Behind the scenes: costume design

Tucked behind the drama room and across from two all-gender bathrooms, in a small, windowless corner of the Upper School (US), students channel their creativity through costume design.

Each season, up to four students cram into Room 239 several times a week to design and sew costumes for a US theater production. In the process, they learn a practical art with Costume Designer Louise Brown.

When Ms. Brown meets with design students for their two-hour sessions together, they work on outfits that will bring another era to life. The process begins with Ms. Brown and Theater Designer and Production Coordinator Eugene Warner, who coordinate with Drama Teacher Mark Lindberg to decide the setting of the production. Currently, the group is preparing for the winter musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, for which the costume aesthetic will be dystopian.

“Although both [the play and the movie of Jesus Christ Superstar] were written in the 1970s, we didn’t want our costumes to embody the era because we didn’t think that was exciting,” Ms. Brown said.

Once the style is set, students research what types of costumes they want to feature. Then they sew.

Instead of adhering to a specific training guide, Ms. Brown said she teaches her team the design skills necessary to create the costumes specific to the season’s production. For Jesus Christ Superstar, the team will learn to dye and refigure t-shirt and thermal material to make draping, earth-toned garments such as baggy pants and distressed shirts.

Ms. Brown said she would like to leave the costumes for the upcoming show a surprise but was willing to describe the aesthetic as “taking an ancient color palette and mixing it with contemporary silhouettes to create a salvaged look.” The pieces appear as though they could be from anywhere on earth, she added, and many of them look unisex and improvised.

If the group doesn’t already have the materials it needs, Ms. Brown said she helps the students select and order fabrics and dyes for new garments online—all on a tight budget.

“We have a tremendous amount of stock from past performances, and before we begin to design, we go through [those costumes] to see if anything would be useful to use again,” Ms. Brown said. “We try to rent as little as possible.”

Some costumes are more difficult to create or repurpose from prior garments, however.

“When we did Damn Yankees [two years ago], we needed 10 vintage baseball uniforms, but it was too time consuming not to rent,” Ms. Brown said. “We like to make as much as possible.”

As the production nears, the costume design team fits garments to the actors, learns how to make alterations, and assists backstage during the performances by doing hair and makeup.

Ms. Brown said she thinks many students see Costume Design as a relaxing activity.

“I see [from] students who come and work here that focusing on something creative helps to de-stress from everything else going on at school,” she said.

Costume Design student Lea Steinberg ’17 said she enjoys the novelty.

“Before doing Costume Design, I didn’t even know how to sew. I like learning and being creative,” she said.

Gianna Shin ’17, who has been part of the program since her freshman year, said she sees what she has learned from Ms. Brown all around her.

“I look at any clothes that I buy now and understand how they are made,” Gianna said. “And I could probably make them myself. That’s pretty cool.”

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