Amid the staccato clatter of sewing machines, the wardrobe artists snipped, stitched, embellished and ironed garments fit for a king. And a soldier, and a gaggle of nobles, murderers and a gardener.
In the Colorado Shakespeare Festival costume shop housed in CU-Boulder’s Theatre and Dance Department, are stacks of bins and drawers of fabric, thread, lace and the sorts of sartorial bits and bobs that go into making theatre costumes.
Days before the opening of Richard II, a group of students, alumni and professional tailors put finishing touches on costumes for The Colorado Shakespeare Festival productions.
Overseeing the creative process is Brenda King, costume shop manager, who has worked for the Shakespeare festival for five years.
“What we do is more couture than craft,” said King. “We make each costume individually; the patterns are original and rarely reused.”
While there is much laughter and good-natured joking among the 13 costume employees, it’s evident they all take pride in the quality of their work.
When asked if they use fabric glue instead of sewing, comments peppered the room. “That’s blasphemy.” “Evil places do that and ruin costumes forevermore.” “Our work is the real deal.”
The process starts with a design. Muslin fabric is draped on a dressmaker’s form, patterns are drawn and cut, and a mockup garment is sewn. Alterations, if needed, are made to the patterns, which are then cut out of fashion fabric and sewn. The garments need to be constructed to withstand the rigors of a performance.
“With theater costumes you have to go big,” said Jon Kimbell, who earned his bachelor's degree in musical theatre in 2011 and who’s back for his second season in the costume shop. “To play to the audience sitting in the last row of the theatre, everything we make has to be done with gusto.”
Theatre costumes help support the story by establishing tone and style, time and place, and character information, such as social status, occupation and age. Costumes can distinguish between major and minor characters, suggest changes in character development and show relationships between characters. When the stage setting is minimal, as in Richard II and Macbeth, costumes become integral to telling the story.
All of the students working on the costumes are theatre majors and have been sewing for many years.
Alyssa Gallotte, a sophomore majoring in theatre, who learned to sew from her great-grandmother, was hand stitching metal embellishments onto a robe for one of the characters in Richard II.
“I love art and stories,” Gallotte said, “so making costumes is a perfect fit for my passion. I got to build the costume for Titania, queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It had wings and was floaty and ethereal.”
Costumers are asked to do many things to bring a garment to life, from making armor to constructing a donkey’s head. One of the more unusual requests this season was devising a way for a character in Macbeth to give birth on stage. Under the dress was hidden a pregnant belly made of padding with a cavity containing a baby doll and a plastic storage bag of water.
Reba Todd, a junior majoring in theatre, sews costumes she wears when competing in figure skating competitions. She’s also a dresser and helps get the actors into their costumes before a performance.
“I like working with costumes from different eras and sewing fabrics that I wouldn’t get to use otherwise,” said Todd, who was sewing Aumerle’s leather outfit for Richard II. “I’ve never sewn leather before.”
December Mathisen, a junior double majoring in theatre and studio arts, is the assistant designer this season and serves as the liaison between the costume designer and the costume department. She attends all the fittings and ensures the myriad details of a costume are not forgotten.
“I originally was an English and math major,” Mathisen said. “Then I took a costume technologies class just for fun, fell in love with it and changed my major.”
Named “one of the top Shakespeare Festivals in the U.S.” by Time magazine, The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is in its 56th year. This summer’s festival includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), and Richard II. To purchase tickets, visit www.coloradoshakes.org