What I’m Up To: Costume Design

I’ve been super busy and working on a new play. It takes place in the 1930’s era. It’s called The Game’s Afoot, written by Ken Ludwig. And that’s why It’s taking me ages to finish my leather motorcycle jacket!

Holmes for the holiday from the Cleveland Playhouse

Holmes for the holiday performed at the Cleveland Playhouse

I thought it was going to be an easy job, because we have lots of thirties stuff at the theater, but of course, it’s turned out to be a lot more work than I bargained for. Every time I finish a play, I say to myself, “I won’t be doing that for awhile” . But then I always agree to do it again. So I guess I love it.

I’ll  be sewing a few dresses for the play. And a Sherlock Holmes cape. But hopefully, I’ll be able to refashion several things from the thrift shop. Last night one of the actresses tried on a long straight Chinese type gown that must be from the nineties. If I cut slits in it at four spots in the bottom, I can add godets and voila, a slinky Chinese style bias thirties gown! I also have a sequined eighties style bright blue evening jacket I found at the thrift shop. If I shorten it to a bolero style, shorten the sleeves and remove the shoulder pads, it will look like a thirties evening jacket. Those are the types of projects I have fun making.

I spent Saturday thrift shopping and found four bias cut evening gowns I thought would work for the play in just the right sizes. A small miracle. But when I brought them to the theater, they didn’t fit the actress that was trying them on and the director just didn’t like them. Aaargh! It’s not easy finding  bias cut evening gowns larger than a size 6, so I was thrilled to have found them. I’m hoping I can still get them to work. Last night I did a lot of switching dresses for characters, you have to think on your feet when doing fittings as I have about twenty minutes to do it before rehearsals start. We had some success with dresses on the other characters so that will save me from sewing more than I have to. I usually do the female characters in a play first, as I often have to sew for them , but can alter men’s suits for the male characters. And that’s why you can’t have a definite idea about characters when costuming on a budget. It was very different in film where the sky was the limit. This requires a lot more ingenuity!

One of the most challenging parts about doing costumes for community theater is getting my vision across to the director, who often has dissected the play for ages, and has his own very distinct vision. I suppose I could make drawings , but when you’re working on a limited budget and finding stuff at thrift shops, you can’t have the type of design plans you would have if you are working on a bigger budget production where everything is made from scratch. So you have to collaborate with the director and try to figure out what it is they want while still feeling you can express yourself artistically.  I usually just Google images to get an idea of how I want a character to look. Then I can send those to the director to help convince him why my idea will work.


The outfit a director wanted me to dye.

But, I will have to be very specific about my ideas before I buy fabric if I end up sewing pieces. There is nothing more frustrating than working for hours on a piece, and then the director just doesn’t like the fabric or whatever. It’s easy to feel like “just a seamstress” when working with some theater directors. On another play I worked on, the director didn’t like the color for an 1890’s outfit I made an actress. He had already seen it but decided he din’t like it after all. He wanted me to dye it. Of course, I had to convince him that it would end up a big mottled mess, there were lace overlays, etc, and we argued a bit about it. The actress wore it and looked great. I was like, “Dude, this isn’t Broadway. Come down to earth.” But no, I didn’t say that. Although I wanted to.

Today I spent a couple of hours doing research on how to make a realistic knife stick out of a characters back. Two characters are going to be killed on stage so I have to put my thinking cap on! I’m thinking of rigging up some sort of elastic to go around the chest under the clothes, then adding a little firm piece, with velcro on it, Then the knife will have the blade cut off and also have velcro to stick to the elastic piece. Eek!!

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  1. says

    I did costume for a director who wanted me to sew things that weren’t period. He was way off by several decades. It used to drive me nuts. I know you can pull this off and create outfits that fit and make everyone happy-but I think you should negotiate for your creative liberties next time they want your help. Stomp your feet and diva up if you need to:) you are a designer, not a seamstress. it really is a job you have to love because it’s way harder to create on a shoestring budget. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!