Threading the needle

March 14, 2021

On a sunny day over winter break, costume tailor Barbara Croy adjusted the skirt of a white dress pattern pinned to a mannequin inside the Costume Shop — the beginnings of a six-piece costume for the character of Phoebe, to be played by actress and MFA graduate student Britny Horton. Working from renderings and measurement information collected in the show’s “costume Bible,” Croy had spent the week cutting the pieces and pinning them in place, a step known as “draping” used to create initial mock-up garments.

Horton’s costume is one of the few that the shop “built” for the show, meaning most of it was pieced together by hand. Roughly 20 percent of costumes per season are made this way, said Costume Manager and Costume Shop Supervisor Megan Petkewec. The rest are bought, donated to the theater, or pulled from Costume Storage.

University of Iowa Costume Shop employee Barbara Croy demonstrates work on a dress designed for the Theatre Department’s production of “The People Before the Park” in the Old Museum of Art on Thursday, January 7th, 2021. Because of pandemic regulations, “The People Before the Park” will be streamed online as opposed to playing for live audiences. (Tate Hildyard)

While “building” did not officially begin until January, work for the costume team began as soon as the show was cast in November. Measurements for all the actors were collected, costume renderings created by Head Costume Designer Loyce Arthur were printed, and Croy assembled everything into the costume Bible.

Arthur’s job was to develop the initial concept for costuming the show, keeping in mind historical context and what the script specifically called for. Because of the pandemic, Arthur designed the entire show remotely.

To make the play more realistic, Arthur wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that she based her designs on photos of African-American women living in Seneca Village at the time, with the goal of reflecting the prosperity Seneca Village experienced and the many African-American professionals who lived and worked in New York. Some of the fabric for Phoebe’s dress came from New York City. Her day dress was made of cotton, while her “Sunday Best” is a taffeta, Arthur wrote. All skirts had crinoline petticoats (three-tiered ruffle petticoats) underneath.

The color scheme from the show was influenced by the work of African-American artists Henry Ossawa Tanner and Robert Scott Duncanson, Arthur wrote, which included bright colors created from new dyes invented at the time. Off-white, bright blue, and a variety of brown and orange garments collected on racks in the shop — organized by character — throughout January and February.

“You can see the colors of the landscape in their clothing – greens, browns, blues, etc,” she wrote.

Originally, the costume team had $3,000 from the show’s full production budget to buy, build, ship, and dry clean costumes. Petkewec said the pandemic made distributing funding different than in years past, however, with more of the overall production budget going to tech in order to film the show.

Petkewec said almost $200 of the total costume budget ended up going to scenic design, as during the pandemic, the price for wood had doubled — and metal tripled.

Filming has caused much of the theater world to adapt for the screen, and costume departments are no exception. To keep clothing from washing out under the lights, Petkewec said very light colors had to be avoided. The team opted for many off-white, natural, and textured pieces that fared better on camera under stage lights.

“We started a conversation with [Director of Theatre] Bryon Winn about doing a swatch test to find out how light we can actually go, or how many options we have if we can’t use those colors,” Petkewec said. “Are any of them too bright, too shiny, too tight a pattern?”

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