By Saba Maheen ’20
Of the several factors that must be considered when putting on a theatrical production, wardrobe and costuming is one of the most complex and essential. I certainly did not fully appreciate this upon beginning work as a Costume Shop assistant last September. I walked down the Hop ramp every day, as many Dartmouth students have before me, unaware of the costume stock rooms that reside in the bowels of the same building.
A few weeks pass and I explore these rooms swiftly. Before I know it, I am working opening night backstage as a wardrobe tech.
Nancy Heyl, wardrobe stylist for Dartmouth’s fall theater production, Intimate Apparel, remarks to me in the women’s dressing room opening night, “I believe clothing is the most obvious way to express yourself, your values, your convictions. I feel that each piece someone wears has a personality to it, and can tell a story.”
This is most definitely the case in our lives: we wear bright colors in the summer, warmer colors in the colder months, black to signify loss, wrinkles to show (perhaps not purposefully) that we may live off the “floordrobe,” or a baseball cap twisted backward to denote a certain coolness.
Indeed, this also is true in theater: costumes offer insights into the period, time, place and mood of the play, as well as each character: Where is he or she from? How old is the character? What socioeconomic status? Several actors even remark that their costume can give them that “extra push” to truly settle into their character.
These questions are what Laurie Churba, costume designer and associate professor of theater, must address and research about each production she is part of. As a production’s costume designer, Laurie is responsible for communicating with the director as to his/her vision concerning character development through apparel; researching all facets of the play including the setting and historical events of the time period; and meticulously picking out details from the script to aid in dressing a character. Each character is given a rendering of the outfit(s) he/she will wear.
On the strength of her renderings, Laurie is given an O.K. by the director, the actors’ measurements are recorded, and the costume procurement begins. Pieces can be bought, made, borrowed, or taken from a theater’s own stock.
I was awestruck the first time seeing the stock rooms while on the job, and I was given a proper tour by Anna Winter, the costume shop’s cutter/draper. There are two stock rooms: the main Costume Stock, which houses pieces more frequently used in productions, and a stock room beyond some very steep stairs, nicknamed “the Middle Kingdom.”
Mind you, this is just a taste of these rooms; I inquired of Joan Morris, master dyer, who has worked for the Dartmouth Theater Department for the past 31 years, how many articles of clothing we have in our stock.
I was never met with a definite answer, because no one actually knows.
She estimates there are upwards of 20,000 pieces–including both men’s and women’s clothing, period wear, shoes of all sizes and styles, undergarments, hats and headgear, purses, jewelry, cultural attire from around the world, distressed items, antique goods, fabrics of every style, trims and linings of every sort, mannequins and dress forms, props unique to characters and so much more–but it truly is an arbitrary number.
I think it is important for you to understand the sheer amount of the very densely packed items in the stock; I took the liberty to take some measurements and list a few stats, of which some overlap:
- 324 feet of hanging garments in main Costume Stock (and only God knows how many in Middle Kingdom)
- 36 feet of hanging modern men’s coats, jackets and blazers, vests, dress shirts and pants
- 72 feet of fabric rolls, most of which are stacked upon one another
- four feet of hanging petticoats
- 25-by-12-foot wall of shoes, with several crates of additional footwear
- 14 feet of tuxedo pants
- seven boxes of fedoras
- six file cabinets and several crates of sewing patterns
I can list more, but this would get too lengthy. Check it out for yourself:
Everything in the stock rooms are meticulously labeled and organized, but this wasn’t always the case. Anna remarks on what it was like a few years ago under different Costume Shop management, before the two-year process to organize everything. “It was like someone else having a messy room and knowing where everything was, but the room was not ours. We [herself and Joan] decided to toss and give away items that couldn’t be used anymore, and start fresh.”
Now, the main Costume Stock has four 18-foot-long, double-sided racks topped with thousands of yards of fabric of all sorts; a full wall of remnants, trims and appliques; a wall of men’s and women’s shoes of all sizes; a half-wall of modern civilian clothing; a half-wall of skin wear; another half-wall of jewelry and accessories like eye wear, hair pieces, wallets, belts and parasols; a bookshelf of gloves, ascots, bow ties; and a rack specifically filled with hundreds of ties.
Anna hugs the massive row of petticoats. “We have so many pieces that an audience doesn’t even see, petticoats, underwear, undershirts, brassieres, bloomers. We have to keep it accurate to what someone in that time period would wear.” Dartmouth Costume Stock owns pieces from all periods, scenarios and styles, but the department tends to stage more productions from the 1880s Victorian and contemporary eras, resulting in more garments in the stock from those periods.
Peggy Morin, originally head of production at Stony Brook University, became Dartmouth’s interim Costume Shop manager for the fall production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. However, Peggy already has a favorite piece in the stock: a gown Anna made for last year’s Romeo and Juliet, made of an off-white brocade fabric, with the bodice adorned with iridescent shell-like beading and embroidery.
