Closerlook: Playing Dress-Up

Erica M. Waddell '03 sets her tray on the table, brisk and businesslike in the stormy silver fur of her coat. Runway veteran, recent resident of five states, the new queen of costuming and first-year only by date, she surveys my nappy blues and corduroys. I feel suddenly underdressed.

Waddell designed the costumes for the productions of Giasone and VI: Six Student Operas this semester and will also be costume designer for the Dunster House Opera The Magic Flute in the spring. Though Waddell worked on costuming in various school musicals before coming to Harvard, her focus has been primarily on fashion. She started making clothes from scratch her first year in high school. Since then designing clothing has been a passion of Waddell's--a passion she was able to actualize in her own fashion show in Kansas City.

I ask Waddell to define her style and without the flutter of an eyelash she unrolls a crisp definition: a combination of Mary Quant, Monrian, '60s mod and Versace. She likes to use polyesters because they wash easily and vinyls even though they don't. She looks for combinations of colors and textures on the right side of flashy-bright and spectacular without being glitzy. She can be quite experimental in her choice of materials, constructing pants and jackets from yellow caution tape or police line. Despite the repetitive warnings of these pieces, Waddell's clothing crosses artistic boundaries, erring even into the horticultural. One of her current projects is a coat tailored entirely out of leaves--perhaps hazardous as autumnal wear, but certainly suitable for spring.

After all the excitement of designing her own clothes, Waddell describes costuming for Harvard theater as "a step down." Unfortunately, because of the absence of fashion in the University, costume design is the only outlet available to her. "I can't be as personally creative," she admits grimly, "but I have learned a lot." She works under a lot of pressure, measuring and dressing entire casts in just one or two weeks. A new challenge was working within the constraints of a distinct historical period, as with Giasone. One senses that the Renaissance style was perhaps too much of a departure from Waddell's own vision. "I don't think I'd ever incorporate a pair of knickers in my fashion show," she reflects. Working from a costume stock or building everything up from scratch, Waddell tries to fit each costume not only with the demands of the role but also with personal and artistic ideals. In the long run, Waddell prefers to create her own costumes rather than draw on the resources of a costume stock. This way she is allowed to draw more heavily on her own imagination and ingenuity.

This imaginative edge of Waddell's work was perhaps most visible in the costume of the Jabberwocky in the first of the Six Student Operas. Tassled, tousled, spangled and tailed, the Jabberwocky looked like a cross between Grendel and a raver. Touched with the horrifics of a child's dream, the monster nonetheless conserved an impeccable stylishness that quite outshone the pantalooned prince in their operatic duel. (The Jabberwocky's vest came from Waddell's own closet.) The Dunster House production of The Magic Flute is promising as an outlet for Waddell's fantastic inclinations--she will be creating all of the costumes for the show from scratch and views it as her first real opportunity to showcase her work at Harvard.


Considering the amount of time she spends working on various productions, it is surprising to hear that Waddell is not a huge theater fan. She confesses that she wouldn't watch half as many shows as she does now if she weren't involved in the costume design. She was so wrapped up in the costumes for VI that she didn't even know the name of the show till the dress rehearsal.

Despite her no-nonsense tone it's plain that Waddell just loves clothes. "I'm so materialistic," she says, letting her guard down for a moment. But it's not quite that. She is truly excited about what she does. She is planning with utmost and convincing confidence a fashion show for the end of the school year. Breaking her reverie in a quick aside she tells me "You could be one of my models--I need male models." Her enthusiasm is infectious, and for an instant I can imagine all the world strutting in the perfect leaf-meal coat and my corduroys are momentarily glamorous--glamorous but not glitzy

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