Various Stages of Dress: Costume Designers, Who Spend Their Lives Clothing Fictional Characters, Tell Us What They're Wearing

By Napoleon, Davi | American Theatre, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Various Stages of Dress: Costume Designers, Who Spend Their Lives Clothing Fictional Characters, Tell Us What They're Wearing


Napoleon, Davi, American Theatre


WHEN A PERFORMER ENTERS, AUDIENCES know something about the character before she says a word. Is she wealthy or poor? Conventional or unconventional? Is he our contemporary? Did he live in the distant past? Costumes help create characters and tell their stories. So we began to wonder: What does their own personal clothing say about the costume designers who wear it? We asked five busy costume designers to share their insights into designing for characters--and for themselves.

ASA BENALLY is a 2016 graduate of the Yale School of Drama who grew up on a Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. His aesthetic, Benally says, comes from an interest in history and strong individuals. When designing for characters, he believes, nuances matter. "If he's wearing a simple thing like a dress shirt," Benally wonders, "what does it mean that he never buttons it, and his sleeves are rolled up?"

The designer's own dress choices are eminently practical. Benally often has an armload of clothes to choose from, so he selects jackets and blazers with high-cut arms and avoids bulky fabrics. Since he's constantly crouching, digging through bolts of fabric, he favors pants with a little stretch in them.

"At my busiest, I can be working on four or five different productions and many, many characters," Benally says. "In a 24-hour period, I could be going to a fitting, swatching another project, jumping on a plane and having dinner with a director, then going to a show and opening-night party," he says, explaining that he has to transition from work to business to party as easily as an actor undergoing quick changes backstage. "What do I wear if I can't come back home and do a full costume change?" A streamlined, flexible wardrobe solves the problem.

LINDA CHO, a New York City-based designer whose costumes have been seen on Broadway and international stages--not to mention such major U.S. theatres as the Public in New York City, Lajolla Playhouse in San Diego, D.C.'s Arena Stage, Minneapolis's Guthrie, and Chicago's Goodman--wants to inspire confidence in her taste when she dresses for work.

At home, she tends to dress for herself, choosing clothes that are comfortable and fit well. "I tossed my sad, baggy sweatpants a few years ago when I realized that they may have been comfortable but made me feel the way they looked."

Though she buys clothing to wear at work and at home, she sees formal occasions as a chance to express herself: She often designs dresses for such events and has them built by a theatrical costume shop. And while the palette of both her work and home wardrobe mostly comprises neutral shades, she tends to wear bright colors for celebratory times.

When creating her dresses for her wedding and the Tonys--she won for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder and was nominated for Anastasia--she says she was thrilled to design garments she loved, made by people she loves. For the 2017 Tony Awards, "I designed a fuchsia dress in a vibrant, richly patterned Indian sari--it embodied my excitement for the event."

AMBER MARISA COOK has designed for midsize theatres in the Midwest, including the Williamston Theatre, Tipping Point, and Detroit Repertory Theatre, all in Michigan, and at the Conservatory of Theatre and Dance at South-eastern Missouri State University, where she teaches. She's also worked as an over-hire in the costume shop at NYC's Lincoln Center. She is completing a book about custom digital textile design, due out in 2019 from Focal Press.

When designing, Cook says she thinks about the journey a character is going through and tells that story through layers of detail--including character-defining trim and accessories. "It's not just about a beautiful dress," she declares.

Cook, who believes it's important to have an identifiable sense of style, says her personal aesthetic is eclectic. "I buy interesting things when I travel, things that evoke a memory or have a story. …

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