L’as du falafel: A day’s foray into fanciful costumery

After visiting the School of Drama’s “Costume Design: Background and Practice” course this Wednesday, I learned one crucial lesson: Costume design and fashion design are two very different things.

The crucial difference here is the psychological close reading (getting to know the character who will wear the clothes) and historical research that costume design entails. Costume design is all about capturing the ethos of the characters and setting.

“Costume design is about creating a world and giving visual support to a character,” said Jane Greenwood, the course’s instructor.

Kansas City Art Institute

She added, “It lets the audience in on who these people are before they even open their mouths.”

The class, which meets once a week for two and a half hours, involves a healthy serving of analysis of the particular work, historical study and creative thinking. When I arrived (slightly late) on Wednesday, the group was looking through the students’ pattern drawings for “The Great Gatsby.”

From this short visit, I could see the great amount of forethought involved in the students’ designs: First, there was the issue of becoming acquainted with 1920s fashion, the styles and accessories and icons of the time. Then there was the issue of character analysis: getting to know the characters through their depiction in the original novel, as well as in subsequent dramatic renditions. Then, of course, comes individual interpretation: taking knowledge of the time and story, combining this with other costume designer’s past interpretations and creating something that is one’s own.

After taking a glimpse at the process, I found myself completely on board with Greenwood’s statement that, in comparison to fashion designers, “more of everything is required of costume designers.”

As we looked through the various Daisies, Jordans, Toms and Gatsbys of the students’ creations, we discussed many considerations that seemed totally alien to the audience member in me. For example, there was the issue of directors’ complaints about now-unfashionable true-to-era clothing. In the case of “Gatsby,” some directors were reluctant to include men’s hats and gloves in the actors’ wardrobe, despite the fact that these items were a staple of gentlemanly attire during the Roaring Twenties. Apparently, this is not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because many actors profess to feeling uncomfortable acting in headwear. Maybe it traps their thoughts? Who knows.

But Greenwood insisted that such items are essential for “establishing the look.”

“Even if they take their hats off after just one pose, the audience will get the right idea from that first second,” she affirmed.

We spent the next hour critiquing student work and talking about the costume designer-actor relationship and the looks of the Gatsby era.

Students were encouraged to think of garments in relation to the body’s movements and positions (sitting down, standing up, etc.), and Greenwood told the class about a number of exercises she had actors perform to better understand this relation as well. In one such exercise, actors speedily get dressed and undressed for bed — a lesson in taking the time to change outfits so as not to rip any seams.

“They all thought I was nuts, but they learned an enormous amount from that [experience,]” Greenwood said.

Greenwood even compared the structure of 1920s swing dresses to that of New York City’s Chrysler Building. Talk about the architecture of fashion.

Before I left, I asked Greenwood how costume design informs a designer’s style. It turns out that a personal sense of fashion is not a requisite for the profession; some designers actively shun style in their personal attire.

“I suppose [as a costume designer] you’re more conscious of it. All designers seem to have their own look, like most people,” Greenwood said. “It’s really about the different guises that people take on.”

This was not so surprising; after all, costume design does not share the glamorous style found in the fashion world. Even the greatest drama has some downtrodden character, some street urchin or town drunk, and someone has to dress him.

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