Foundations of American Costume Design: The Innovations and Legacy of Frank Poole Bevan

By Robinson, Daniel | TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology), Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Foundations of American Costume Design: The Innovations and Legacy of Frank Poole Bevan


Robinson, Daniel, TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)


In the fall of 1996 I had the great pleasure of being invited to attend a charrette at the University of Missouri-Kansas City led by Santo Loquasto, noted set and costume designer for both stage and film. As one of the first students to graduate from UMKC after the arrival of John Ezell as Hall Family Foundation Professor of Design, I was honored to be selected as an alumnus to attend this intensive workshop. Since I was returning to campus as a guest, I was generously treated to several meals with John Ezell and Santo Loquasto. On one memorable evening, the topic of conversation between these esteemed designers turned to their school days at the Yale School of Drama. Specifically they were discussing how they were influenced by the teaching and work of Frank Poole Bevan. At the time, although new to my faculty appointment at Penn State, I was teaching one of the few courses in America on the history of American stage design. It was humbling to learn that two designers contributing so much to the American theatre were citing as a principal influence in their training and development a designer I had never heard of.

This dinner was the seed that started a journey into exploring the life and work of Frank Poole Bevan. Throughout the last decade, I have become aware, in genealogical fashion, of the impact Bevan has had on my own teaching. My first exposure to the art of costume design came through undergraduate course work in the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University. Dorothy Marshall Englis, my costume design professor, spoke about costumes in terms of design fundamentals and their use in supporting character relationships and in establishing overall stage pictures. She spoke of focus, compositional rhythms, and color harmonies in costume design. Barbara and Cletus Anderson, the costume design and technology teachers at Carnegie Mellon University taught this language and methodology for the process of costume design to Professor Englis during her graduate training. Upon discussing with Barbara Anderson her own education at Yale, I realized that much of the language we have all been using to discuss costume design had its origin in the classroom of Frank Poole Bevan. As the professor of costume design at Yale for forty-two years, Bevan may have instructed more costume designers and teachers than any other individual of his generation, so this simple genealogy from Bevan to myself can be repeated through countless other teachers and practitioners of design. As I explored his extraordinary career, I realized that Bevan is arguably one of the most influential designers in the development of costume design in America. Among the great design influences of his generation, such as Donald Oenslager, Jo Mielziner, Aline Bernstein, Mordecai Gorelik, etc., Bevan deserves a prominent place.

So, why has so little been written about Frank Bevan? When asked this question in an interview, Professor Ezell offers several insights. He said that Bevan was not particularly adept at self-promotion. This fact is supported in an interview with Barbara Anderson, Bessie Anathan Professor of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, where she says, "Professor Bevan was a very private man ... he was always Mr. Bevan to his students and was rather formal." Professor Ezell further speculates that "in the formation of United Scenic Artists, costume was seen in the early years as a woman's activity and somehow of lesser importance. Costumes took a longer time to be seen as a contributive element to the art form." Just as in later years lighting and sound design would struggle for union recognition, the early struggles for costume design to gain professional acceptance clouded recognition of the efforts of designers like Bevan. The last reason for the lack of widespread knowledge of Bevan and his innovations stems from the fact that the bulk of his career efforts were undertaken in a university setting. Although enormously influential to his students, Bevan was not widely known outside of the Yale theatre community. …

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