She yanked a worn binder out from beneath a pile of fabric, placed it in front of me, and began skimming through pages of 1940s era advertisements.
“I have been saving old ads, patterns, and pictures since forever,” Ramona Rose ’03 said, “I can always come to this binder when I need an idea, or inspiration, which is important in my field.”
When asked to define exactly what her field is, she feebly replied,
“Costuming? Tailoring? Designing? I don’t really know. I just like to make clothes.”
Ariel Bowman ’02 and Caroline Duncan ’02 find themselves in a similar situation. They, like Rose, are Yale students who have asserted themselves as both prominent costumers and independent clothing makers in the Yale community.
The three range in their levels of and reasons for involvement in the clothing world. Rose described her impetus to design as being more a function of necessity than as an artistic outlet.
“My mom taught me to sew when I was little, I didn’t really get into any complex projects until a few years ago. I am a swing dancer, and it became so much easier to make my own 1940s era costumes instead of working with what I could find in vintage shops,” Rose said. “Though I still mainly sew for dance, I have started to design vintage-looking pieces just for everyday wear too.”
Ariel Bowman, who is widely considered the most prestigious and active theatrical costumer at Yale, seats her urge to design as a means of satisfying both her love of theater and her appreciation of style.
“Costume is a great mediation between the text of a play and its visual presentation,” Bowman said. “Researching, brainstorming, and designing costumes can be fabulously intellectually fulfilling.”
While Bowman plans to make a career out of costuming rather than fashion design, she has already created a wide range of theatrically inspired clothing designs for herself and her friends.
“I love to look at a picture, or a piece of fabric, and decide what to make from there,” Bowman said. “I’ll go into the Salvation Army, buy something, and then completely change it. I pride myself on designing and owning things that no one else has, so in that way it’s a method of individual expression.”
Caroline Duncan is yet another member of Yale’s designing elite. Much like Rose and Bowman, she designs clothing primarily in the context of performance. She frequently costumes shows at Yale, in addition to designing them free-lance for herself.
“I did a lot of theater in high school, and I was looking for a new way to be involved in that without acting,” Duncan described. “Costume design eventually led to designing things for myself and friends, and both are my artistic way to vent creativity.”
Duncan plans to attend Parson’s School of Design next year, and like Bowman, she hopes to make costuming a career.
It is clear that Rose, Duncan and Bowman have all tapped into a facet of Yale’s artistic scene that furnishes more costume and fashion designing opportunities than they can handle.
“This is what I do here. It could take over my life if I let it,” Bowman said.
It is curious, given the wealth of costuming positions open in the Yale theatrical community, that designing does not provide more of a prominent activity on campus. Yale’s “artsy” programs — ranging from its strong theater department to its a cappella scene — prove that the University is a magnet for students who embrace and appreciate art. Yale would seem to be an ideal place for design to flourish. Furthermore, Yalies place a high premium on individuality and personal expression. Why, then, is fashion design at Yale limited to these three names?
“It’s simple,” answers Laurel Pinson ’02, the founder of the Yale fashion magazine Vertygo. “Fashion, as an art, is stigmatized at Yale.”
Pinson explained that many Yalies perceive an interest in fashion as a sign of superficiality and materialism that is in direct conflict with a more worthy pursuit of mental enrichment.
“There are a lot of people at Yale interested in design that would take it in the direction of fashion if the concept wasn’t so tacitly discouraged here,” Pinson said. “It doesn’t surprise me that people are starting to get into it through costume design, which may present itself as a more ‘legit’ undertaking than design itself.”
Bowman hinted at this notion when she described her preference of costuming over designing as a potential career field.
“I want to go into costume designing instead of fashion designing mainly because I don’t want to deal with the fashion industry,” Bowman said. “I feel like it’s such an undesirable environment, and that takes away from the artistic pleasure of design.”
Pinson additionally noted that the impetus behind designing one’s own clothing is often misconstrued as an attempt to “make a statement” rather than as a creative outlet. Yet Rose pointed out that designing can be more a practical measure than anything else.
“I can get something on the rack that was made for just anyone, or design something that is made for me. If I do it myself, I get everything just like I want it,” Rose said. “It really has nothing to do with ‘saying something’, I just want a pretty skirt that fits.”
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