The selection of shoes is unbelievable; if you can think of a style, the stock has it. Men’s and women’s shoes line a huge wall, labeled with every shoe size. There are the obvious types of shoes: men’s dress shoes, women’s heels, boots, loafers, slippers, flip flops and sneakers, and most of those styles have duplicates that have been made to look distressed. One style caught my eye in particular, handwritten on a large shoe box.
I turn my head two feet to the right. There they are, clipped onto a hanger. Fantastic.
Anna shows me a section of hanging pockets, filled with pieces of jewelry of different metals, gems and chains. “It [a script] could say the woman was wearing a cross, we have to interpret what kind: big, small, metal, or wood? All questions we have to think about in interpreting a character.” She then proceeded to show me at least 20 different crosses and rosaries, and around the same number of pocket watches.
Labels line a mini-filing system, some categories quite specific, some rather vague.
Behind the door hangs belts. In the top, left corner hang several whips (below). Again, I began to wonder what production called for whips. I think that’s the beauty of the stock room pieces, however: just like a stranger, you never know their story, why they came here, where they came from, how they’ve been used, and why they’re worn.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around how many pieces live in the main stock room, and the potential for more pieces to be created as well. Working extensively in New York City as a costume designer in theater, television and film for 15 years, including Saturday Night Lives for 11 seasons, Laurie states that our stock is the most equipped she has seen in any theater organization.
Our tour of the main wardrobe stock room is coming to an end, but there’s a whole new world still waiting in Middle Kingdom. We climb the precipitous steps to the lofted room.
I am immediately met with row after row of boxes, all labeled with a little picture inscribed to show what it holds.
At this point, I’ve deduced that there are hidden gems everywhere. I ask Anna to show me more of the oddballs. I don’t think I was prepared.
Most everything in costume work is about deception and using everyday objects to make a piece the most convincing to an audience. Lighter materials such as Styrofoam and plaster are used to help actors out, but are made to look heavy. New items are made to look weathered, while still maintaining structure. Special effects wounds are created with paint and glue. Behind me is a whole rack of antique and weathered clothing.
I pick out some different degrees of gore (below).
“We often use cheese graters and sandpaper to rip and rough up material,” says Anna. There’s no reason to buy ripped jeans from the store anymore. We continue to explore.
We turn and make our way past the men’s hats, revealing another room of racks. To my left is a rack of crinolines, dress cages, hoops and structured petticoats (below).
Anna demonstrates how some cages are tied to make Victorian style gowns bigger in the hip area, just as it was done in that era (the following two photos).
In a production that calls for a garment that cannot be either bought or found in our stock, the Costume Shop has to make it. Often, the shop uses a sewing pattern, usually an envelope filled with “blueprints” of panels of clothing printed on large pieces of butcher paper. As the Costume Shop’s cutter/draper, Anna can take a pattern, cut the fabric into the right shape based on the pattern, drape and pin the pieces onto a dress form, sew the seams, and add any additional appliques to the garment. That is a simplified description; between making the garment, fittings and redesigning the look, it’s not uncommon to see a finished piece that’s completely different than the rendering. The whole process has an “it takes a village” attitude.
Six filing cabinets are filled to the brim with patterns, with the overflow in several crates on a bookshelf. A pattern is labeled with the name and style of the garment, the sizes it can accommodate, the recommended fabrics, a sketch or picture of its intended look, and, in the case of house-made patterns, even the play and character it was intended for in the past. The Department uses some pre-made patterns (as in the following two photos).
The shop also makes its own patterns (as in the following two photos).
Beyond the filing cabinets is a dark crawlspace filled with even more racks, made tighter with gas and water lines overhead. The racks house a myriad of items less commonly used: hospital staff uniforms, medieval robes and frocks, bathrobes, wedding dresses, graduation robes, ecclesiastical papal wear, and a small assortment of kids’ clothing. Unfortunately, because of the tight space and lack of light, I will leave you to imagine those pieces’ quantity and appearance. I am, however, able to reveal to you the rack of assorted traditional, ethnic garments, and opposite from it, a row of fur and synthetic coats.
My experience in the Costume Shop has taught me that deadlines and schedules are followed strictly; outfits are curated, picked out, made and fitted by specific dates, ready for dress rehearsals. Soon after flipping through the colorful fabrics, Joan calls Anna from the stairwell to attend another commitment.
Our tour is over, and as I walk back into cell reception, I can’t help nostalgically recall my childhood dress-up sessions. Except this time, I don’t have to pretend that the towel wrapped around my short stature is a long gown at a gala: the imagination and possibilities are left to the garments in the stock rooms.
About the contributor
Saba Maheen is a ’20 from Atlanta, GA. She has only recently been on a roller coaster (despite living half an hour from Six Flags), enjoys petting dogs around campus (silently screaming about how wonderful they are), and is currently thawing out in her room from the Hanover weather (everyone keeps telling her about how this is a piece of cake and she wants to cry because of it). Find her at the Ceramic Studio throwing clay, the BVAC with charcoal and graphite on her face, or by the echoes of bad jokes and the word “y’all”.