Sarah Gordon, Resident Costume Designer, and Costume Shop Manager, or better known as Grand Empress of Costumeland, was a super help to me as I sought to understand theater costumers then, and now before and while writing A Lady in Disguise. Sarah showed me around her theater (Taproot) and her workshop, explained how costumers and dressmakers work, and answered my many pesky questions. You’ll notice her little cameo in the book– well-deserved! Below, learn what it’s like to be a modern-day costume mistress!
What led you to want to be a costumer? What was your career path like?
I have always loved fashion and clothing and history. When I went to college- I was a double major in theater (emphasis in acting, because that is what you do in college, mostly because you don’t know better yet) and in Art History. We were all required to take design courses, and I showed enough promise that the Design faculty offered me scholarships to switch. By the end of undergrad, I was getting a BFA in Theatrical Design and Technology with an Art History Minor. I went to graduate school at Temple University for my MFA in costume design.
When you are designing a costume for an actress or an actor, what kinds of things are you thinking about? I usually start with- who is this character? Why are they the way that they are? What are the challenges in their lives? How do these challenges manifest in their clothing? Where would this character buy their clothes? Are they interested in clothing? Could they care less? Why? Does their character change during the play in a way that can be supported through the clothing choices?
On a practical level- I am looking at the period, how many changes, how many wigs? Does the actor have foot issues that make finding shoes hard? Do they have any physical limitations that would keep them from being able to do quick changes? Through costumes and make-up, we help tell the story of who this particular character is and who they become through the course of the play by “manipulating” their appearance.
Take us through the process of a “build.” I usually start the year before the play with a rough costume plot which tells me how many costumes each character has. Then I am usually designing the show for at least six months prior to when rehearsals start. Our costume builds begin 3-5 weeks out from first dress rehearsal. That is when we bring in the cutter/drapers/first hands, who are the people who work with me to create the patterns and run the build. We will bring in the stitchers a few days later who are doing the actual sewing.
The cutter/draper then adjusts the pattern accordingly, and we begin building the garment for real- we usually have another fitting to finalize things before we do all the finishing work which includes trim, hems and closures. We still sometimes have notes on garments throughout the dress rehearsal process.
What are some cool costume tricks, like the one you share with me about using felt soled shoes? The felt-soled shoes were for Dracula. We wanted the character of Dracula to be “sneaky”- he needed to magically “appear” places. It’s hard to buy into the “magic” if you hear the actors clomping around- so we purchased suede-soled dance shoes for him- because they were quiet and he couldn’t be heard when he walked.
Other tricks? We spray straight vodka on most dry-cleanables in between our dry-cleaning runs (every two weeks) – this slows down the stinky – so to speak. We do a lot of rigging in most shows for quick changes- lots of elastic, Velcro and snaps that most people never know are there.
What is the best part about your job? The worst?
I love doing the research and discovering who the character is to bring together a design. I love working with a team to create garments that are more beautiful than anything I can do on my own. I enjoy the intimacy of working with actors and backstage crew. I love making hats. That is my specialty – I do love a good hat. Sometimes, having to be at the mercy of everyone else’s schedule is very tiring…I am often here late most nights during a build for fittings, before the 70 hour weeks of tech even start.
If you could dress any part, from all time, what would it be? Hmm. This one is tricky. I am a fan of the late 18th century – round gowns and such, but no big panniers for me, please- too hard to get through doors. I like lots of other periods, but most women’s clothing throughout time has been so restrictive (unless you were lower, working class- then you might be out of fashion so you could get your work done) and I am a fan of comfort. I like a lot of what Marie Antoinette brought to fashion- particularly in her “shepherdess” days…but I am pretty content to dress as myself for the most part.
Costume mistress photo courtesy of Sarah Gordon.