Costume design for Northwestern Theater Productions

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From apparel research to tailoring, the process of designing costumes for North West theater productions involves meticulous work and collaboration. In this episode of Podculture, The Daily delves into the world of costume design at Northwestern.

Chiara Kim: From sewing giant trout costumes to heading to local thrift stores, costume designers stitch together the fabric of student productions across the Northwest.

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Chiara Kim: A character’s costume tells the audience who they are. They bring productions to life. But how are they made?

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Chiara Kim: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Chiara Kim. It’s Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond. In this episode, student costumers explain their process to us, from the first reading to the main stage.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: Now that I’m in person, I can really get my hands on things, try new things that I’ve never done before. Like, in the fall, I made trout costumes, like huge, full trout costumes.

Chiara Kim: This is McCormick’s second year, Jasmin Ali-Diaz. She said it was pretty easy for her to take on costume design roles at Northwestern in her freshman year. Since then, she has designed costumes for numerous productions, including The Dolphin Show, the nation’s largest student-produced musical. First-year communications student Sophie Schaeffer also found it easy to get involved in design at NU.

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: I first signed on as an assistant designer, then worked my way up to become a lead designer for the shows.

Chiara Kim: The costume design process includes great attention to detail and an understanding of theater as art. They start by reading the script —

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: — Once for the story, once to identify each character. And then I reread it to find out when each costume change takes place.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: Then I sort of came up with some of my own preliminary ideas. I consume a lot of costume design stuff. I really keep track of fashion, designer shows and also musical costume design which I really enjoy.

Chiara Kim: After this initial brainstorming, the designers contact the director or producer of the show.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: I always try to serve my director and whatever his vision. I always appreciate the initial read with the director as it really gives a guiding lens of where all the design work will be to make sure all the design work fits together.

Chiara Kim: Depending on the needs of the show, the designers source the costumes from stores or construct the pieces themselves. Either way, they create a parts list: a spreadsheet that includes details about every costume in a production.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: I send the parts list to the whole team and then pester the team to “please fill out the parts list if you have anything you would like me to borrow”.

Chiara Kim: If possible, they try to find said pieces in thrift stores.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: If there are still things I need to get and can’t find used, I either reconsider if I really need it or buy it new from Amazon.

Chiara Kim: Some parts, however, must be built from scratch.

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Chiara Kim: Jasmin worked on costume design for “The Lightning Thief” this winter. For the character Grover, who is half-man, half-goat, they had to create hairy legs.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: When the day started, I had never done pants before. I had no idea how to make pants, and at the end of the day, I made pants. So it’s like trying to figure things out. It kind of pays to be flexible as a costume designer.

Chiara Kim: Jasmin said she had no fixed space to do her work – she made costumes all over the second floor of Norris University Center at Kresge room sculpture hall. They work wherever they please and try to avoid disturbing their roommate by using their noisy sewing machine at odd hours.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: I worked in a common room in Allison, and I was at one of those high tables. The table is so high that I had to be standing, like not even, I was like half sitting on the chair. I had to stick my whole leg out to reach the foot pedal of the sewing machine, which was quite a long time.

Chiara Kim: Jasmin said the time required for the costume creation process — from applying to be on the design team to having the costumes perfected — can take anywhere from three weeks to an entire quarter, depending on the show. One consideration, she said, is how to pay for the costumes.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: A lot of times when you’re working on student theater, you kind of have to pay money and then have to be reimbursed later. Unfortunately, I can’t really do that much because that’s just not the financial situation I’m in.

Chiara Kim: Jasmin must then wait for a check advance or for the purchase order to be processed by the student organization’s finance office. This may delay design production for the entire show.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: With some shows, even though my designs had already been done for weeks, I only had a few weeks to put everything together.

Chiara Kim: While it’s not as high of a commitment as being an actor, costume design isn’t low-commitment either. Sophie said supplies, like savings at the Chicago-area Village Discount Outlet thrift store, usually take a few days. Beyond costume fittings during tech week and dress rehearsals, design teams often meet weekly to make sure everyone is on the same page.

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: I think it’s very important to hit the grassroots and make sure everyone is operating under the same vision. There’s just a constant line of communication, constant updates, like letting your producer know when you bought things, how much of the budget you’re spending. It’s a very collaborative process.

Chiara Kim: Many student productions have both designers and design assistants. According to Sophie, designers and assistants do pretty similar work, and they all work together to achieve their goals.

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: For the most part, assistants still have quite a bit of creative freedom. They are always welcome to come up with additional ideas, but lead designers usually take on more of the larger concepts.

Chiara Kim: Communication Sophomore Grace Kulas, who was a costume assistant for The Dolphin Show, added that the amount of work the designers had to do depended on the nature of the production. The Dolphin Show required three assistants and a draper, or someone who sews costumes.

GRACE KULAS: It depends on how many people you have, what you have access to. Personally, I don’t have a sewing machine. I should borrow one. Doing things and sewing is usually done on your own simply because it’s annoying to have to move fabric around between people.

Chiara Kim: Grace usually focuses more on stage design – she’s been a set designer for several production companies. But she learned a lot about costume making, both in her introductory costume design class and for student productions.

GRACE KULAS: I really enjoyed my classes, doing my watercolor renderings and drawings and all that. I really enjoyed that, and having a process that I own.

Chiara Kim: Jasmin said they loved the people they worked with and the productions they worked on. One costume in particular marked her.

JASMIN ALI-DIAZ: I keep mentioning those damn trout costumes. But it was the first big piece I ever sewed. There was barrage after barrage with these costumes. It really was an era, but I’m just really proud of how they turned out, and then they ended up using those costumes for the JTEs production of “Big Fish”. I think it’s really funny that they’re being passed around now.

Chiara Kim: Some of Sophie’s favorite productions also included unconventional elements. She started as an assistant designer for “She Kills Monsters” in the winter –

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: – and it was kind of a crazy show because it’s like Dungeons & Dragons. So we had to do a lot of fantastic costumes, which was a combination of sourcing and making things from scratch, which was totally, you know, unconventional and crazy.

Chiara Kim: She was also the costume designer for “The Haunting of Hill House”, a graduation thesis project this spring for a student in the theater department.

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: It was really fun because I got to play with modern and vintage costumes, but it wasn’t super restrictive because it wasn’t necessarily a period piece.

Chiara Kim: Sophie loves how costume design gives her the ability to impact the overall theme of a show through things like color scheme and silhouette.

SOPHIE SCHAEFFER: I think my favorite part of costume design is that you can really transform a character with a costume in a way that few other departments can. You have a lot to say about how each character is presented on stage – I think it’s really, really cool.

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Chiara Kim: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Chiara Kim. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by me. The Daily Northwestern audio editor is Lucia [loo-SEE-ah] Barnum, the digital editors are Will Clark and Katrina Pham and the editor is Jacob Fulton. Be sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @chiarafkim

Related stories:

Award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter speaks at A&O’s Spring Speaker Event

Immerse yourself in the Dolphin Show, the nation’s largest student-produced musical

WAVE Productions’ “She Kills Monsters” Explores Heartbreak And Sister Relationships



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