Ask a fashion designer to simultaneously whip up an embroidered Shang Dynasty emperor's robe, the vainglorious get-up of an eighteenth-century Parisian dandy, and a Hashbury hippie chick's accoutrements circa 1965, and you're likely to get little more than a blank look. For a theatrical costume designer, though, such requests are just part of the job description. Since theater covers the whole of human history, its designers have a very broad wheelhouse indeed, spanning millennia of fashions, on demand. The requirements don't end there. Their clothing also has to work in a grueling environment where actors routinely get less than sixty seconds to change between scenes, and dancers put extreme stress on a costume's fabric, seams, and fasteners. A failure in any of these can spell disaster for a performance.
When we asked regional costume designers and professional dressers to recall some of their career's greatest challenges, the answer was unambiguous for stage veteran Jan Chambers, resident set and costume designer at PlayMakers Repertory Company: the group's 2009 production of Nicholas Nickleby Parts I and II.
Over two full evenings in David Edgar's monumental adaptation of the famous Dickens melodrama—just under six and a half hours of programming in all—twenty-five actors played over 150 characters, each requiring a separate costume. "There were nearly a thousand costume pieces," Chambers says, recalling some thirty faculty, grad students, and former graduates from UNC's costume technology program who made bespoke patterns, cut fabric, and built Victorian-era costumes, day and night, for months before the show. The results placed Nicholas Nickleby among a handful of productions that reset expectations of regional theater's capabilities. Chambers says, "We still speak of it as the pivotal moment we all realized, 'Oh my god, we can do anything.'"
John McIlwee, director of N.C. State's University theater program, had loved—and toured in—Stephen Schwartz's musical Pippin. But when he directed it in 2000, he wanted a darker take, and a different look, from the medieval carnival motley long associated with the show. His fairly radical costume choice: black leather and chain mail on exposed flesh, to give the work a rougher, vaguely gothic feel. Some performers were clad in little more than leather codpieces and bustiers: "a regular S & M orgy," McIlwee laughs.
But getting that design to work on stage was anything but erotic for the costume makers or the actors. To start with, working with leather "broke a lot of sewing needles on that show," McIlwee recalls. Then came the blood, when actors quickly discovered that chain mail, usually worn over tunics, was cutting them during dance and rigorous movement sections. Hours were then devoted to padding every piece. Then came design adjustments to permit performers enough flexibility to execute the choreography and blocking, since "leather doesn't bend like chiffon." The male lead, a trickster figure called the Leading Player, needed three differently tailored vests to complete the show: two leather ones that permitted a range of arm movements, and one in black latex for dance numbers.
The final challenge for Pippin? Simply getting the costumes on, since the leather would stick to any sweat and pull at any hairs on the actor's bodies. The solution was a mix of baby powder and Vaseline, slathered on all body parts the costumes came in contact with.
The show went up. From my seat in the house, it looked striking and sharp. And no one in the audience had an inkling of everything that went into making it happen.
Christine Lawless and Anny Thompson, professional dressers who work both touring and house productions at Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, can tell you about the world-famous blowhard who finally demanded, "Treat me like the piece of meat I am!" By now, neither of them has any remaining illusions about the nature of the business. "If you're collecting underwear at the end of the night, trust me, it's not glamorous," Lawless quips.
Happily, they have few tales to tell of onstage disasters, in part because it's their job to prevent them, and they've managed to avert numerous potential catastrophes, including by whip-stitching the back of Anita's dress in the middle of a West Side Story dance number and choreographing a crew through a simultaneous ten-person full-costume change, in under fifty seconds, for a memorable production of La Cage aux Folles.
One evening that still stands out in their minds took place years ago, when an actor playing the heavy in the musical Carousel indulged in method acting backstage as well as on, getting into character by refusing to bathe, pouring beer all over his clothes, and then wringing the liquid into his mouth. After distressing the fabric—and his colleagues—in this way for a number of performances, one night his pants split at the crotch, from front to back, mid-scene.
At this point, everyone learned that he had gone commando. The actor rushed toward the dressers in the wings, who gaffer-taped his costume—and genitals—and sent him back on stage. "There was not enough vodka in the world," Lawless notes—not to fortify the dressers, but to deodorize the costume, which had to ultimately be thrown out.