By Donna Gordon
I find costuming to be more enjoyable than regular sewing. As I am also a playwright, I go for what is noticeable from a distance. This means that upon any stage colors need to be attractively arranged. The costumes need to be fitted but not always tailored. Some actors will demand a close fit and you will need to have some knowledge of tailoring. As a rule, the audience will not be aware of such details but always appreciative of a beautiful costume. With our modern glitz and glimmer materials, be sure you know how they look under different colored lights to maintain your color coordination. Don't use a garment or accessory just because it is your favorite: read the play and decide what will best enhance the players and the theme. A mix of styles reminds me of a circus, and worse, a costume party. People are in a theatre to gain a new perspective or be nicely entertained: if they wanted something else, they would have paid for it!
It goes without saying that costuming, as in any wardrobe planning, will have the constraints of finances and time. Machine sewing itself requires an allotted time space for accomplishing anything. Even the simplest of patterns usually require these necessary steps: first, the basic pattern must be put together including cutting, pinning and sewing; in the sewing stages, the smallest pattern changes need to be figured out; and fitting requires a mannequin or the actual client to be available for a first fitting, a second to make sure of changes and a final to secure placement of the zipper and buttons. Professional seamstress may argue about the order of these steps, but I think I included most of the important ones. Your finances determine the style and material for any given garment.
Cutting, in the theatrical world, might require a pattern or might not. If you are fortunate, you can find a pattern that will be suitable for the particular scene you are dealing with. If you are performing an abstract play such as “The Ghost Sonata” by Strindberg, you will have more leniency in costume style. Because the subject matter is illusionary and aimed to expressing the emotions or the sub-conscious, costuming becomes very subjective. However, by looking at pictures of such projects I have noticed that costumes seem to have similar themes such as all clown-like or all mock-aristocratic, or tattered and impoverished (“Waiting for Godot”) Something in these plays suggests these themes, but some other costumer might easily choose another theme. Therefore, I call this costuming subjective.
One needs to read the play carefully to make sure that costuming does not contradict references to any time period mentioned in the play. A costumer needs to consider the season of the year the play takes place: a summer cottage requires light, fanciful clothes, while a Russian winter (a la Chekhov) requires heavy coats, boots and cloaks. Of great importance is the time period which the play was written about. This time period is not always the same period as that in which the play became well-known. Shakespeare wrote historical plays which covered a time period several hundred years before his lifetime. If “Death of a Salesman” was currently produced it would be acceptable to place the costuming in the 1920's or 1930's. I've seen pictures of “Picnic” done in American Victorian but it could also be modernized. Chekhov wrote about the death of the aristocracy prior to the Russian Revolution and I've seen costuming for his plays in the Victorian mode, which is an accurate time period.
Don't costume for the critics, however, costume with a time period in your mind and heart! Consider how true you want to remain to the current time and/or culture that you are in. Modern versions of plays require modern clothing: British Broadcasting has performed Shakespeare in inventive modern costume. The actors in his “Othello” were dressed in what I would call “traditional style” while the costuming in “Macbeth” was modern with traditional flares. Long cloaks, which the English are known for, are common as well as tailored full-length dresses imitating the tunic styles of the Medieval. Going with cultural costume is a safe bet for a classical play produced in that particular culture. Characters in American standards such as “Sorry Wrong Number” are often dressed in World War II costume, as if this is an era where American style may have appeared overseas more often than other eras. However, when references are made to a specific time period within the play, it is best to go to the library and look up pictures or drawings from that period. Also, be aware of cultural differences in those styles: one country may be much different looking from another. For instance, the average Russian peasant of the early twentieth century was very differently dressed from the average American of the same era.
