Spit and Sewing Needles: The Art of Handmade Costumes

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An Interview with Kathleen Trott

Kathleen Trott is one of the resident costume designers and the shop manager of the Marlu Allan and Scott Stallard Costume Shop for Arizona Opera. She spoke with BorderLore about designing and constructing costumes for performers.

Kathleen Trott

Kathleen Trott, Costume Shop Manager, Arizona Opera

B: How did you become a costume designer/maker?
KT: I started doing theater when I was young. My mom took me to go see ballet and theater, so I’ve been involved in some way for a long time. I went to school at Southern Oregon University for costume construction and design. I am really practical and I realized early that as far as performers go, there were already a lot of variations of me — moderately talented, short brunettes. So as opposed to being one of many, many fishes I went for the backstage collaborative part, creating what we see, but remaining unseen. I dabbled in set design, but costumes made more sense; where I ended up just felt right.

B: Are there specific costume considerations for opera performers? 
KT: Yes. One of the things that’s really important about costume technicians, and the production part of any kind performance art form, is that we are mindful of supporting the word or the music. In order to do that we have to support the performers; to let them feel safe and be able to do what they do. If we use clothes that are too restricting or too loose on a performer, then they can’t do what they need to do.

We take an “at rest” measurement of chest and also an expanded measurement. Opera singers need that broad expansion in their ribcage to develop that warm sound. Some have bigger expansion than others. Mezzo sopranos, for example, often need a lot of resonance in their chest.  Sometimes when we’re using costumes from other places, we have to add a panel on the side seam to let the bodice expand out.  The main goal is for her to be able to sing. If it’s not letting the performer support the piece it’s a failed costume.

What’s nice about opera is that a lot of singers like being corseted to some extent because they have a structure to sing against. They like to feel their abdomen push against something. So you can corset down opera singers, whereas with musical theater people, you often can’t because of their need to be able to move and perform the choreography.

B: What are you working on now?
KT: We are working on Rusalka, a fairy tale. It’s about a water spirit who falls in love with a human and turns herself into a human. It doesn’t end very well. It’s very similar to the Little Mermaid; very fantastical. We’re working on water spirit skirts, and there are dancers in a ball scene so we have to build 1880-1890s dresses with boned bodices and bustles. We double-cast our principals, so we also have to build two complete set of costumes for the lead female and for the prince.

B: Even if they are the same size?
KT: Yes. Even if they have the same body shape. Basically if [the costume] touches their skin, we make sure that it stays separate. Also, they need the costumes to rehearse, because they alternate rehearsals and need to use that garment.

B: Do you build all the costumes for a performance?
KT: The adage is, “Build a third. Buy a third. Pull a third.” “Pull,” meaning pull from our stock collection. That’s usually a good rule of thumb, and we try to shoot for that to avoid overwhelming the costume shop or the budget.

One of our shows is the world premiere of Riders of the Purple Sage, based on a Zane Gray novel. There’ s a coat we have to build. We found a perfect coat and you can buy it in brown and black, but it doesn’t exist in blue, so we are building an exact replica of it.

That’s an interesting thing about fashion and art. Sometimes you can find it, but other times you have to build it. And then sometimes we start out having to build something, but years later, we can buy it.

This happens all the time with television and movies. For example, on the show Friends, for the character of Chandler, they had to make all his shirts at first. He wore all these asymmetrical patterns and they were unique. But when the show got popular, mainstream fashion followed the trend, and then the costume-makers could start buying the shirts.

That has happened with 1950s clothing too. There has been a resurgence of this vintage look in the mainstream. Rockabilly is popular now, so we can buy shoes and dresses from the last 100 years that 15 to 20 years ago you couldn’t buy. You had to make them.

From Riders of the Purple Sage

Rendering of Lassiter costume for Riders of the Purple Sage; photo credit Arizona Opera website.

B: Costumes are always important for the stage, but do you have an example of costumes that were an integral part of a production, perhaps central to the storytelling?
KT: For Riders, we are trying to do this subtle thing with color palettes. The opera has some underlying issues about appreciating and loving the earth. There is also a power struggle and the repression of some parts of society. We are using a division of color to represent that. Positive colors are from Arizona and Utah landscapes. The set is designed by Ed Mell, a Phoenix-based landscape artist, and it’s in his very vibrant style. The colors are lovely, and it really feels like the desert. But we’ve designed the “bad characters” in blue, gray, black, and white, and so they really stand out.

Also, there are women in the show who don’t speak, so the only way to tell their story is through their clothing. They start out similar to the desert with more detail, and, as the show progresses, they are forced to change. They begin to lose touch with nature. In this interpretation, their compassion comes from loving the land, and so when they turn their back on compassion they are turning away from the land. So the color drains from them, and they become more gray and blue. They lose their vibrancy.

In this way, without speaking, we get to tell a story that supports the character and what they are “saying,” or is in deliberate contrast to what they’re saying.

