How to Make the Man

Costume design seeks not to outshine the storytelling but accent it

Courtesy of A.R.T.

At the end of hall on the second floor of the Loeb Drama Center, where file drawers are replaced by cabinets whose labeled contents range from “bulky oversized sweaters” to “bras, girdles, and merry widows,” Jeanette Hawley makes customized clothing for people who don’t exist. As manager of the American Repertory Theater costume shop, she has recently oversaw the construction of wardrobes for the ill-fated, iconically coiffured French queen in David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette” and for the anthropomorphic male flowers fighting for love in Taylor Mac’s “The Lily’s Revenge.” Hawley compares her job in the studio, which is sunny and spacious despite stacks of fabric bolts and draft tables cluttered with papers and props, to that of a contractor who brings the designs of an architect—in this case the costume designer—into physical existence.

Though the costumes of these recent productions was visually spectacular and comparable in their complexity to works in high fashion, the designers’ intent was not purely to dazzle. The costumes for “Marie Antoinette,” designed by Gabriel Berry, and for “The Lily’s Revenge,” designed by Sarah Cubbage, were crafted to tell a story. Ideally, according to Hawley, costumes ideally support the story, the actors, and the production as whole. “The best costumes actually disappear. You’re so into the world of the play,” Hawley says, her own outfit a mélange of gray stripes which matches her short hair and small poodle-esque dog. This is no less true for costumes that on their own appear extravagantly spectacular, allowing the designer to illustrate the fantastical world of a play.

Each garment requires more than the stitches, fabric, buttons, and hours it takes to assemble it. Costume designers like Cubbage and Berry must delve into the characters’ psyches, immerse themselves in research of bygone eras and distant cultures, and maintain a constant dialogue with the director, actors, and rest of the production team. Costume design is an art form that seeks not to outshine the storytelling but accent it in order to serve the needs of the production as a whole. To create garments that simultaneously fit comfortably within the visual world of the play, on the body of the actors, and in the minds of the audience, costume designers must be attuned to both the context of the play and the context in which it will be watched.


Unlike their high-fashion counterparts, costume designers are not at full liberty to implement their personal artistic vision in their designs. “It seems less fun because it’s not just whatever the hell you want, but there’s a lot of freedom in discovering that you can tell these very cool stories very subtly and really support the work of a bunch of other people,” Cubbage says.


From the very beginning of their work on a show, the designer must make sure their designs align with the overall aesthetic vision of the production. Generally, according to Cubbage, between the scenic designer and costume designer, whoever has the strongest initial inspiration sets the overall look of a scene. This was the case in a the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Kite Runner.” For the production, costume designer Adrienne Carlile devised her costume design around the initial ideas of the scenic designer, Paul Tate dePoo III. “He very early started talking like ‘Ok, we’re going to make this very barren landscape,’” Carlile says. “So I’m going to pull my colors from that palette to really make it seem like these people are from this landscape.” The costumes jibed with the set except during key moments in the play in order to purposefully highlight shifts in action, including a change in setting from Afghanistan to San Francisco. Carlile, who also works as a scenic designer, believes that the mediums of scenic and costume design share an important visual language. “The idea of creating a stage picture that tells the story is the same,” she says.

Communication with lighting designers comes later in the technical process but is no less vital. The color of garments can be influenced, sometimes dramatically, by the light shown on them. Color can be changed at specific moments to enhance the feeling of the scene. Anna-Alisa Belous, the costume designer for a current production of “Macbeth” at the Actors’ Shakespeare Company, is aware of the potential of light to interact with her design. “To me it’s like icing the cake. A dress which was white one moment is blue the next,” she says. Costume design does not exist in vacuum. Designers not only must position their designs within the overall visual aesthetic of the production but also accurately grasp the story at the play’s heart in order to translate the character from the text to the stage.


Though costumes must follow the production’s vision, the primary responsibility for each costume is to convey certain characteristics of the individual character who wears it. Designers try to incorporate a character’s personality and psychology as well as lifestyle and social status in their wardrobe. Representing such characteristics can be particularly challenging when designing for fantastical, nonhuman characters like of “The Lily’s Revenge.” For the flower characters, Cubbage combined the physical nature and cultural connotations of the specific flower with the personality traits of each character. The character of Red Rose, for example, had the personality of an opera diva. “I’m going to look at images of opera divas, and I’m going to look at images of red roses. Then I’m going to start drawing them and then I come up with a shape on the page that feels like combination of the two,” Cubbage says. The final costumes were each carefully planned out to illustrate the wearer’s identity both as a flower and as a character.

Echoing how a method actor attempts to become his character, some costume designers research their characters’ circumstances in order to predict their wardrobe choices. “I try to understand a character enough to know what’s in their closet, so that depending on what’s going in a play I can help figure out what [they] should wear, what we should pull out of [their] closet,” says Mariann Verheyen, an associate professor of costume design at Boston University. In her current work for a production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” which is set in Boston, the regional proximity gives her an entry point into her characters’ psychology. “I can go walk around the neighborhoods this play is set in and smell the air that these characters are smelling,” Verheyen says. After contemplating the circumstances of her characters’ lifestyles, both psychological and financial, she can go shop at the very stores she envisions they would frequent and select clothes they would likely wear. It is an exercise in empathy as much as a journey of imagination.

For many shows, costumes are an important visual representation of characters’ differing social statuses. “In terms of saying someone is wealthy or not wealthy, totally destitute or dependent on someone else, you can say all that very clearly through clothing very quickly,” Carlile says. She found this to be especially true in a production of Neil Bell’s “Monster,” an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is set in the 1820s. “It became very important to keep those clothing items very period-specific because we can’t capture that class system in modern dress,” she says. Conveying subtleties in social standing that would not be evident in today’s fashion, is necessary for understanding the characters’ relationships and motivations.


Historical accuracy in costume design can seamlessly accentuate the storytelling. Yet straying from historical accuracy can illuminate the more universal implications of the story. Since Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette” relates the social inequality that sparked the French revolution to the current income inequality in America, Berry felt a purely historical approach to the costumes would have been misplaced. “The play has modern anachronisms sprinkled throughout. It was clear that it wasn’t going to be a slavishly ‘history of costume’ look at the story,” she says. So along with the fashion trends of the time period, Berry mixed in inspiration from modern fashion, particularly high-fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, who have themselves tapped Antoinette’s era for inspiration.

Many designers seem to agree though that strict adherence to history is not only unnecessary but potentially distracting. Carlile references a recent review of “Cyrano de Bergerac” on Broadway on as part of a series called “Bros on Broadway.” In “A Guy Who’s Never Seen a Play in His Life Reviews Cyrano,” reviewer Josh Macin, described as a “jock, fraternity brother, World of Warcraft gamer,” wonders, “Did all women in the 1600’s wear their dresses backwards? Why is [Roxane’s] dress on backwards?”

While Macin’s mistake certainly betrays his cultural naïveté, Carlile feels it also points out a legitimate flaw in the costume design. “If you can’t tell if the dress is on correctly, I don’t care what period it is in, then it’s not right. You need to design costumes that can still be read and understood by audiences,” she says. Though plays should be evaluated in their historical context, costume designers must evaluate whether to sacrifice historical accuracy in order for the story to fully resonate with the audience.