The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

UI Dance and Opera Costume Shop works behind the scenes to create the image of productions

Located in Hancher Auditorium, the costume shop works on several productions. Its most recent project is the Dance Gala, which will occur Nov. 10 and 11.
Sara Stumpff
Design concepts are seen at the University of Iowa Dance and Opera Costume Shop at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023.

When entering the University of Iowa Dance and Opera Costume Shop in Hancher Auditorium, every color and texture of fabric imaginable is illuminated in a bright, sunlit room. Since the spring 2022, the costume shop has worked to make outfits for the performers in Dance Gala, which will occur Nov. 10-11.

Dance Gala is a longstanding tradition at the UI and requires much effort from the costume shop. In total, there are 57 costumes for the gala’s five unique dances. After their initial planning meeting last spring, every costume designer involved immediately set to work.

When it is not preparing for a performance, the costume shop is ready to go with organized rows of fabric, thread, and empty racks for costumes to be hung. As performance dates approach and activity increases, the shop is filled with costumes of varying colors and styles, dancers being fitted or getting alterations, and all sorts of other preparations.

Costumes must be fitted to performers, and, with dance in particular, each performer may have different preferences about how the clothing impacts their movement.

Even before casting for the gala was complete, the costume shop began working. Margaret Wenk-Kuchlbauer, the UI performing arts costume and scenery designer, typically starts working on costume design and planning as soon as she hears the initial ideas for a performance.

“That first conversation would inform fabric choices, color choices, pedestrian shapes, abstract shapes, all of those kinds of things — even, ‘Do you want to see buttons, do you not want to see buttons?’” Wenk-Kuchlbauer said. “Some of the simple questions like that, but really just to understand the meaning of what they want to say.”

Most choreographers wait until they see the performers and the space before developing ideas she said. Because of this and the costume shop’s tight schedule, costume designers have to stay as organized as they can.

When creating a costume, Wenk-Kuchlbauer considers several things, including working with choreographers to understand the meanings behind their performances and the looks they want to create.

“One piece was in celebration of the arrival of the monarch butterfly to Mexico, but also explored the deeper meaning of what it means to be an immigrant,” Wenk-Kuchlbauer said. “In these clothes are mutable parts because of the liquidness of the fabric — it makes it look like they are burdened. At the same time, there’s a lightness. We have a kind of an abstraction of all of those notions coming together in the clouds.”

Each piece in the Dance Gala has its own rack in the costume shop. The rack for the piece mentioned by Wenk-Kuchlbauer was a blend of oranges and browns, mimicking the colors of a monarch butterfly. Other racks in the costume shop were dedicated to other performances, one featuring different shades of green, purple,  blue, and another with only black and white.

Having an idea in her head about what the costumes will look like is one thing, but Wenk-Kuchlbauer said that adjustments typically happen once she sees the dancers and the actual pieces and performances.

“There are different people, different bodies, and so things have been tweaked up,” Wenk-Kuchlbauer said. “A lot of it is original, but some of it is also inserted as new and rearranged on different people.”

Not only does body type impact costumes, but the naturally well-lit costume shop in Hancher also looks much different than the lighting of a stage. As a result, costumes may appear differently in design than in performance.

Besides designing costumes, Wenk-Kuchlbauer is responsible for the technical aspects of creating costumes. In the shop, she uses a large, kitchen-grade soup kettle to dye clothes. Besides the kettle, the costume shop is also equipped with several washers and dryers.

“When a choreographer or director can see their ideas come to life — that’s really neat,” Wenk-Kuchlbauer said. “And ultimately when the performers are happy that they understand and can click why they’re in that particular garment on stage telling this particular story and message, it’s good.”

Working alongside Wenk-Kuchlbauer is Cindy Kubu, the Dance and Opera Costume Shop manager. For Kubu, a key part of the process is budgeting. The costume shop budget runs on a show-to-show basis, so each show has its own budget.

At the start of the process, Kubu estimates how much she thinks the costume designers will need and keeps a tight record that she can refer back to. Each performance may have more than 1,000 receipts, according to Kubu.

“Dry cleaning — I just know off the top of my head I’m going to have that, looking at this show,” Kubu said. “I’m going to have 40 or 50 pounds of dry cleaning. And I know what my rate is for that. So everything is very tightly accounted for.”

Once ideas and projects are set into place, the costuming process can really begin. While some costume pieces are made by hand, others are purchased from stores across the world for more specialized projects. Additionally, many pieces are bought from stores and then altered by cutting, hemming, or dyeing.

“I love that moment where I can look across the shop, and we’ve brainstormed, and we’ve planned, and things are working, it’s just magic,” Kubu said. “And that’s one phase here — then it changes, and we move into another phase.”

With pieces already coming from across the world, and more pieces needing altering, time runs short. When pieces are late, Wenk-Kuchlbauer and Kubu have to find backup plans. For the Dance Gala, in particular, the costume shop provides dancers with everything for the performance, including dance shoes and even socks.

“We want to make sure that it will survive the run of the show because all of a sudden if something blows out during the run of the show, and it’s their own [costume], you hate to do that to someone,” Kubu said.

Kubu said the Dance Gala is one of the dance performances at the UI that focuses on equity among dancers, so everyone can take away educational experiences.

“The students just get so jazzed,” Kubu said. “To hit the big stage, the dressing rooms, the whole ambiance of it, and to see their families after in the lobby — it’s very exciting.”

Once Dance Gala is over, the strike process for the costume shop happens almost immediately. Costume plans are already being made for spring performances in both opera and dance, so there is little downtime. While fittings cannot happen over winter break, the costume shop rolls back into action as soon as students return to campus.

Kubu said. “When this closes, we roll into our projects for next spring. “We’re always thinking next steps.”

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About the Contributors
Emma Gaughan
Emma Gaughan, Arts Reporter
Emma Gaughan is a second-year student at the University of Iowa, studying psychology and criminology, as well as completing a writing certificate. She is from West Des Moines, where she developed her love of both writing and the arts.
Sara Stumpff
Sara Stumpff, Photojournalist
Sara is a third year UI student who transfered from Kirkwood. She is a "non traditional" student who will hopefully obtain her BFA in Photography and BA in Spanish.