Putting the Clothes on Their Backs

By White, Karen | Stage Directions, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Putting the Clothes on Their Backs


White, Karen, Stage Directions


At this SUNY program, costume tech students turn designs into real clothing.

Ah, the costume designer with his quick pen, filling his pad with Elizabethan dandies, Victorian coquettes, flappers, farmhands and fantasy. It takes an artist with true technique and a bold imagination to design costumes for a theatrical show., But it takes an artisan with nimble hands and offensive knowledge to turn those two-dimensional sketches into three-dimensional reality.

Students learn to, do both at Purchase College at SUNY (State University of New York). But unlike many theatrical university programs, at Purchase, costume technology is a separate and distinct course of study from costume design. Students in the small and intense Professional Training Program in Design/Technology can major in costume technology while pursuing either a BFA or MFA.

Of the 120 students now in the design/tech department program, about a half-dozen are majoring in costume tech, which was organized under its own curriculum just a little over a year ago. Coursewojrk includes costume design, draping, drafting patterns, corset construction, fashion history, working with stretchwear/dancewear and tailoring. Along with their classroom studies, costume tech majors undertake assignments on student productions as stitchers, wardrobe supervisors, pattern makers and "first; hands" (an assistant who cuts and marks fabric for a draper).

Faculty member John Yuille, a professional draper with extensive Broadway credits, says Purchase College graduates can be found working in New York City's top costume shops, in theaters and at the Metropolitan Opera. Other alumni have used their skills to secure careers in non-theatrical venues such as working for swimsuit makers and fashion designers.

To reach these lofty jobs, students first have to trod the rough road of the Purchase College design/tech department program. All design/tech students are accepted/into the program based on a personal interview and portfolio, and freshmen must maintair a B average. All design/tech students are evaluated several times a year to ensure they have the commitment and creativity required for a professional career. If not, they are asked to leave the department program. Others, dismayed by the amount of dedication demanded by the faculty, quit on their own.

The program is designed to fulfill one goal: to graduate young adults who can handle the highly competitive, pressure-filled world of professional theater. "We have a specific approach and specific expectations," explains Daniel Hanessian, chair of the design/technology program. "This is not a touchy-feely program. We push kids hard. We are honest about what it takes to be a professional, and we have had enormous success with our alumni base."

According to Hanessian, more than 80 'percent of the shows now on Broadway have a Purchase College design/tech alumnus working behind the scenes in scene design, costume design, lighting, tech direction and stage management. Alumni have also gone on to careers with Disney, on cruise ships and in Las Vegas, and have worked nationally and internationally in films, TV and theater.

Once accepted into the department program, all design/tech students spend a portion of their freshman year in each of the shops-costume, scenery, painting, electrical-before devoting the remaining three years to intense studies in their chosen major. …

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