Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Costuming The Actor's Nightmare

A long long time ago (nine years ago), I can still remember (because Facebook's On This Day feature reminded me) how the thought of costuming another drama production made me (do the opposite of) smile. I had just finished doing the costumes for Dragonwings, and since I didn't know how to sew at the time, it was a lot of going to thrift stores, hot gluing, and safety pinning. I found myself doing questionable crafts, like wrapping twine around Old Navy flip-flops to make "straw" sandals, and buying large quantities of long fake hair to braid into queues. Afterwards, I swore to never let myself be bewitched into costuming again. Hah! Little did I know, the costuming bug had bit me and after several years' incubation, I found myself once again caught up in the mad (totally exhilarating) sickness of costuming a play.

This time, it was under a new director and I had several years of sewing experience under my belt, so it was, in many ways, a totally different experience (in other ways, it was totally the same, i.e. scrambling in the weeks leading up the play trying to thrift all the things we still needed and the heady rush of seeing my costumes on stage). Since it was the fall production, it was a short play by Christopher Durang, The Actor's Nightmare. I wasn't responsible for all the costumes, thank goodness, because I only had a month or so to make everything.

For the main character, George, I made a black "Shakespearean" Hamlet outfit, consisting of a doublet and "pumpkin" pants. He also wore the pirate shirt that I made a few years ago.

My sketch.
The doublet was made using Simplicity 4059 modified for back lacing (for future adjustability) and front closures, and the elastic-waist pants were drafted using his measurements and the directions in Elizabethan Costuming by Janet Winter. I used black cotton velveteen (from Jo-Ann's) with black gimp braid trim (from Amazon), and the pants were stuffed with tulle. Total cost: a little over $100.

How it turned out IRL, albeit more crumpled than it actually looked, since the picture on the left is after pulling it out of storage for pictures, and the one on the right is after three performances. 

The two main actresses, Sarah Siddons and Dame Ellen Terry, were meant to be grand ladies in 1930s-esque evening gowns. I originally looked at my Janet Arnold Patterns of Fashion 2, EvaDress' Dinner Gown and Cape, and McCall's 7154, but then decided that they would all be too much work to fit and sew with such a limited time frame. Instead, I stuck with *gasp* stretch fabric and made do with patterns that I either had or could buy on sale at Jo-Ann's.

For Sarah, I went with a stretch velvet to mimic the luxury of 1930s starlets' gowns (turns out that I was right to do so, since the American Duchess came to a similar conclusion when making a luxe 1930s velvet dress). The skirt and back bodice piece came from McCall's 7047, and the front bodice piece was from McCall's 6963. To help hold the back of the bodice on the actress' shoulders, and because her costume required a zipper that could be undone without revealing anything, I took inspiration from this extant velvet gown:

Unfortunately, I can't find any information about this dress. 

Here's the sketch of my dress:

I didn't have the right color in my cheapo color pencil box, so this is more magenta than the burgundy it should be.

And here's how it turned out.

Cecily doesn't fill it out as well as the actress. 

A close up of the back zipper arrangement, which served to both hold the gown on the actress' shoulders, and provide a non-crucial zipper. I know it might not seem like a big deal, but I'm really proud of figuring out how to do that while still making it semi-1930s in flavor!

I'm pretty pleased with how the final gown turned out, especially considering how little time I had. I do wish I had had time to do an FBA on the bodice, and more fabric so that I could make a fuller bottom of the skirt by cutting it on the bias, but I think those are things that really only bother me. Total cost: about $50.

Ellen's dress needed to be equally glamorous, but I didn't want to use velvet again. I briefly considered some kind of satiny fabric but decided that the sheen under stage lights would emphasize any issues (I've seen way too many badly done polyester satin costumes!), so I decided that a glittery fabric would be a good compromise between luxury and being able to camouflage problem spots. I was inspired by this extant gold dress:

[picture source]

My sketch, which really only serves to illustrate how I have no idea how to draw lace:

Or hands, for that matter.