Once the pattern is decided upon, one can proceed with the cutting. Albeit, most theatres have a collection of available outfits which, with a few changes, would be appropriate for a current production. I once walked into a children's' theatre which had a collection that would have shamed any good thrift store. That's not to say that some of its numbers weren't very original and interesting. In theatre, since time waits for no man, one might collect the minor and secondary characters' costumes from available garments already put together but subject to alteration. Alteration can concern either changing the style or the size. If something is going to be worn on stage, please make sure it fits as well as you can make it: look especially at armholes, length of bodice or skirt, neckline and bust placement. Children's' costumes are somewhat less exacting in fit, but children do vary one to the next. A child of one age might be a very different height from a child in the same age group. It's not too difficult to add material to the bottom of a bodice or skirt.
Theatrical costumes need flare. Theatre depends on eye and ear appeal: if you are going to make a statement in a garment, make sure it is noticeable and colorful if this is appropriate. To alter sleeves, I usually include an underarm gusset if the hole is to be made larger. In the case of making the armhole smaller, I pull up the sleeve on the shoulder line. But if a neckline alteration is required, be more creative and add interesting material, new buttons, lace and other notions. If an entire bodice or skirt is too big, look through the racks for another, or take in side seams and any center seams (on skirts). If necessary, take darts in on bodice or skirt. If a garment is too small, add interesting pleats or panels. You might even get away with adding another material on each side. Some people are seated in the back of the auditorium (if you're fortunate enough to fill the house) and they need to see the dresses and suits also.
A word about color. Try to bring colors to an actor or actress that complement their skin and figure. I like the summer, spring, autumn and winter types of color schemes. A winter person has dark eyes, hair, and olive complexion. An autumn type has dark eyes and hair but lighter skin. Summer people have light hair and warm red tones in their skin. A spring person has light, almost translucent eyes and light hair. Many style analyses have been written about these colorings but basically: winters look good in bright colors, sparkling reds, purples and yellows. They're about the only types I like in orange. Autumn colored people look good in dark or mild colors such as plum, beige, black or dark blues. They don't need colors that compete with them for brightness. Summer people can wear warm colors: yellow, pastels and lime greens. A spring person can wear pastels very well, especially if they match their eyes while bright colors wash them away. Fortunately, fashion literature contains much about color co-ordination.
Don't forget stage lighting on costume colors and get a good chart which will tell you how colors and material might change under stage lighting. For instance, under red light, red becomes enriched, but green becomes blackish; under blue light, red becomes purplish and green becomes blackish; under green light, red becomes brownish and green becomes enriched; under amber light, red is dulled and green is tinged with yellow; under purple light, red becomes enriched but bluish, and green becomes blackish. If you use glittering sequins and stones under a bright, well- lit stage, you will have glitz and glimmer coming from that costume. There's nothing wrong with that touch, just be sure the character gaining such attention has a lead role in the scene. A leading character can sometimes dress in contrast to the other characters in, for instance, a much darker or lighter shade than colors worn by secondary characters. Some colors have predispositions: you probably don't want a villain dressed in white or a nice young girl in siren red. Also, if you have a black background, avoid dressing your actors and actresses in black or they will be lost in the wallpaper; avoid costuming colors that clash with a predominant background or set color.*
When you cut patterns, you might have quite a job, especially if the cast is large, such as in a musical. Get help anywhere you can. Suggest to others that you will teach them as you go along if they will come armed with a pair of scissors. Then you can keep up a constant stream of chatter as you do the back work of sewing. If you are doing exact fitting, don't forget 5/8 th seamstress seams. If you need to create a costume for a lead performer, practice your draping skills and get a basic pattern draped on a dress form. As a general rule, any part of the garment that fits tightly to the body must be the right size. Start with the basic fit including measurements for neck to shoulder, around largest part of the arm, bust or underbust if you're doing an empire waist, hipline around the largest part of the buttocks. Include backbone to floor or hemline, wherever the performer wants or the style calls for, and include from underarm to waist. The more measurements you get, the less guessing you will have to do. With men's fashions, measure the same except for underarm to hemline of the coat, and the outside line from waist to floor. The fit doesn't have to be as exact around the hips but needs to be more precise at the waist. The amount of ease depends on the style. Leave more ease in the arms and legs because it's presumed men are larger and move around more, opening doors for women, we hope. I must be thinking of Restoration Drama, the age of polite chatter and endless manners. The sleeves must fit or they will look untidy. This type of mistake is noticeable to the audience. Be careful not to sew a man's sleeve into the armhole too tightly, especially if padding occurs above it. If you do, the sleeve will draw in and make a ridge.