Riders of the Purple Sage costume

Rendering of Jane church costume for Riders of the Purple Sage; photo credit Arizona Opera website.

This is how clothing works generally. Even when people aren’t trying to say something with what they wear, as soon as we put on clothes, we’re saying something about ourselves.

B: Do you have an example of a favorite garment you designed or made?
KT: Last season we did Don Giovanni, which was set in the late 1700s. Doing research I found this photograph of this man’s jacket from like 1775.  It was a lovely, really great, black and blue and gray stripe.  It was perfect for the character of Don Ottavio. I thought, that will be easy to find, that striped fabric, no problem. My assistant and I went to LA. We could not find that fabric. We looked and looked and looked. It was really frustrating. I found this black and white fabric that I didn’t love, but thought maybe I could dye it. Then I looked online and still couldn’t find anything. Finally my assistant dyed it, and used Resist, which is product that works like wax on an Easter egg: It blocks dye from being absorbed. So she used Resist on every fourth stripe and painted in the rest. But the contrast was not enough. She spent hours and hours on it, and I still didn’t like it. I thought, I’m going to have to find something else. But I’d invested so much time already. But it was the very best thing I could find. It was the kind of print that up close it hurts your eyes. So we just needed to keep moving forward. So we did. And finally it was done, and from 15-feet away the coat was amazing. It was exactly what I wanted. It was definitely my favorite piece from the whole show. It looked great and everyone loved it. But we really had to “Tim Gunn” that one. It was beautiful, but it was a struggle.

Rendering for Ottavio

Rendering for Don Ottavio; image courtesy Kathleen Trott

B: “Tim Gunn” it?
KT: Tim Gunn, from the TV show, Project Runway. He says, “make it work” all the time, so “Tim Gunn it,” means to just make it work.

B: Is that a costume maker’s saying?
KT: No, it’s just mine.

B: Are there any superstitions that go with the job?
KT: I don’t really partake in any of that stuff, but because some performers are the way that they are, even if we don’t believe in them we have to adhere to them so a performer doesn’t freak out. One thing you say to opera performers is “Toi-toi-toi.” It’s the equivalent of “Break a leg.” [Editor’s note: The phrase “toi toi toi” was originally used to ward off a spell and comes from the sound made when spitting, as saliva was believed to have special protective powers.  It comes from the Yiddish “tov,” meaning “good.”]

Some opera performers are superstitious about peacock feathers on stage. It’s like an “evil eye.” So if we use peacock feathers in costume or on a set, and if a performer is worried about it, we’ll have to blind the eye. We’ll put a black dot in the center of the feather. That way, we can tell the performer, “Oh it’s blind. It’s not bad luck.”

Some performers can be very particular about some costume pieces, but they’re doing a very specific thing with their body to make those sounds, so they sort of have to be. Many don’t like having things close to their throat because they feel they can’t open their throat wide enough. Our job is to help them do what they need to do.

Don Ottavio and Donna Anna

Don Ottavio and Donna Anna; photo credit Tim Trumble

A general thing we costume-makers say is that it’s good luck to bleed in a costume. Meaning if you’re working on a piece and you prick yourself with needle and you bleed, we like to say it’s good luck. Maybe that’s just a rationalization or an excuse.  But it happens a lot. No matter how calloused your hands feel, you always manage to find the spot where you have never pricked yourself before.

The human body is really interesting. The best way to get blood out is to use the saliva of the person who bled. That gets it right out.

B: What’s one thing you’d like to communicate to the public about your profession?
KT: As an industry, we struggle against this really old idea that everyone can sew or fix or make clothing. It’s very weird. People will come into a costume shop and say I could never do that, but then when you talk to them about how much it costs to actually make a costume they’re appalled because they only paid $5 for their jeans at Wal-Mart.

It’s hard to get people to understand that there’s no “Ye Olde 1770s” store where you can go and say, I want those three dresses. Yet there’s this residual feeling that everyone can still do this. But they can’t. And people don’t understand the different between a custom-made thing and those $5 jeans.

As a society we don’t sew anymore. Sewing was once a skill that everyone could do. Everyone needed their clothes made, and hundreds of years ago, men were tailoring in a guild. But mass manufacturing has come in and whittled away at all of those trade skills, the same with leatherwork. Those of us who work on costumes, we have all in some capacity gone to school for this. It’s one of those trade skills that’s dying, in a lot of ways. If it weren’t for avant-garde fashion and theater, the art of making hand-sewn things would be dying out.

All the things someone had to train for years to do, we take for granted. I’m not saying we should go back to those days, but we are unaware as a society of the amount of skill and time and resources it takes to make things by hand. As a woman in the theater industry, it has always been a bit of a struggle. Someone like me earns substantially less than the equivalent of my position in a scene shop. That’s because costume making is still subconsciously seen as a woman’s job. Even if plenty of men now do it.

But it’s this way across the board, isn’t it? It’s a cultural norm. Nurses get paid less, teachers too. So it’s that residual struggle that we’re trying to overcome as a society.

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