In the interest of saving myself time/money, I used a pattern I've already used for myself, McCall's 3252. It's a vintage 1970s dress pattern that I thought looked similar enough in shape to pass for 1930s-"ish" once I made some modifications. I cut the skirt into more of a trumpet shape to mimic the slim-at-the-hips-then-flaring-out look of 1930s bias cut dresses, put gathers under the bust, narrowed the straps, and cut the back into a V-shape.

While I was more pleased with my faux-1930s look with the wine-velvet dress, this dress definitely made more of a visual impact because of the glittery gold lace fabric I used. The actress playing Ellen is a bit of a tomboy, but when she walked out on stage she was absolutely transformed -- another student of mine said that she almost teared up because Ellen looked so beautiful -- which was a great reminder of what a costume can do for a performer. Total cost: about $50.

My phone did NOT like take a picture of the red velvet in the weird lighting onstage!

I made some other pieces for the play, like a grand cape for Sarah, and a white mob cap for Ellen, but the above three costumes took up the bulk of my time. I also modified my Mother Gothel dress by adding long swoopy sleeves in order to make it more fantasy-medieval. The rest of the costumes were rented or purchased, thank goodness! I was so short on time (during the week I could only sew when SHB was asleep, and his naps don't last that long...plus I had actual other work to do, like grading and lesson planning) that even with my husband and in-laws doing lots of babysitting on weekends, I didn't finish sewing up the last costume until two hours before opening. Talk about cutting it close!

Mob cap and Gothel dress make an appearance in the closing night cast photo.

After all of that stressful rushing (but still exciting, as I thrive on the last-minute push before a deadline), I decided that I was going to make sure that the next time I costumed a play, I would be much more methodical about organizing my time and tasks so as to reduce the stress for both me and my family. Stay tuned for a look at the costumes from the spring production: a post-apocalyptic Antigone...


  1. You did an amazing job! I really like your inspiration, and the silver zipper in the t-strap back dress is so cool! So glad you got some photos of the costumes on your actors!

    ~ Brooke

    1. Thank you for all your helpful advice! I couldn't have done it without you.

  2. Your talent for sewing and making costumes is extraordinary. Those kids are so lucky to have such a thoughtful teacher!

  3. That is a fun show, these are fine costumes (enjoying the privace face wipes).
    However, I love the zipper solution. I am going to be using it shortly. All hoopla to you.
    Meanwhile, I gotta lot of gold cord to sew/glue onto stuff.

    1. Oh god, I'm starting a PoApoc (RTM, patent pending) Antigone in the fall. Or it's gonna be Frankenstein. It keeps flipping. I do hope Frankenstein could be 1930s...that zip would come in handy

    2. Both sound like a lot of fun! Good luck with all your gold cord...

  4. Wow! You did a fantastic job!

  5. Wow - great job on those costumes!

  6. A standing ovation! I can't even seem to sew ANYTHING lately, and you have made three intensely complicated and gorgeous pieces here... SOOO awesome!

  7. Wow! Those costumes are amazing! Firstly those sketches are fabulous, I'd love to be able to draw like that. Your dress is absolutely stunning, I love the colour and the back is beautiful. I also love Ellen's dress, both simply amazing! XxxX

  8. These costumes are so gorgeous. I really love the velvet gown with the back treatment, genius. Stop deprecating your sketches, they were just perfect.

  9. Wowser. Thank you for sharing all those tips. Costuming sounds hard! But they look great! Kudos and admiration too (do you sleep?)
    I want to make a similar velvet one just for a once-every-ten-years special night, no performances and scrutiny involved. Maybe this will help me get the confidence to just do it.

  10. I am incredibly impressed that you're able to pull off making all those customs. WAY TO GO! I can't even imagine. The red velvet one is my favorite. ;)
    Aidyl from Noveltea


Thank you for taking the time to tell me your thoughts! I appreciate reading them and I try to reply to most, if not all, comments, especially when they are questions. I ask that you keep your comments polite, and if you're a spammer, don't bother because your comment will just be deleted! Also, if you're commenting on a post that's more than two weeks old, it will be moderated.