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Not Just for Show: Boston Costume Professionals Discuss Fashion in Theater

Coppélia Costume Image
Misa Kuranaga wears an 1800s style dress in George Balanchine's Coppélia, 2019.

Howard Merlin, the Costume Shop and Footwear Coordinator for the Boston Ballet, painted over 700 pairs of shoes last season. For any given Boston Ballet show, he and his colleagues create upwards of 250 costumes. In total, the Ballet is responsible for over 1,000 articles of clothing each year. Every dancer that crosses the Boston Ballet’s stage must wear a custom outfit — and every single one of those outfits must be both practical and striking. They should catch the audience members’ eyes while remaining absolutely unobtrusive. They should mesh form and function so flawlessly that viewers barely notice them.

In other words, costumes must let performers showcase their artistry — and, according to Boston’s costume workers, the clothing must also be artwork itself.

“In costuming, we are linear creatives that must combine executive function with an aesthetic overview,” Boston Ballet Draper Lisa Dezmelyk explained in an email to The Crimson. “And it helps to have talent.”

For most ballet and theater companies, the creation of these costumes requires a deep pool of professional expertise. Often, a director oversees the costuming process and a designer draws up the patterns. Drapers, stitchers, painters, and dyers work together to craft the actual clothing. Sometimes, a person titled “First Hand” will help the designer, or a Wardrobe Supervisor will assist with running the show. Often there will be a staff member devoted to wigs or to shoes.

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Carolyn Hoffmann-Schneider, the Costume Director for the Huntington Theatre Company, said that her job description is fluid and “all-encompassing.”

“I talk with the designers and then with my team of drapers and stitchers and crafts artisans to create what the designer wants,” she said. “And then together, we work together to get all the objects physically in the building for the performers.”

Although Dezmelyk holds a different position than Hoffmann-Schneider — Dezmelyk is a draper — she, too, finds variety and flexibility in her work.

“I describe my job as a combination of being an artist, artisan, sculptor, engineer, fitter, pattern maker, seamstress, mentor (to my crew and shop interns), and a project manager,” she wrote.

Variety aside, Hoffmann-Schneider and Dezmelyk both said that the core of their job — the point of making costumes — is to evoke a scene or image for their viewers. When asked whether their job involved creativity, both immediately said that it did. “Costuming” may involve a lot of different tasks — but according to Hoffmann-Schneider and Dezmelyk, the end goal is always to generate emotion within the audience.

“I like the idea of clothing being an art form,” Hoffmann-Schneider said. “With costumes, you tell us a little bit more of a story. You get more characters and background, and you can be more specific with what you're trying to say.”

Both Hoffmann-Schneider and Dezmelyk come from backgrounds in the fashion industry. Hoffmann-Schneider received her undergraduate degree in fashion; Dezmelyk originally thought she would go into fashion design, but she eventually became interested in “creating a character and telling a story through clothes.”

“They both take a lot of problem solving, and they’re both very creative,” Hoffmann-Schneider said of costuming and the traditional fashion industry. “It’s just a slightly different mindset in each.”

Hoffmann-Schneider also spoke to the functional elements that make theater costuming unique. Both fashion and costumes use clothing to evoke an aesthetic, she said. Only costumes, however, have to accommodate heavy daily use, a high mobility requirement, and rapid outfit changes. Hoffmann-Schneider is currently working on a show that involves sand and rain — and so the shoes are treated with a special rubber and the clothes are doused with chlorine, all while maintaining historical accuracy and aesthetic glitz.

According to Dezmelyk and Howard Merlin, ballet comes with even more stringent costuming restrictions. “Dancers have a much wider range of movement,” Dezmelyk wrote, “and additional hidden stretch panels are often needed.”

Merlin works primarily with ballet shoes, a costume element for which function is especially important. Merlin himself began as a dancer with the Boston Ballet, and he transitioned into the costume shop to stay close to the dance world. Merlin said that he remembers how important shoes were to him as a dancer — and that in his current position, he works to make performers as comfortable as possible.

“Since I am responsible for dyeing all shoes for each show, I get to work with the designs and or designers to make sure the dancers feet match ones outfit,” he wrote in an email. “Being a former dancer, your feet and what’s on them are most important.”

Despite all of costuming’s challenges, however, the costume workers all agreed that the results are worth the effort. When the Boston Ballet is able to showcase the entire career of choreographer William Forsythe as it did in March, or when the Huntington Theatre Company can bring Sherlock Holmes back to life like it did last October, then the costumers’ designs are doing their jobs.

“It can be stimulating, exhausting, frustrating, exciting, rewarding, stressful, gorgeous, bold, subtle, surprising, educational, or meditative. Every time the curtain goes up it is a thrill to see our work on stage,” Dezmelyk wrote of her work. “And it is never, ever boring!”

— Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at iris.lewis@thecrimson.com.

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