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A.R.T.’s Hawley: Costumes More Than Just ‘A Pretty Dress’

Costume Shop head talks theory and practice

By Christine A. Hurd, Contributing Writer

Stark silhouettes of men dressed in fishnets and leather and women bare-breasted and clad in silvery silk adorn the pages of the Bible. As five immaculately manicured nails turn each page, Japanese dramatists, Milanesque models, and S&M soldiers constitute a cast of characters so dark it is baffling to think they’ll have to sing and dance to the whimsical lyrics of “Cabaret.” For this isn’t the Bible of Christian tradition, but The Costume Bible for the production of the Weimar musical.

The excellently manicured hand belongs to Jeannette Hawley, Costume Shop Manager of the American Repertory Theater, who held a small costuming seminar last Tuesday to show how those eerie designs go from a mere wisp of an idea to a three-dimensional work of art. Starting with a description of costume history, she conveyed the importance of dress and style to a realm outside the theater.

“Clothing relays status, even with t-shirts and jeans of college students. It is a symbol of socioeconomic status, politics, and class. Costuming is not merely the study of a pretty dress,” Hawley said.

Hawley has been the manager of American Repertory Theater’s Costume Shop for 10 years after a long career in the field. Starting from an early age, she took interest in clothing and its production. “My father was a taxidermist, my mother an excellent stitcher. I had a costume trunk and began sewing when I was four. By the time I reached high school, I was sewing for productions and my family,” Hawley said.

Cara Pacifico, a graduate of Tufts University who has worked as a technician for OBERON’s “Donkey Show,” was one of the attendees. She asked Hawley about what costumes can convey to the audience. “Whenever I make costumes for a woman, it’s easy to just look at it and compare it to myself. But what about for men? How do you define who has power, who has status? Who is older or younger?” Pacifico said.

Hawley launched into a deeply informative explanation of how costuming can say more than actors themselves. “It’s a European cut? Closely fitted to the body? That means he’s young. Is it square like a Willy Loman [a character in “Death of a Salesman”] business suit? That means he’s older, more with the status quo. Is there bright blue? That means you’re in the ’50s where everyone is rigidly formal and looks the same. Is the suit double-breasted? That means he has more power. Is it pinstriped? That means he’s a gangster,” Hawley said, listing off each question on a finger.

Hawley then proceeded to demonstrate how to make a simple design by draping, the process of fitting clothing to a wardrobe mannequin. Swiftly stitching the two pieces of muslin with an industrial sewing machine and ironing the fabric to create a pressed seam, Hawley fitted the mannequin within five minutes, producing a perfectly clean seamed line.

“One of the most beautiful things about being human is this ability to be symbolic. Printmaking, images, costuming, art, writing, it’s all creating something … and the story of costuming especially is one that is woven throughout history,” Hawley said.

In regards to how costuming is important in theater, Hawley has a simple philosophy. “Of course, the way costuming can succeed best is if the audience doesn’t notice it. If the actors are comfortable in the cloth and the fabric as well as comfortable with their characters’ potential of wearing it, that’s when you know you’ve done well,” Hawley said.

Katie Mastrogiacomo, who attended Smith College and works as an installation artist, agreed that total assimilation is an admirable goal, even in other domains. “Certain clothing in my installations can really affect the mood of the whole environment,” Mastrogiacomo said.

However, Hawley firmly believes in the practical clasps and buttons of costuming as well as artistic idealism, using an example akin to Harvard students’ question of the balance between sleep, friends, and class. “Do you want your costume fast, cheap, and pretty? Pick two,” Hawley said.

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Visual ArtsTheater