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The Balance of Costuming Historical Drama

As you may know my current project is a musical entitled The Hours of Life. This world premiere historical drama takes place during the last few years of the life of Edgar Allen Poe. It is loosely based around a relationship Poe had with Sarah Helen Whitman and the circumstances leading up to his death in 1848.

Historical dramas are among my favorite shows to costume even though it is common for them to come under fire for issues of historical accuracy. Artists in my position (i.e. set, props, and costume designers) often have their work come under scrutiny. Because of the nature of our artistic medium, we rarely have the opportunity to explain our work or the choice we make. Thus, it can be hard for those who are not familiar with the inner workings of the entertainment industry to understand the balancing act that is costuming a historical drama.

First there are all the practical questions to consider such as: what materials fit my budget? Which fabrics work the best with the lighting and set designs? Will the actor succumb to heat stroke if I put them on stage in the three layers of thick wool that this outfit would have been made of back in the day? These are a very few of the questions that represent the hundreds of things that have to be considered.

After a designer considers the practical aspects of a project, they are then left to consider the artistic aspects. For me this boils down to one sentence: we are story tellers in a collaborative art form.

First let’s talk about being a story teller. A primary part of being a costume designer is to use your skills to support the story being told. I am constantly asking myself questions such as: Can a modern audience relate to aesthetic sensibilities of this period? Are the costumes helping tell the story that the play write is trying to tell? Am I helping facilitate the director’s vision for the project? In a historical drama you also have to factor in such things as: This person was known to wear pastels but is this scene too somber for a puffy light colored dress? A professor once told me that "design is an exercise in decision make." It is then our job as story tellers to make decisions which support the telling of the story.

Then there is the collaborative aspect of the art form to consider. Costumes, props, set, lighting, music; all elements need to be in sync with each other to create a comprehensive polished product. In the end an actor might perform in a particular color jacket because it works better with the set’s wallpaper or wear the wrong kind of dress because she is the only soprano who can carry that songs harmony so she can’t leave to change in the middle of the song. These aren’t necessarily the choices I would have made as the costume designer but they are the kind of sacrifices you make in a collaborative art for a better overall product.

As a costume designer I have all of this to consider and balance as well as any artistic expression I hope to make. You may not consciously notice how distressed a man’s clothing gets as you watch him plummet into economic hard ship. It may not register that a characters emotional journey is being told in the hues of her dresses. Although I strive for historical accuracy, I live for the days when these artistic elements are noticed and appreciated.

So next time you are watching a historical drama try not to get wrapped up in the fact that military coats during the civil war should have gilded buttons. Try not to be distracted by the fact that her wedding dress probably wouldn’t have been white in that era. This is not a reenactment. You are not at a living history museum. Endeavor to see a show for what it is: a group of people trying to tell you a story. You might just enjoy the theatre a little bit more.

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