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Confessions of a Costume Designer

2010 July 21

Everyone knows Oscar Wilde was a wit, but I hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing one of his plays performed live until this past weekend, when saw Big Rodent’s production of An Ideal Husband. The play is full of snark, intrigue, sex, and scandal, and Big Rodent’s production is set in the 1960s, so there’s a bonus of Brit rock and fantastic costumes. I chatted with Kerry Gibbons, the show’s costume designer, about what it takes to put together costumes for a show of this scale.

A recent review of the show mentioned that the most major shift from the play’s original Victorian setting to the London of the 1960s was the costumes. Obviously, the costumes play a huge part in giving the audience a sense of time and place. How did you prepare to represent London in the 1960s on the stage?
I generally start by doing a ton of research, and this show was no different. In the case of our production, the setting was chosen before I came on as designer, so a lot of the conceptualization work was done for me, making it a lot easier. I have a whole binder filled with images from the late 1950s, early 1960s, late 1960s, and even some early 1970s. I always like to get a nice range around my intended date, which was decided to be 1964.

In addition to illustrating the setting, the costumes give us a sense of each character as well. Did you have each character in mind as you designed their costumes? Which character’s costumes did you feel were most representative of their personalities? Does any piece in particular stand out?
The great difference, I believe, between a fashion designer and a costume designer is the character and context of the production.  Every morning when each of us gets dressed, we think about what we’ll do today, where we’re going, the weather, who we’ll see. Beyond that, though, is the history of our clothing. You remember where you bought your shirt and who gave you your bracelet and how uncomfortable those shoes were the first week you wore them.  All of that is how the characters should think as well.
I really think that Mabel Chiltern’s costumes were some of the funner ones to design. I imagined the self-proclaimed “most ornamental person” in London would wear all pink all the time. The costume she wears in the first act is covered with pink paillettes. Not only is this super-mod, but I felt it captured a sort of opulence and ridiculousness that she and Lord Goring share.

Because this is a smaller independent production, the costumes needed to be done on a budget. Where did you find these costumes? How many were handmade?
There are four major ways to procure costumes. The first is rental, which we did very sparingly. The advantages of rental are obvious: you get perfect vintage costumes in great shape in a one-stop-shopping environment. However, they’re usually expensive and at the end of the production, you’re left with nothing.  The second is to pull from stock. We, thankfully, had access to the Village Light Opera Group (VLOG)’s stock to pull items. Because this was almost like a rental, we couldn’t really alter any items too much. The third is to purchase. Purchasing can be very cost-effective and you can alter items as much as you want. For example, Lady Chiltern’s dress in Act II was purchased at a Goodwill for $20, but was bright white and looked like an ugly wedding dress. I dyed it for about $4.50 and now it’s a lovely day dress. The fourth option, of course, is to build from scratch.
On a production like this one, you have to balance the time as much as the budget. Because we didn’t have the budget to pay anyone to build items, anything built for the production was built by me, so building was my last choice. I also had to do all the alterations, so I really had to think about what I was really intent on looking perfect. I wound up only building Mrs Cheveley’s dress for Act I and that was because I had something very specific in mind that I knew I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.
On larger productions, building an item is also a last resort. It may seem like the cheaper option, but when you’re paying for labor, it always winds up being more expensive than buying or renting. Usually, it’s reserved for things that you would not be able to find or for building multiples, such as 30 dancing fairies, who all have to match.

Mrs. Chevely’s dress in the first act makes a bold statement. Where did you get the inspiration for this particular piece?
A lot of Mary Quant’s stuff from the early 60s is really iconic to me. I believe I based this off of one of her designs. I’ll have to look through some of my research for you to see if I can find the exact images. I really think the biggest thing that made me decide on this design is what Lord Goring says in the following act, “Last night she was wearing far too much rouge and not quite enough clothing. Always a sign of desperation in a woman.” Given that we were no longer using Victorian standards of “not quite enough clothing,” I knew it would have to be fairly extreme to inspire such a comment. She’s a very sexy character, and thankfully, our actor, Anna Bridgforth, has a fantastic body, so she definitely is able to pull off the dress.
There’s also a pattern throughout the play of characters commenting on others’ inappropriate dress. I thought how less appropriate could you get than wearing a miniskirt with two giant holes in it to a party to which everyone else is wearing floor-length gowns?

You’ve designed costumes for quite a few plays. How has this experience compared to shows you’ve designed in the past?
I love working with my friends from college. I went to Georgetown with quite a few of the people who worked on the show, including the production manager, producer, stage manager, and two of the actors. There’s a certain amount of thoughtfulness that goes into the shows I’ve done with this group, which I really appreciate.
Also, even though we had a tiny budget, the timeline on this production was extended, which alleviated a lot of the stress. I started working on An Ideal Husband back in April or May, so I was able to really scour second-hand stores and eBay. I found a LOT of really wonderful vintage items on eBay for really cheap!  One of our actors said his mother freaked out at the beginning of the show because Lady Chiltern’s Act I dress was identical to her prom dress in 1964, which she still has hanging in her closet at home!

Check out more about Kerry Gibbons on her website!

An Ideal Husband runs every night through Saturday, July 24 at Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher St., West Village, NYC–$2 BEER EVERY NIGHT!

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