A! Magazine for the Arts

Amanda Aldridge designs costumes for Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.

Amanda Aldridge designs costumes for Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.

Costume Designers bring Character to Life and Set the Mood

January 30, 2013

In a way, anyone who has ever put on an interview outfit or worried about whether they're dressed appropriately has thought about their clothes as a costume.

Costumes are deliberately designed to portray a character or a mood and, if they're film or theatrical costumes, are designed to work with stage lights, audience perception or cameras.

Locally, Amanda Aldridge, resident costume designer and choreographer for Barter Theatre, and Andrea and Garry Wakely of Twin Roses Design, think about every aspect of how their costumes will be used before they put scissors to fabric.

Amanda Aldridge
Aldridge begins every show she designs with a meeting with the director, set designer, prop director and lighting designer. She says Rick Rose, Barter's artistic director and her husband, is a "challenging director and a very visual and conceptual designer. You start a meeting and he's over here somewhere, and you go how do I get there, how do I apply that to what I'm doing? He also has a technical background, so he knows how to speak the language. It's a really encompassing experience. I admire his work, and I always feel like he challenges me to rise to that level."

She didn't set out to be a costume designer; she began as a dancer. She started studying when she was 3. "I attended Washington School of Ballet as a boarding student in ninth grade," she says. "And I danced with the Memphis Civic Ballet and Princeton Ballet companies in high school. In 11th grade, our jazz teacher cast several of us in "The Music Man" at a Princeton theatre, and I fell in love with the world of musical theatre. I attended Sarah Lawrence College, then moved into New York City to break into the world of theatre. My first professional job was Surflight Summer Theatre in Beach Haven, N.J., where we did 10 large musicals in 10 weeks. I was in heaven."

Things changed when she went to Canterbury Summer Theatre in Michigan City, Ind. She met Rose and began to work in the costume shop because she knew how to sew.

"When you're doing non-union theatre, they put you to work in the shops," Aldridge says. "Since I knew how to sew, they put me in the costume shop and I loved it. The woman who ran the shop, Peggy, did not come back the following summer. Rick and I were going back. The artistic director talked to Peggy, and she suggested that I design a show. So he called me and said, "Do you want to design the costumes for "Picnic?"' I said, "You don't want me to do that; I don't know anything about designing costumes.' He said, "Why don't you try it?' and so I did. It was the perfect show to design at that point, because it was set in the "50s. The thrift stores in the area had "50s clothes, so I was able to go into them and the costume shop and do a lot of research, and I was able to shop the show. I had a blast on it."

An occurrence in that first design experience illustrates the importance to Aldridge of focusing on every tiny detail. As she tells it, "There's a young girl in the play. She lives in rolled–up jeans and saddle oxfords until she gets dressed up to go to the picnic. I put her in this little white eyelet dress, and I remember really debating about what to do about shoes. Do I put her in sandals with that dress? I thought "She's just not a girl who has sandals,' so I left her in the saddle oxfords. When she walked out, the whole audience went aahhh, and I thought, "I just got a reaction to a costume.' It was a really gratifying feeling especially since it was something that I'd thought so hard about."

After that show, she and Rose moved to New York where she worked as a stitcher in the costume shop at Juilliard. She says that theatrical designers would call when they needed help, and she always said yes. "It was a real apprenticeship way of learning. That got me where I am."

Aldridge says one of her favorite memories of plays is costuming Barter's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat" because it was the first time she made the transition to abstract design. "It was the first time I thought of it as something other than enhanced clothing," she says.

She particularly enjoys designing musicals because she says, "In my mind when I see one, I see the other. When I see costumes I see them in movement, and when I see movement I see costumes. They just really kind of work from the same part of my brain."

"Singing in the Rain" and "Tommy" are two of her favorite musicals: "Singing in the Rain" because it is a classic, and Gene Kelly is one of her heroes. "Tommy" because there were five dancers who represent Tommy's mind, who were in constant motion which gave her an opportunity to use her jazz and classical dance training.

Some of her memories involve a touch of panic. When Barter Theatre staged "Beauty and the Beast," it was the first iconic children's show she had designed. "You get a touch of tunnel vision focusing on the details and making sure everything is right," she says. "I remember I walked up to the lobby and meant to just go in and see how things were going, and the lobby was filled with little girls. I suddenly thought "What if I let these children down?'" She says, "They seemed pleased when they saw the show."

