As a costume designer I have developed through education, experience, and scholarship a keen awareness of those traits that make me an effective designer and unique artisan. Naturally these are always subject to refinement with each new experience. Key traits include a commitment to and enthusiasm for research, concern for the human condition, and collaborative conversation. Discussion of characters, storytelling, and overarching themes with the director and production team is crucial. I also find collaboration with actors to be of great benefit in order to create a living costume, which I define as a costume that develops with the actor in the course of the performance, the course of the rehearsal process, or both.
In addition, understanding the aesthetic and physiological responses that color—often referred to as the most powerful element of stage design—elicits from viewers is essential for a costume designer. I believe that this is a distinctive characteristic of my design choices, and it is certainly critical to what I bring to the collaborative process.
“Musicals are plays, but the last collaborator is your audience, so you’ve got to wait ‘til the last collaborator comes in before you can complete the collaboration.” -Stephen Sondheim
Bar scene from the world premier performance of the original opera Vincent by composer Bernard Rands bernardrands.com and libretto by poet, J.D. McClatchy. Based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, this opera told the story through chronological vignettes often recreating the people, settings and paintings of Van Gogh. Photo courtesy of IU School of Music
Getting the designs onto the stage.
One of the most exciting points in the design process for me is the first rehearsals on stage where we begin to assemble all the design elements with performers and musicians.
The perfect fabric.
Every once in awhile I come across a fabric that captures everything I had hoped for a particular costume design. It is the right color, there is no weaving, beading, applications, dyeing or modifying…it is perfect as is! Here is an Italian silk, woven into narrow panels with two layers of embroidered silk gauze already laid on top. It was the perfect weight too.
I’ve always thought the perfect accessories help give a biography to a character’s wardrobe.
Layering fabrics, textures and accessories can enhance the quality of a costume, especially when it is on a large stage where detail can get lost.
Collaborating with skilled artisans and makers is an incredibly rewarding experience for me. Knowing not only the skills of my team but also some of their hidden talents can bring nuances to a design that I hadn’t considered.
Even if the audience may not see all the details, part of creating the visual biography of a character and my job as a designer in collaborating with a performer is to provide thoughtful and well executed designs. Although it isn’t always financially possible due to labor or materials budget, I always try to get unique fabrics and materials such as these metal sequins for a 1920’s dress.
Lighting and fabrics can make magic.
When considering the movement of a particular character I try to design a costume with fabrics that will enhance choreography or a particular moment in the storytelling. For example, this silk chiffon has a warp of one color thread and a weft of another color thread. It moves with the slightest breeze on stage while the lighting enhances the variations of the threads depending on the movement of the performer.
Color is an element of visual design that evokes a physiological response from the audience. It triggers not only a reaction from the body but memory. Exploration of color and many conversations about texture, color and pattern are integral to successful collaboration with a director and artistic team.
Trims. I always plan them into the design and the schedule so they don’t become an afterthought.
Also, sometimes less really is more.
Sometimes spending some alone time with some swatches and trims, layering, planning, working through ideas with my hands is important.
Talking through how a fabric with strong motifs or patterns will be laid out is a critical conversation in the design of a garment. I may go into a meeting with many ideas but I’m alway open to the wisdom of a seasoned maker in looking at grain, construction and matching patterns.
I work best when my studio table is clean and when the space is filled with bright light, inspirational research, and a soundscape.
Starting the build
When a design moves into the shop for construction it is a time of excitement and organization. Having a clear channel of communication, a detailed schedule and the sequence of priorities are key to a successful build in my experience.
Linda Pisano Feature Story
A little feature created by a senior journalism major here at Indiana University for her class project.