can never ask all the right questions to get to know somebody, but you can know a lot about somebody by their reactions and their choices.  Be observant and pay attention to people.  Be interested in the real stories around you.  That girl who is taking your order leads a parallel life to you.  Unlike Juliet, she exists all the time.  Juliet exists (very dramatically) for three hours at a time.  So pay her the compliment of wondering about her and her story.  Try to figure out a little bit about who she is.
When we say “don’t judge on appearances”, I think we mainly just don’t want other people judging us.  I know that’s the case for me.  This blog post has worked me over, because I took a step back and asked, “If there was a character who dressed like me in a movie, what would I think about them?”  I didn’t like it.  I cried.  But as long as it teaches you something, don’t avoid it just because it’s hard.
Two big questions to start with:  what does this person love?  What does she fear?  Based on Ashley’s clothes, I’d say that she loves colors and interesting prints and textures and is enthusiastic about her interests.  She loves other people, but she doesn’t get too entangled in other people’s stories.  She doesn’t dress to attract guys, but she’s not dressing to repel them either.  In the movie, she’s the observer, the romantically neutral character – the protagonist’s best friend or an eccentric coworker.  Her main fear is being overlooked and ignored. Being invisible. Her bright colors are to avoid fading into the background.  She wants to be noticed on her own terms – as an interesting person with a sense of humor and things to say.  She’s just scared that nobody cares enough to ask.
So judge by appearances.  Don’t rely on people telling you everything.  Be willing to invest in the lifetime pursuit of learning about people. Make guesses.  Be genuinely interested.  Figure out what they love.  Figure out what they fear.  Just be willing to figure yourself out at the same time.