This season she's particularly looking forward to "Les Misérables." "It's always been one of my favorite musicals, and it will be exciting to find a way to make it our own."

Designing costumes requires a lot of thought about more than how the clothes look. Aldridge does a lot of research into what is historically appropriate and chooses colors that reflect something about the character or the mood of the scene. She also has to consider whether she wants the actor to stand out from the scene or be a part of it.

"There are a zillion details to each costume piece," she says. "And each detail is important to telling the story of the character and the play - color, texture, shape, fit, shoes, hair and accessories. I think even the buttons make a difference. Fittings are critical, not only for the fit of the garment, but more importantly to see that the choices on the actor make sense to the character. You can immediately tell if it is the right choice by the actor's body posture in the clothes. If it is right, then they take on the character right in front of you."

Costumes also have to be much sturdier than clothing. "A garment has to go through 40 to 50 performances or more, under harsh lights and quick changes, and they have to be cleaned each time they're worn," she says. "When we purchase things, the zippers break the first week, and the buttons come off. We finish all the seams because if you don't, they'll start raveling. We leave extra seam allowances for alterations in the future. We don't do an interior lining, because you want the seams visible so you can alter them in the future."

Aldridge also has to think about how the audience sees the costumes. "I start by choosing fabric swatches for my color palette," she says. "I stand back and squint to see what they are going to look like in the front row and from the balcony."

Color palettes are important to Aldridge. Not only does she have to consider how the colors will work with the set, she also considers the emotional content of the colors. "Do I want her to be warm or fuzzy, or cool, or to feel distant?" she says. "Color says a lot about the character, the mood of the scene, or the mood of the play. It can tell stories too. Migration of colors can tell a story or an emotion within a character or within a show. In "Thoroughly Modern Millie' the modern couples were all in pastel colors, the speakeasy scene was all deep purples and greens and the stenography scene was black and white. It was fun to use color to create a sense of scene."

Designing for Barter Stage II, a much more intimate setting than Barter's main stage, presents another challenge. "The Stage II audience is much closer to the costumes," she says. "This affects many things: the trims on the clothes might be less bold because they will show more easily. You have to be careful that the front row might be able to read a lapel pin or a badge, so something that you might be able to use on the main stage, you might not be able to use on Stage II. A police badge, for example, needs to be accurate in what it says, whereas on main stage only the shape will show. Details when you distress a garment will read very differently."

In "Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Goose," for example, one of the clues was the presence of cedar shavings on a character's dress. Aldridge glued cedar shavings to netting and sewed it to the garment. This detail might not have shown up on the main stage, but it did at Stage II. Several women had been on a tour of the costume shop when Aldridge was working on this dress, and she explained what she was doing. "After they saw the show, they told me how excited they were when they saw the shavings on the dress."

Aldridge isn't just responsible for the clothing; she's responsible for the whole look. When she researches the shows, she finds photos that look like the characters. She uses these as inspiration for her suggestions for hairstyles and hair color. The wig master then uses those suggestions to create the actor's wigs. Any accessory, such as a hair ribbon, or whether they pad an actor is Aldridge's responsibility.

"Since we are a repertory company, we use a lot of padding and facial hair. We want people to see the actors as their characters, not themselves."

That transformation is not an easy task. "The hardest part is the internal brainstorming with yourself," she says. "I look for that breakthrough when everything suddenly clicks. Sometimes it's different things that click. I was shopping in New York for a show. I had an idea in my head for what I was going to do. Then I saw a dress and said "that's it.' It was a totally different color than we had been talking about, but I knew it was the linchpin. Looking for that linchpin is also the scary part; it's when you start panicking and thinking you don't know what you're doing. The fact that you've done 100-plus shows doesn't comfort you."

After more than a hundred shows, Aldridge still loves every aspect of her job. Although it may be hectic, she says, "We have about 10 people in the department full-time year-round. We are usually working five or six shows at the same time. Some shows have just a few costumes. The large musicals could have more than 100. "Wizard of Oz' had 1,648 pieces if you count each item."

None of those pieces appears on stage without Aldridge's attention to each detail.Aldridge's costumes can be seen on Barter Theatre's stages beginning in February, www.bartertheatre.com.

- Meet Andrea and Garry Wakely