STAGE TUBE: Sneak Peek at Costumes in Tennessee Rep's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Guest Blogger: Tenessee Repertory Theatre
As we continue our behind the scenes look at our much-anticipated production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, we thought we would next take a peek in our costume shop where our Resident Costume Designer, Trish Clark, has been heading the creation of a closet full of Victorian garb.
How many costumes are in this show, exactly? Well, Trish says she never counts costumes, but almost every character in the show has two sets and, although Tennessee Rep has a large number of existing costumes in our stock, only about 25% of the wardrobe for the show was pulled from this resource. Trish estimates that 75% of the costume pieces for the show had to be built by our costume shop, including six full Victorian costumes from the ground up.
Six does not seem like that big of a number until you take in to account the timeframe, the manpower, and most importantly the keyword: Victorian. If you remember from our look at the set, The Importance of Being Earnest is essentially a period production with a few liberties taken. Authentic Victorian outfits consisted of a multitude of pieces, and despite Trish's ability to leave out pieces that will not be seen on stage such as bloomers and corset covers, a single costume in this show can still consist of upwards of fifteen or sixteen elements. As you can guess once they are built, these costumes, despite not being strictly authentic, will still be just as tricky for our actors to get in to as actual clothes from 1895. A woman such as Lady Bracknell would have had a Lady's maid à la Downton Abbey to assist her, but Tennessee Rep does not have an O'Brian or an Anna on staff, so our Professional Costume Production Intern Maria Mignone will fill this historical position during the show. However, before the actors can wear the costumes they have to exist. So how does one approach costuming a show like this? Simple. You just jump in and do the work until it's done.
When designing the costumes for The Importance of Being Earnest, Trish, of course, did research in to Victorian era clothing, but she also relied heavily on the play itself to help give her clues as to what each character would wear. It was important to her that the characters wore costumes that served the script not just ones that Victorian culture dictated. Along with the script, Trish collaborated with the show's others designers--like Resident Scenic Designer/Head of Design Gary C. Hoff and Producing Artistic Director René D. Copeland--to make decisions such as: "should Gwendolyn and Cecily carry their diaries in purses or on their wrists, and why?" One decision agreed upon was costumes should include materials that reflect and enhance the movement of the actors like feathers, ruffles, fringe, and tassels. The idea was that these materials helped highlight the social comment Wilde makes with this play of how people often talk and flitter about very seriously as if accomplishing something, but their actions are really all very superfluous. Just like Gary's color choices for the set, Trish's costume designs are helping to accentuate the comedy of the play.
With decisions made, designs sketched, and fabrics chosen, it was time to get to work, and with only a few weeks to get the work done, the race for Earnest was on. Clothes in the Victorian era heavily indicated status and it was very common to have one's clothes custom made since labor was cheap and abundant. Wealthy individuals, such as Lady Bracknell, would even employ people in their homes to make their clothes for them. The clothes would require hours upon hours of work including quite a bit of intricate handwork. To replicate the ornate Victorian look, but save time and labor, Trish chose to layer a combination of patterns and fabrics in the costumes. Interestingly, however, there was one element to the construction process of costumes for The Importance of Being Earnest that was actually quite close to authentic. Our costume shop uses a number of machines to get the job done, from a brand new embroidery machine donated to Tennessee Rep by Singer that arrived just in time for this show to a 1932 Singer. The newly donated machine is already being used to do embroidery for the production, which would have been done by hand during that time period. On the other hand, the 1932 Singer only does a straight stitch, but it is still regularly used, Trish says, because the vintage attachments that work with this machine duplicate the fancy work from the turn of the century when it was invented. Even though is from 1932 and the play takes place in 1895, the technology in this machine is actually very close, Trish points out, to the machines that would have been in Victorian homes. Rufflers and binders attachments continue to work beautifully. Fitting, perhaps, that this machine should help to bring Victorian costumes to life in 2013.
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