Some of the happiest moments of my undergraduate life were spent learning how to sew in the costume shop of CUA’s Hartke Theatre, under the warm tutelage of Gail Stewart Beach. It was an atmosphere of quirky calm, with bolts of fabric stacked by color and texture, drawers of buttons and hooks, and paper patterns hand drawn. The agony of getting that sleeve hung just right, the chiffon that simply won’t obey the needle – it’s sometimes hard to grasp the intense level of perfectionism that goes into garments audiences may see for just a fleeting minute on stage.
That perfectionism is apparent in every production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. 80-90% of their shows are built from scratch by the costume shop, in a journey from designer’s rendering to draper’s pattern to stitcher’s needle. It’s an intensive, meticulous process that results in an enormous stock of costumes. Some of these are so show-specific they can never be recycled, and while many can be passed on to rental shops for credit, culling the stock and selling to the public is a necessity every few years.
This Saturday, September 29, your dreams of owning a once-in-a-lifetime costume can be realized at the STC costume shop sale. Held from 10am-3pm in STC’s rehearsal studios at 507 8th Street SE, prices will range from $1 to over $200, depending on the garment, and a number of props will also be sold. Halloween, Carnivale, everyday wearable art, or even an outfit for that mannequin in your living room – there are many possibilities from an artisanal trove of gorgeous treasures.
I was lucky to spend some time with Wendy Stark Prey, STC’s costume shop director, and Randi Fowler, floor manager, touring their sunny space and admiring the craft up close. The level of detail and dedication is simply amazing.
As we walked through the expansive shop filled with wide work tables and sewing machines, Fowler explained the shop’s set-up. STC employs four teams of costume artisans, with each team comprised of a draper, a first hand, and two stitchers. For those unfamiliar with costume shop terminology, drapers are responsible for creating patterns to craft the costumes once the shop receives the design sketches, called renderings, from the costume designer. First hands and stitchers handle construction of the garments. STC shop members have interchangeable skills and all can handle both dressmaking and tailoring. That’s a commitment to versatility that allows the shop to be flexible without losing quality.
Not only are the teams experts in their craft, they are also able to do research work with the designers if necessary. Though many designers come to the table with renderings of extreme specificity – “it’s 1905 in March” – others may want more of a conversation with the draper, spreading out research books and picking out the exact sleeve style together. STC’s costume shop teams are not mere sewing drones, but partners in the design process, with a knowledge base that’s highly valued.
Such dedication to the final product made the decisions on what to put up for sale this Saturday very difficult. “There’s always a memory,” Fowler said, “These are all the babies of the shop.”
Some of the exquisite garments I saw that will be up for purchase include a vibrant red suit from Titus Andronicus, designed by Murell Horton, perfect perhaps for a dapper devil, and a delicate silver and gold 18th-century pair from As You Like It, designed by Martin Pakledinaz, that made me instantly think of posing in San Marco for a Venetian Carnivale. Also available will be the ridiculously divine red ball gown worn by Dixie Carter in Lady Windermere’s Fan, though Fowler warned me it’s so tiny it might only be destined for display! But there will also be plenty of corsets, doublets, armor, and headdresses for lesser fees to snap up for your Halloween parties.
When you purchase a garment that’s been designed by a top theater artist, crafted from scratch by a perfectionist costumer, and then worn by a brilliant actor on stage, you aren’t just buying a piece of clothing. It’s a living memory of a production.
Ephemera, made fabric.
Many thanks to Wendy Stark Prey, Randi Fowler, and the members of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s costume shop, for the tour and their time.