A professional keeps their lines straight . You need at least two fittings, one immediately after you get a garment basted, and one before you put final touches of zippers and buttons. Some people are easy to fit and some more demanding. If you have a difficult style or person, baste your garment in muslim first so it can fit exactly before the final material is used. This is where the mock-up, or trial garment is most convenient as people are busy and don't have enough time to stop and get fitted. Always fit a person in front of a mirror and stand behind them. Make absolute sure that the lines of shoulder and side seams are straight, even if you need to have the person being fitted hold a plum line (a string with something heavy) to make sure the side is hitting at the side. Pins have a way or working themselves out, so baste changes in place with a heavy quilting thread. Yes, you will need to take your temporary muslim garment apart to make a pattern out of it. You will automatically have a pattern if you have fitted a form using muslim or some other medium weight material. If you're experienced, you can drape a sheer material right on the person. Just don't use pins because they'll slip and slide like a skier on a steep slope!
After you have basted in the basic style, or altered the garment to fit, you have also fitted the garment on the actor. Now you must attack with machine or machines. The main work of sewing involves seams and their finishes. A little knowledge about thread doesn't hurt either. For sheers, use a silk or light polyester thread: Match thread width with weight of the material. With silk it's nice to use silk to keep the look of the material. For medium weights use polyester or my favorite: cotton wrapped polyester. The more cotton something is, the more likeable to cotton wrapped. For light polyester blends, polyester thread is a good idea on a fashionable garment so as not to loose the delicate look. I use cotton wrapped polyester for almost everything as it is readily available and suits almost any material or machine. A finish for a sheer seam must hide the fraying. Nowadays we do have fray check, a liquid, gluey finish for such problems but I have, as yet, to get used to painting on a finish. Use a French seam or serger finish for seams. Don't sew long without begging, borrowing or buying a serger because it makes seams a delight instead of a chore. Serger seams are excellent for cottons and sheers as they take care of any fraying and look attractive as well. For heavy material such as those used on men's suits, use a simple zig zag to seal seams, use a thick setting on the serger or use a sporty finish with a double needle or topstitching. Many good sewing books cover this subject with pictures to illustrate seam finishes. A few tips to get you started: you do not want to leave a seam that frays without a finish and if it frays heavily hide it completely with a French seam or variation. On a thick man's garment, you want to make the seams as smooth as possible, hence topstitching or double-stitching is useable. A serger comes in very handily with the medium heavyweight materials used on sporty clothes. You can finish the seams with one sew, and be done with a minimum of bulk.
Ah, the final fitting has arrived. If something is too big it's far less of a problem that if something is too small. Take in seams and darts first. Move over buttons and realign zippers if necessary. That's why they're not put in until the last. Catalogues such as “Clotilde's” have devices for measuring hems and they lessen stooping or bending. If you have made a mistake, repeat it elsewhere in the garment but make it intentional. Some of my finest designs have evolved from covering mistakes, and, in theatre, it's possible to be creative. If you need a new pleat or panel, try a different material but stay with the style. If something is drab, suggest a hat or a small sweater etc. Such accessories have not changed that much in the last one hundred years so borrow from your own or somebody else's closets. I hope my suggestions will help you begin. I hope to write more on the details and would appreciate any comments or questions in order to spark my commentaries! Most of all, be dramatic and don't be afraid of a your own ideas. The audience will love it!
*Information about lighting taken from Gassner, John: “Producing the Play”. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1953, p.410.
If you would like to contact Donna, she can be reached at email@example.com